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May. 19, 2019 | Sunday
Local News
This story is 50 years in the making
Laura MacFadden stands in front of the Old Niagara Bookshop. (Jer Houghton/Niagara Now)

For a half a century, Laura MacFadden has been working hard to bring good old-fashioned books to the town of Niagara-on-the-Lake.

Over the years she’s had different storefronts in town, but there’s one thing that’s remained unwavering throughout it all — MacFadden’s love of literature.

As the proud owner of the Old Niagara Bookshop — the only dedicated book store in the heritage district of Old Town — she has worked tirelessly since its inception to ensure the shop has remained a landmark stop for residents and tourists alike.

In an age where book stores are struggling around the country, she tells a tale of how the shop came to be.

After leaving Toronto and a career in financial investment, she moved with her husband to NOTL to raise their two children in 1968.

"I had this image of a fleeting visit of Niagara-on-the-Lake being a quaint little village, which would be a lot better than the city of Toronto to raise a family," MacFadden recalls.

At the time it was a "very interesting village," she says. The Shaw Festival was starting out at the Court House Theatre, the Prince of Wales played host to a beverage room, and Parliament Oak was actively educating children. Queen Street also offered the Country Store, Kurtis’ Barbershop and the offices of the Niagara Advance newspaper.

"It hadn't been discovered," she says, explaining a lot of the properties in Old Town were used as summer retreats for people from the U.S. 

She was drawn to the town's rich history, attributing much of her attraction to the geography of the area.

Growing up in Toronto, MacFadden wasn't used to small communities, but that didn't discourage her from looking to her passion in books to find a way to start a business venture.

And so when she learned the Niagara Advance was moving across the street and their office space was available, she took it over and opened up a very small book store called The Book Nook.

"When I moved in I had maybe 300, maybe 250 square feet – it was tiny,” she says, laughing to herself. “And when I first opened up, some of the people in town said, 'You’re going to burn up in here.’ It was so tiny.”

Ironically, she didn’t even have heat back then.

“I had to get a space heater," she jests.

Thinking back to her discovery of books, MacFadden remembers receiving them throughout her childhood as gifts for her birthday and Christmas — each one inscribed by her father.

“They were important in our household,” she says proudly. “I grew up with books ... I was surrounded with books, I was curious about books.”

Her father had a great library and was a “true collector,” she recalls.

“There’s a big difference between a reader and a collector, and my father was a collector … People collect because it’s a passion,” she says fondly of him.

MacFadden now too has quite the collection, with her first inventory coming from the Oxford University Press.

“That’s where I started and I still have customers who remember as children getting their first book on Brock – and that was an Oxford classic.”

When she first started out, she didn't want to bargain for her sales. She preferred the set-price model.

"When you buy new books, there’s a price on it. And that was why I started selling new books.”

In those days, a trade paperback would be $2.50 compared to $20 today.

She remembers being met with a lot of opposition when first opening the shop, explaining a lot of residents questioned her and the need for a book store when there was a library.

“I was a married woman with children. I should be home with my children. And I was depriving somebody of a way to earn a living,” she says, describing the sentiments of those times. 

“I’ve always focused on what I’m doing, which is selling books and learning what I want.”

For the past 50 years, MacFadden has managed to successfully operate the only book shop in town, despite few other shops carrying some over the years.

She says the growing popularity of the Shaw Festival has been integral to her business in that she has always tried to find books pertaining to shows every year.

“I was just an independent bookseller – I’m not catering to a huge market and certainly in those days, I was always trying to find things that were related to the theatre,” she says.

"I wouldn’t have been here 10 years if the theatre hadn’t survived, and so as long as they survive, I thought a book shop would survive." 

Despite various struggles in being a female business owner, MacFadden treaded ahead, growing her business, increasing her inventory and moving locations three times over four decades, all within Queen and King Street.

Her store now resides on Regent Street, having changed names to the Old Niagara Bookshop.

“I was in the old part of town, so I called myself the Old Niagara Bookshop, simple as that.”

“I’ve always been in the radius of Old Town in Queen and King, I sort of grew with the town in that sense,” she says.

As an independent bookseller, the Old Niagara Bookshop has become known for carrying books of the "true sort" that "have merit," denotes MacFadden. You can find shelves that range from non-fiction to Canadiana classics, to many other noteworthy heartfelt classics in fiction and children's literature.

“I only carry books of the true sort; those that inform, entertain and enlighten – and I digress a little bit in the summer and have more what I call fluff, my overnight mysteries that aren’t disturbing,” she says.

“And you can’t talk down. I try to only have really good writers, good authors. Books are really an extension of the arts and so that’s the important part."

MacFadden says for a small bookseller, it’s a “hard balance” dealing with customers and knowing what they want.

"The town has changed, and certainly my inventory has changed — but then the people coming here have changed, and we attract people from all over the world.”

MacFadden says she likes to carry Canadian authors, especially those she considers the greats in Canadian literature, which have always been in demand.

"When you get people from other countries, they know Farley Mowat, they know The Boat Who Wouldn’t Float and Never Cry Wolf, they know Pierre Berton, and of course they know the girl with the red pigtails, they know Anne of Green Gables,” she says.

Her dedication to the shop and her desire to read all these years has been about the freedom she has had as an independent bookseller.

“I’m a big one for freedom, I’m like Anne of Green Gables, a free spirit,” she says with a smile.

“I think to be restricted in what you carry, which the chains are, wouldn’t work for me – I want that freedom, to read something and say, 'I want to carry that,' ”

Part of that freedom comes with researching the catalogues to learn about the publishers, the authors, the stories and their value. As much as she finds this process fascinating to figure out trends, it helps her sell books of her choosing.

"I carry things because I think they’re important. The other reason I carry them is sometimes there is an anniversary for a person or an event," she says.

“You’ve got to be in tune with what’s going on.”

Other times books will likely never be reprinted because they get subsidies, she explains.

MacFadden admits she is a "bit serious" when it comes to the selection of books she carries, but it is also part of deeming "good literature."

"I know I’m quirky, and (people) think I’m a bit bizarre, but that’s what booksellers are all about," she says.

“My children are grown, my grandchildren are grown, so what do I do? I read books, I read catalogs, I’m not alone — I know that many curators, that’s what they do."

Moving forward she says she’s been fortunate with good health and will continue operating the shop for as long as she can.

"It’s like everything else, it’s called a music-deliberate practice," she says, explaining the idea is to work daily whether you have one customer that day or none at all.

“If it wasn’t my shop, it would be another. It would be whoever decided to put in a book shop.”

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