Interview With Martha Sharpe and Michelle Berry
By Danila Botha
Hi Open Book Readers,
I’ve always had a fantasy about opening a bookstore. Aside from writing, it seems like the most perfect job in the world. Two amazing new bookstores have opened recently, Flying Books, by former House of Anansi and Simon & Schuster editor Martha Sharpe, and Hunter Books, by literary fiction author Michelle Berry. I had a chance to talk to both of them about their stores, their inspirations for opening them, and the great literary events their stores are hosting.
Interview with Martha Sharpe
DB: The idea of having bookstores within businesses is so innovative and brilliant. As a reader, there's the sense of quality, because the books are amazing, and there's a sense of scarcity because it's selections are so precise and discerning. Where did the idea come from, to do that versus having a traditional bookstore? Is the idea to expand into other locations too?
MS: The idea came from noticing there were too few bookstores in Toronto when I returned after having lived in New York for 7 1/2 years. Bookstores -- big, small, and in between -- had become scarce here, which seemed wrong to me. I love stores like Type and Another Story and Ben McNally, and Indigo is wonderful for its huge selection, but Toronto needed even more places to buy books.
I started imagining bookshelves in every cafe, bar, restaurant, and store I entered. Maybe these places would be open to selling books; maybe they just don't know where to begin. I pitched the idea of selling books inside the Weekend Variety to the wonderful owner Katharine Mulherin in the summer of 2015, and she agreed right away -- and suddenly it didn't seem so crazy.
I then expanded to three additional locations (The Gladstone Hotel, Ezra's Pound, and Northwood General) in early February. I'm currently talking with more potential retail partners. I'm also expanding Flying Books in other ways: I co-host a book club at Soho House with writer Harriet Alida Lye; and Adam Sol and I are working on plans for the Flying Books School of Reading and Writing, with classes taught by Carl Wilson and some other local writers. I also hope to publish books at some point too.
DB: You curate such amazing booklists. I always discover new things, and I also always think that the combinations are interesting and unexpected. How do you select your books, and how long do you typically keep the selection in rotation for? How do you select your books, and how long do you typically keep the selection in rotation for?
MS: Thank you! I'm so glad you like the selections. I sometimes pick a theme -- like books about art, or books about flora & fauna (inspired by thoughts of Fort Mac and the Alberta wildfires last spring). The current flight, "I'm with Her. And Her. And Her and Her and Her ..." is devoted to fiction by women. I'm playing with the idea of a selection about networks – for example, the Internet, the underground railroad, and plants/trees.
The flights stay up for 2 1/2 to 3 weeks, and then I start changing them over as new books arrive.
DB: You’re doing an event with Mark Greif's Against Everything, with an onstage conversation with Sheila Heti. Are there other Flying Books events planned?
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MS: Yes! I am thrilled to be co-hosting the launch of Elena Ferrante's FRANTUMAGLIA at the Bloor Cinema on November 15. Sheila Heti will be interviewing Ferrante's wonderful translator, Ann Goldstein.
DB: Exciting. Your background as an editor is so interesting. Does it feel similar in the sense of getting to champion books you love, or is it very different? (I'm curious in what ways. Because when I see how thoughtful and intelligent the selection is, I can totally imagine how you could do both)
MS: I think it employs similar muscles in different ways. I progressed from learning proofreading to copy editing to line editing to structural editing to figuring out how to shape a list of books as a publisher. Selecting books at Flying books is closest to being a publisher, only you get to imagine yourself as the publisher of EVERYTHING, which is pretty amazing!
DB: It sounds amazing! Thank you so much.
Interview with Michelle Berry
DB: What inspired you to open Hunter Books?
MB: I’ve always loved books and bookstores. The catalyst was when I drove past and saw the location and the 12 foot ceilings. I had to finally stop dreaming and leap. Plus Peterborough doesn’t have any new bookstores (only a Chapters). Downtown is vibrant (I’m in the restaurant district) and fun. We have the university (Trent) and college (Fleming), a vibrant arts community, lots of great cafes and stores, etc.. we just didn’t have a bookstore.
DB: What’s been most exciting about it so far?
MB: It’s both terrifying and exciting every minute of every day. What’s exciting is what I’m learning. I have such respect for small business owners. There is so much to learn. I’m learning about incorporation, business tax, HST, insurance, business banking, credit/debit machines and, the ultimate learning experience, “Bookmanager!” Bookmanager is a software/hardware company from B.C. that basically does everything for me… but not until I learn how to tell it to do everything for me. I’m also learning about how distribution works and meeting my Reps. and knowing my minimum orders and designing my website. I tell you, I”m definitely not bored. Breaking out in hives and stressed, yes, but not bored. I’m also excited to get up every day now, there’s so much to do! I’m also teaching three courses at U of T (online) this term (I usually teach only two but took over for someone this term) and so balancing all that with the store is wild. The good thing about teaching this term is that it’s keeping me grounded in reality.
DB: Will you be hosting literary events in your store?
MB: I will be hosting readings/events/lectures/signings but not until after the New Year. I will, however, have a special bookshelf in the store right from the start — The Curated Shelf — that I’m excited about. Every month I’ll ask some writers/musicians/actors and artists to give me suggestions for some books they love, that inspire them, that make them think, etc.. and tell me why. In November I’ve asked for (and received) suggestions from Esta Spalding, Eden Robinson, Madeleine Thien and Dave Bidini. I am displaying their own books next to their picks.
DB: That sounds wonderful. Can you tell me about your new novel?
MB: It’s called, The Prisoner and The Chaplain and it’s coming out Fall 2017 with Buckrider at Wolsak & Wynn. It’s about a prisoner and a chaplain in the last 12 hours on death row before the prisoner’s execution. It’s about guilt and what guilt is, how it is judged by others, how closely a person feels it. It’s about these two dysfunctional men talking together, sharing, as one gets closer to his death. It’s suspenseful.
DB: It sounds great. I can’t wait to read it.
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Danila Botha is the author of three short story collections, Got No Secrets, For All the Men (and Some of the Women I’ve Known) which was a finalist for the Trillium Book Award, The Vine Awards and the ReLit Award. Her new collection, Things that Cause Inappropriate Happiness will be published in March 2024 by Guernica Editions. She is also the author of the novel Much on the Inside, which was recently optioned for film. Her new novel, A Place for People Like Us will be published by Guernica in 2025. She teaches Creative Writing at University of Toronto’s SCS and is part of the faculty at Humber School for Writers. She is currently writing and illustrating her first graphic novel.