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Biblioasis: thinking like a bookseller

In 10 years, Windsor’s Biblioasis has evolved into one of Canada’s most daring and dynamic independent presses

Biblioasis founder and publisher Dan Wells (photo: Kim Moir)

Biblioasis founder and publisher Dan Wells (photo: Kim Moir)

If independent bookstores were still a common fixture in Canadian cities, Biblioasis would be exactly the sort of welcoming, eclectic shop you would expect to see anchoring a main street or ensconced in a downtown core. Selling a mix of used and antiquarian books (with a smattering of new releases), the store opened in November 2012 at the edge of the reluctantly reviving Walkerville neighbourhood in Windsor, Ontario. Its exposed brick walls, worn hardwood floors, vaulted ceilings, and large picture window hearken back to the area’s past as a bustling commercial centre. An outside awning and hand-lettered in-store signage – with a font designed by the cartoonist Seth – contribute to the sense of nostalgia, while adding a modern, hip accent.

But make no mistake: this is not a typical bookstore. The real heart of the operation is two windowless rooms at the back of the building, where owner Dan Wells has his office and a staff of five put out a tri-annual literary magazine (Canadian Notes & Queries) and collectively form one of the most daring, dynamic Canadian presses to emerge since the early 2000s.

To hear Wells describe it, Biblioasis’s origins as a publisher are almost accidental; in fact, his entry into the book trade was something of a lark. In the late 1990s, Wells needed a break from working on his master’s degree at the University of Western Ontario. One day, he walked into an auction house, and purchased a bulk lot of books. “There were some incredibly rare and valuable things that I got for about $100,” he says. “I figured, ‘This is easy.’”

In July 1998, that trove allowed Wells to open his first used and rare bookstore, on Ouellette Avenue in downtown Windsor. (Also named Biblioasis, the location closed in 2007.) “Everyone told me [the bookstore] would fail within six months,” he says. “I figured I would get it out of my blood and go on and do my Ph.D.” He never did go on to do that degree.

In 2002, Wells was tapped to help organize a new literary festival called the Windsor Festival of the Book (since renamed BookFest Windsor). There, he met several authors – such as Clark Blaise and Terry Griggs – who later joined the Biblioasis roster.

He also encountered the cloistered (some would say curmudgeonly) author, critic, and editor John Metcalf, whose small body of short fiction and novels has earned acolytes, even if his corrosive criticisms of the CanLit canon have resonated more widely.

Metcalf, who came on board as a freelance fiction editor at the press’s inception, was an influential figure in Biblioasis’s genesis. His name and track record helped attract writers (such as Blaise, Griggs, K.D. Miller, and Leon Rooke) when it was still an unproven entity. He continues to hold much sway over its editorial direction, having established the Metcalf-Rooke Award for emerging writers (which helped kick-start the careers of authors Kathleen Winter and Rebecca Rosenblum) and continuing to edit four or five titles per year under an eponymous imprint.

“I don’t think I appreciated it enough early on, but trust is a huge part of the acquisitions process,” says Wells, who, in addition to serving as publisher, edits four or five titles per year. “Having John there allowed us access to writers we would not otherwise have had access to.”

Another key factor in Biblioasis’s formation was a fortuitous encounter with Dennis Priebe, who, in 2003, came into the Ouellette Avenue location looking for a job. Wells put him to work building bookshelves in the store’s basement, but the two soon began discussing literature (Priebe was an avid collector) and Wells shared his desire to launch a chapbook series. That’s when Priebe – a Windsorite who spent most of his career in B.C. – revealed that for decades he had worked as a typesetter and production manager for the likes of Pulp Press (and later Arsenal Pulp Press), Geist, and Douglas & McIntyre. He retired as Biblioasis’s production manager in 2013, though he continues to typeset CNQ.

“Without Dennis, who knew everything about the practical side of publishing, Biblioasis wouldn’t have existed,” says Wells.

In October 2004, Biblioasis released its first trade book – Straight Razor, a collection by local poet Salvatore Ala (another collector and Biblioasis customer). Edited by Wells, designed by Priebe, and printed and bound by Gaspereau Press, the book was followed by a short-fiction chapbook series that included contributions from Blaise, Caroline Adderson, Annabel Lyon, and others. For years, Wells and Priebe operated the press from the back of the shop – and, later, Wells’s home – slowly building a respectable literary list.

In 2006, Biblioasis purchased CNQ from The Porcupine’s Quill; the following year, it launched its international translation series with I Wrote Stone, a poetry collection from Ryszard Kapuściński. The press broke through to wider recognition when Alexander MacLeod’s debut story collection, Light Lifting, became a Giller finalist in 2010, the same year Biblioasis published its 50th trade title. Wells put in long hours to make the most of the opportunity, and the book has now sold in the range of 20,000 copies, but he admits the experience was extremely challenging. At the time, the press consisted of himself, Priebe, and a part-time intern funded by the Department of Canadian Heritage.

Wells says he was caught off guard by the emotional roller coaster of the Giller. He also “wasn’t prepared for the politics of it all … for how some in the media and industry wanted us to fail.”

“The first time anybody paid attention to us was because of the Giller,” he says, “but I felt very much as though people thought we were lucky.” It’s only very recently that Wells has felt a sense of wider industry respect.