In the neighbourhood of Old Ottawa South, Black Squirrel Books is a well-stocked larder for hungry bookworms. The used bookstore and café is often abuzz with bibliophiles roaming among the wooden shelves and espresso drinkers snug in one of the store’s many traditional chesterfields.
A menu wrapped around the coffee bar lists baked goods and concentration-boosting teas. Rarely does a night go by without free jazz, indie pop, or Celtic folk ringing from inside the space.
Local authors frequently launch books at Black Squirrel, and Ottawa’s bi-monthly Tree Reading Series has called the store home for the past two years.
It’s been more than a decade since owners Vaughn McDonald and Steven Yong decided to quit university to focus on selling books online. Eventually, they opened Bibliocracy, their first brick-and-mortar store, in 2011. “It was less expensive than renting the equivalent space at a storage-locker unit,” says McDonald. “But I still lived in the back of the store to save costs when we were starting up.”
The duo’s constantly growing inventory required a move to Centretown’s Bank Street in 2012. They eventually changed the store’s name to Black Squirrel Books, and in 2015 opened a second location nearby, closing the original Bank Street shop shortly thereafter.
Last summer, McDonald’s partner, Alex Ekstrom, brought her café management experience on-board to develop a sophisticated menu of teas and coffees. She’s looking forward to creating a tea- and espresso-based cocktail menu once a liquor license comes through and the trio has completed their planned “speakeasy” bar in the basement – surrounded by another 40,000 books – hopefully by the end of this summer.
All three owners are truly hands-on: they happily work 70-hour weeks to build more shelves, organize and host fundraisers, and roll away the sci-fi and children’s sections to reveal the venue’s live music space. “It’s an extremely rewarding job,” says McDonald. “More people need to drop out of university and open bookstores.” – Joseph R. Mathieu