Shop Talk: Spark books & curios
Shop Talk is an 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.
Spark books & curios
76 Foster Street
Heidi Stepanek and Peter Dixon had always planned to open a bookstore when they retired.
But they took the plunge sooner than planned when the owners of one of three existing independent bookstores in Perth, Ontario, decided to retire.
Stepanek and Dixon have been operating Spark books & curios for just over a year; they opened the shop on October 1, 2021, taking over the space from The Bookworm, a used bookstore that had operated in the same building since 1987.
The couple run the store with the help of their 14-year-old, Skye Stepanek, store manager Javier Mullally, and two part-time staffers. The store comprises two large rooms on the ground floor of a downtown heritage building: one is filled with new books and curios, and the other with secondhand books, presided over by the original outdoor Bookworm sign that hangs on the wall.
“Having been theatre-company owners for decades [the Perth Academy of Musical Theatre / Orion Theatre Company], our goal has been to not only operate a store, but to create an experience for our community,” Stepanek and Dixon say. “We want folks to be inspired from the moment they walk through the door – by the eclectic and exciting selection, great conversation with fellow book lovers, inclusivity of our safe space, and visual cornucopia with so much to see and do.”
Stepanek and Dixon recently answered a few questions for Q&Q about Spark’s first year of business.
Why open Spark books & curios in 2021?
It has always been our retirement plan to open a bookstore – we are avid bibliophiles, and our home looks like our local library, with bookshelves covering every available surface. We live in the small, beautiful town of Perth, population 6,000, where three successful bookstores already existed, so opening a fourth didn’t make a lot of sense. But when the owners of The Bookworm were retiring and hoping to sell to fellow book lovers who would take care of the shop, we knew it was the right time – even if it was in the middle of the pandemic!
How has the community responded to the store?
We rebranded the store, which sold only used books for 35 years, to include new books and unique games, toys, and model kits. Although we very much preserve the history and legacy of The Bookworm, we have added our own spin. The community has been incredibly supportive and responsive, and we are fast becoming a social hub.
How do you reach potential readers?
In a small community, word travels fast. We love the intimacy and conviviality of our beautiful little town. Our vibrant window displays are noticed and conversations about new arrivals and old favourites get passed through the grapevine like wildfire. We also have an active Facebook and Instagram presence, and advertise in local newspapers. Our town hosts many different festivals, including Festival of the Maples, night markets, Festival of Good Cheer, Stewart Park Music Festival, and many more. We are always an active presence there as well.
What are your goals for the bookstore? Does the store have any special focus?
As our family are active members of the LGBTQ+ community, we are quickly becoming known as a queer-focused store, with lots of options in fiction, nonfiction, memoir, and children’s/YA books, both in our dedicated, large queer section, as well as integrated throughout the store. Peter works with Indigenous communities in community development in his other job, and Indigenous works (particularly Canadian) are also a large focus of our store.
Our goal is to curate the store to include as many unique works as possible, given our space restrictions, in diverse genres so that there is something new and exciting for everyone to find on their individual “book treasure hunt.” Our child, Skye, is an avid reader and has been instrumental in the store’s book choices, and has posted lots of index-card reviews on various books around the store, recommending their favourites.
We also plan to have the store become a community hub of inspiration, social gathering, and events – we have already helped produce a Queer Writer’s Fest, which will become an annual event, and plan to host several more exciting things, including a Festival of Living Art, Learn-to-Clown days, and an annual literary festival. We have big plans!
What has been most surprising or unexpected about opening a bookstore or about your first months in business?
How absolutely excited and supportive our community has been. We are so grateful for the support Perth has shown us, and their absolute willingness to “buy local” and experiment with exciting genres and authors as we bring our eclectic collection to the store. We were so glad to see that, despite the onset of screens in our world, the physical, tangible book is still a stalwart, and is here to stay.
This interview has been edited and condensed.