Shop Talk is a new occasional feature in which fledgling independent booksellers take Q&Q into their stores and share their reasons for opening and what business has been like so far.
125 West 1st Street
North Vancouver, BC
Owner and founder Matt Sturrock and co-founder Lizzie Lee opened Helicon Books in North Vancouver on August 5, 2022. The 1,479 square foot store is not far from the waterfront in the city’s Shipyards District.
This isn’t either’s first foray into bookselling: Sturrock landed at Toronto’s now-shuttered Nicholas Hoare in 2002 for what he thought would be a brief job between publishing gigs. He stayed for six and a half years before moving to England, where he spent 10 years at London’s Daunt Books. Lee took a job as temporary summer help at Waterstones UK in 2009 while she was still in university, taking on a role as a buyer and manager once she graduated. She transferred to Daunt Books in 2017, where she and Sturrock met.
“Like many booksellers, I suspect, we entered the trade almost by accident, and then, despite all its aggravations and disappointments, decided it was much less odious than most of the other careers available to us,” Sturrock says.
Sturrock recently answered a few questions for Q&Q about Helicon Books’ first few months of operations.
Why open Helicon Books in 2022?
We were both unemployed and bored witless by the interminable job hunt in Vancouver. All I had to do was liquidate my meagre savings and consign us both to a life of never-ending financial precarity. And, with a war in Europe, an impending recession, record levels of inflation, and post-pandemic supply-chain mayhem, it seemed as good a time as ever to start a small business.
How has the community and its readers responded to the store?
The locals have been without a bookshop selling new titles since 2012, I believe, when Book Warehouse shuttered its location on Lonsdale. They’ve been understandably enthusiastic about our arrival, and we’ve reciprocated with happy effusions of our own. For the most part, it’s been a big love-in thus far.
How do you reach potential readers?
We occasionally add a little bat-squeak of book news to the wall of noise out there [on social media]. But, really, it’s passing foot traffic and good word-of-mouth that generate most of our customers; that word-of-mouth, I hope, resulting from our assiduous curation and enthusiastic handselling.
What are your goals for the bookstore? Does the store have any special focus?
We just want to provide a welcoming place for inquiry and epiphany, and we endeavour to carry a range of exceptionally good novels, short stories, essay collections, poetry, history, travel, cookery, and art. The internet can be a huge reservoir of ire and misinformation, university humanities departments are on the decline, and the cinemas are awash in tedious CGI spectacles, so independent bookshops are more important than ever as sources of sophisticated entertainments, as intellectual hubs, and as bulwarks against all the hideousness and fatuity out there.
What has been most surprising or unexpected about opening a bookstore or about your first few months in business?
We’ve been most surprised by the avidity people have for difficult books; there’s a hardcore group of readers seeking out modernist masterpieces, little oddities in translation, deep histories of faraway places, and the like. We initially quailed at the notion that we might be selling nothing but Colleen Hoover and other sundry BookTok phenomena, but there’s always a customer walking through the door to whom we might sell, say, Abdulrazak Gurnah’s Afterlives, or a philippic by E.M. Cioran, or Shoshanna Zuboff’s explication of surveillance capitalism, or Erika Fatland’s travel reportage from Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan. It’s been very heartening.
Also: books on fungi. What gives? There’s an insatiable appetite out there. Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life is outperforming the latest Booker Prize winner.
This interview has been edited and condensed.