It was community activism that sparked in Sheree Fitch the idea of opening a bookshop. The Nova Scotia poet and children’s author of more than 25 books had recently moved with her husband, Gilles Plante, to the north shore town of River John when she learned the local school was in danger of being shut down. “I came home and said to Gilles, ‘Last week I helped raise money to buy books for a school in Africa.… How can I live here, become part of this community, and turn my back on this?’”
Fitch, whose first children’s book, Toes in My Nose, was published in 1987 (her most recent, Polly MacCauley’s Finest, Divinest, Woolliest Gift of All, will publish with Running the Goat Books and Broadsides in June), became a vocal and ardent member of a group determined to find a way to save the small town’s school, proposing a hub model that would see the underutilized building employed for other community activities. A multi-year fight ensued, but to no avail: the school was slated for closure. “It was heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking, not just for me because I live in this community. I was heartbroken for the other communities and for every small school in rural, coastal Atlantic Canada,” says Fitch of the 2015 decision. “Because for the past 30 years I’ve been going into those communities and I know how the schools are the heartbeat of those communities and I know that when a small school closes, very often, pretty soon after that you see windows boarded up, because people don’t mind driving to jobs but they don’t want their kids being shipped two hours to go to school.”
Heartbreak turned to motivation, as Fitch began casting about for a means of keeping literacy and education alive in her community. It was Plante who suggested opening a bookshop on their property after Fitch mused about renting a space in the village. The couple had recently completed renovations on their 100-year-old barn, but Plante put forward the idea of using the former granary building that sat unused on more than 100 acres of their land across the road. And so a new chapter in Fitch’s storied life began.
Named for Fitch’s 1995 children’s book, Mabel Murple’s Book Shoppe and Dreamery will have its official opening on July 3, in conjunction with WordPlay, the children’s portion of the Read by the Sea literary festival. To launch both the shop and the festival, Fitch is enlisting some friends: Costas Halavrezos (former host of CBC Radio’s Maritime Noon) will host the event, while author-illustrators Marie-Louise Gay and Alan Syliboy will be on hand to meet with young fans. “It feels right, like the right combination of people,” says Fitch. “And Starr Dobson, an Atlantic writer, is going to be here too. I think it’s going to be a good day, a good party.”
Following the launch, Fitch plans to have the 600-square-foot space open Tuesdays through Saturdays from July to October, though some eager schools have already signed up for visits in June. In addition to stocking Canadian children’s books, Atlantic-published and authored fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, the space will also be a venue for author events and workshops, with weekly Wednesday night campfire story times and frequent Friday evening readings and open mics. “I am trying to represent regional literature and our poetic heritage and our storytelling tradition, which are all intermingled for me,” says Fitch about her Atlantic-Canadian focus. “I think if it was a year-round bookstore, I wouldn’t be able to be as niche as I’m trying to be. It’s about, who’s coming along the Sunrise Trail on the way to Cape Breton, and if I can get those visitors and tourists as well as locals then I’ll represent the region as much as I can.”
If all goes well this inaugural year, Fitch hopes to expand Mabel Murple’s season in coming years to accommodate more school groups in May and June. “We hope what we’re doing is pretty safe. We’re investing, and we hope to break even at the end of three years. If we do, we have to make a profit in order to do that, and so we have to make a three-year, five-year, 10-year plan,” says Fitch. “You bash on regardless.”
Opening a store has involved a lot of learning on the fly for the 60-year-old author. A trip to New York City last fall to explore small, indie bookstores helped Fitch plan her space, while conversations with friends and booksellers she’s built relationships with over her lengthy career in Canlit have yielded invaluable advice and insight as to what she’s getting herself into. “Everyone has been so helpful and so wonderful in telling me things. This is a ginormous learning curve, and no two publishers are alike, no two companies do things the same way,” she says.
To ensure Fitch doesn’t just give away all of her books for free (she credits Plante with rightly pointing out that while she would never rob other authors of their royalties by handing over their titles gratis, she’s been giving away her own books for years), she has hired fellow River John resident and author Linda Little, whose short fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and whose 2006 novel, Scotch River, won the Raddall Atlantic Fiction Prize. “She can handle my personality,” laughs Fitch. “She’ll say to me, ‘Sheree, focus. Focus!’”
Some might question the decision to open a small, seasonal bookshop on a rural road in Nova Scotia, but for Fitch, the benefit is twofold: not only will it help her community, Mabel Murple’s also represents the fruition of a lifelong ambition. “It really is exciting; it feels like a wonderful circle,” she says. “Thirty years almost exactly since Toes in My Nose was published and here I am doing something I never dreamed would happen, but I always wanted to do.”