Books matter more than ever in our over-connected world

JoAnn McCaig is Owner of Shelf Life Books and Freehand Books, former University Professor, and author of a new novel, An Honest Woman – a multi-layered novel intended to interrogate the intersection of imagination, desire, and ambition.

JoAnn McCaig
JoAnn McCaig

Tell me a little bit about Shelf Life Books – its history and what you do?

McCaig: I opened Shelf Life Books in 2010 with my business partner, Will Lawrence. We wanted to create a literary bookstore in Calgary’s Beltine neighbourhood that would appeal to downtown workers, residents, and to people who love good writing. After nearly a decade in business, we have become a community hub, hosting literary events, readings, discussions and panels several times a week. Our sales have risen slowly but steadily year on year since we opened our doors.

What about Freehand Books? What is that?

McCaig: Freehand Books began life in 2008 as a literary imprint of Broadview Press, an academic press headquartered in Calgary. Freehand became an independent publishing company in 2016, and in its 12 years in business has been named Alberta’s Publisher of the Year four times. We’re a small press, specializing in high-quality literary fiction and creative nonfiction. Our books have been shortlisted for and have won many awards, from Good to a Fault which was shortlisted for the Giller Prize, to HOMES, a Canada Reads selection and Governor General’s Award nominee.

Is there still a place for books these days with people spending so much time on electronic devices?

McCaig: Books matter more than ever in our over-connected world. A book is a quiet place for the heart and mind to rest and find refuge, wisdom and pleasure. And bookstores have never mattered more.  For one thing, as the More Canada Report has pointed out, independent bookstores are responsible for the vast majority of sales of Canadian-authored books. If Amazon ran the world, the only book choices we’d have would be mass-market bestsellers.  For another, a bookstore is a community hub, a gathering place that has real social power and value.  Finally, a good bookstore hires staff who are well-read and enthusiastic, people who can guide shoppers toward the right book, whether they are shopping for themselves or someone else. We have a slogan at Shelf Life:  come on in and find the book you didn’t know you were looking for!

You obviously have a passion for books. Why, and where did that come from?

McCaig: My mom read The Bobbsey Twins to my brother and me at bedtime when we were little, and ever since I can remember, I have loved books. I have a BA, MA and PhD in English Literature, and taught undergrad English at U of C for 20 years. I’ve published three books of my own, and I love having the opportunity to connect readers with good books.

What has been your biggest challenge to overcome as an entrepreneur?

McCaig: I think of myself as more of an enabler than an entrepreneur.  I invested in these businesses because I believe that they are beneficial to the community. For me, it’s always been people over profits.  If we do well, that’s great.  But it’s more important to do good. Or to put it another way:  I was at the UPS store the other day, getting some manuscripts printed, and man behind the counter asked, “So, is high-quality book publishing a good business?” I answered, “Well it’s a great business, if you love books.  If you love money, hmm, maybe not so much….”

Interviewed by Mario Toneguzzi, a business reporter in Calgary.

© Calgary’s Business


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