Writer in Residence

Bookstore Love

By Nancy Jo Cullen


This is my final post as September Writer-in-Residence for Open Book. It’s been such a pleasure to spend the month thinking about my writing life and what I’d like to say about it. I’m grateful to Open Book for providing me with this platform to reflect on my experiences and thoughts about living life as a writer. At the beginning of the month I worried I’d have nothing to say, but it turns out I did. Today I’m thinking about my paid employment and writing.

I’m the kind of person who doesn’t always manage balance well, and if I’m not careful about my paid employment, it’s my writing time that will suffer. In terms of the problem of balancing paid employment with a writing life, I’ve had it easier than many others as I had the support of a benefactor for a decade during the years I was raising my kids alone. But sometimes, especially when I was younger, I had jobs that took over my life, although none, fortunately, lasted too terribly long. I still have days when I think I might start my own business again then I have to remind myself that I no longer want to lose time to all‑consuming projects that aren’t writing.

The fact is I never really wanted to think about anything more than writing and living a creative life. Even in theatre school as instructors implored us to pursue any path other than a life in the arts I would think, No way, I can’t! And they hadn’t either; I suppose they were using hyperbole to make the point that a creative life doesn’t generally make one rich. So, in the end, I’ve had many jobs, none of which paid particularly well, but which allowed me to prioritize writing over the requirements of my paid occupation. I’ve worked as a waitress, office manager, pie shop owner, temp, day-home operator, magazine ad sales person, box-store customer service agent (ugh), dance school administrator, copy editor, proof reader, and, my favourite job ever, bookstore clerk.

Because I am one of those people who loves books and reading, I never fail to feel a wash of pleasure walking into a bookstore, particularly an independent bookshop as each has its own character dictated by the tastes of the people working in the shop. In recent memory there were a number of bad years for bookstores when indie shops were forced to close and it seemed that e-books would eliminate the paper book. But the dire predictions that books were over were wrong and bookstores are doing all right again, although let’s be clear, no one running an independent bookshop is getting rich. And recently, the news that Ben McNally Books in downtown Toronto would be forced to close so a pedestrian walkway could be built, is hard evidence that running a bookstore can still be a precarious living that depends on uncontrollable factors like the whims of developers and skyrocketing rents. If you’re lucky enough to live near an independent bookstore, then you know how much they add to a community and, I hope when you can or do buy a book it’s from an indie shop.

Working in a bookshop remains at the top of my list of paid employment because, despite the fact that it’s a customer service job with marginal pay, working in bookstores provided me with the flexibility and community I need to be a writer. My jobs in bookstores were an excellent compliment to my writing life. I was able to remain immersed in the world of books and yet let go of the job when the day was over. I worked among quirky book lovers with wide-ranging tastes in books who taught me great books come in all genres, and from all kinds of publishers.

We live in a culture that privileges money in the bank over the other things that make us rich such as meaningful work, good friends, and (sometimes) fun at the expense of certain customers. I’ve been lucky in this life, I’m not rich but I don’t suffer in poverty, and I’ve been able to pursue writing with the help of part-time employment, the best of which has been in independent bookshops hanging out with book nerds, spending my days talking and thinking about books.

Long live the bookstore!

(not exactly the right song but still a great song!)

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.

Nancy Jo Cullen is the fourth recipient of the Writers’ Trust Dayne Ogilvie Prize for LGBT Emerging Writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph and her short story collection, Canary, was the winner of the 2012 Metcalf-Rooke Award. Her poetry has been shortlisted for the Gerald Lampert Award, the Writers’ Guild of Alberta’s Stephan G. Stephansson Award and the City of Calgary W.O. Mitchell Book Prize. She lived in Calgary for over two decades and still returns regularly to connect with family and friends. She now lives in Kingston, Canada.

Nancy's latest novel, The Western Alienation Merit Badge, was published in Spring 2019 by Wolsak & Wynn, to wide critical acclaim.