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All stories by Natalie Samson

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Queer lit comes of age

In the October issue of Q&Q, Natalie Samson writes about how a handful of YA authors are creating positive role models for gay youth.

Ivan E. Coyote (Photo: Ric Nielson)

When Mariko Tamaki set out to write (You) Set Me on Fire (Razorbill Canada), her first novel for young adult readers, she didn’t realize it’d be the “queerest book” she’s written to date.

Unlike her previous YA books, the critically acclaimed graphic novel Skim (illustrated by cousin Jillian Tamaki) and comic Emiko Superstar (illustrated by Steve Rolston), Tamaki says her latest publication brings sexual identity to the fore. “[Allison Lee] knows that she likes girls, but it doesn’t seem to be a permanent thing yet,” Tamaki says of her 17-year-old protagonist.

The novel follows Allison as she slouches through freshman year in an all-girls university residence, and grapples with an intense and unhealthy relationship with her new best friend, Shar, all while mending her first broken heart and a fair bit of charred, scabby skin (she was accidentally set on fire twice the previous summer). Though Allison fumbles with her feelings about identity – at one point she likens being a lesbian to a “physical betrayal, like Tourette’s syndrome” – her queerness is established before the novel opens, making it one of several qualities she re-evaluates over the course of the year.

Tamaki’s novel is one of a growing number of queer-positive coming-of-age stories that reflect the changing realities faced by young LGBT Canadians. “The story about someone discovering their sexuality has to have changed,” Tamaki says. “Twenty years ago there was the experience of having to go to the library to look up what the word ‘lesbian’ means. Nowadays, you turn on the television and there’s at least one lesbian in a five-hour block of TV.”

Michael Harris

Indeed, journalist Michael Harris, whose first novel, Homo, was published in September through Lorimer’s SideStreets YA series, recalls heading to his local library as a 17-year-old in the late 1990s to look up “homosexual” in the card catalogue. “There were two books in my suburban library: one was a clinical analysis of illness, and one of them was Stan Persky’s book Buddy’s,” he says. “These were my indoctrination into the community.”

Considering the isolation Harris felt as a teen, it’s no surprise that one of his aims in writing Homo was to craft a character who inhabits multiple communities. Will Johnson struggles with his place at school and within his circle of friends and family after his sexual orientation is leaked on Face­book. In addition to the more mundane dramas of adolescence – an uninspiring home life, a strained relationship with his best friend – Will also confronts the violence of homophobic bullying and the news that his 23-year-old boyfriend, Riley, is HIV positive (a fact he learns after they’ve had sex).

In Will’s older, urban boyfriend, Harris offers queer youth an example of post-AIDS gay life, as well as a warning against taking that history too lightly. “If you look at HIV rates among young gay men, they’re actually climbing,” Harris says. “I think it’s because young gay men are either not worried about AIDS because they think it’s a one-pill-a-day kind of lifestyle, or they actually think of AIDS as some kind of historic relic.… I wanted Will to have to confront that wrecked part of his history that he didn’t think counted.”

Paul Yee

Confronting the difficult realities of intersecting identities is also at the heart of Paul Yee’s 2011 novel, Money Boy (Groundwood Books), in which the teenage protagonist, Ray Liu, is thrown out of his Toronto home when his father, a former Chinese soldier, discovers his son has been visiting gay porn sites. In the aftermath, Ray experiences homelessness, engages in sex work, and discovers relief and support in online gaming and the city’s Church and Wellesley neighbourhood. Ray eventually reconciles with his family and returns home.

While Yee is aware that the narrative arc may seem familiar, the book’s Chinese-­Canadian context helps keep the story fresh. “There’s been this tradition in older gay lit that the gay characters would often die off or they’d be pathologized,” Yee says. “I wanted an upbeat ending, but not something that was entirely unbelievable.”

Mariko Tamaki

Like Tamaki and Harris, Yee felt compelled to challenge the coming-out archetype because it didn’t reflect his experience as a young, gay immigrant. The absence of relatable role models and the fear of backlash from schools and libraries led Yee to hide his queer identity, even as he published story after story celebrating his cultural heritage (including the Governor General’s Literary Award–winning Ghost Train).

“It felt [like] I had a lot of internalized homophobia if I kept avoiding my gay life,” says Yee, who started writing gay fiction for adult audiences in the 1990s, in collections such as Queer View Mirror and Quickies (both from Arsenal Pulp Press). Money Boy is the author’s first YA novel addressing life after coming out. “The inspiration for writing Money Boy was really for me to get some balance in writing about the two worlds that I belong to: a gay world and a Chinese world,” he says.

Ivan E. Coyote is another prolific author who recently tried her hand at queer-positive YA. One in Every Crowd, published by Arsenal Pulp last spring, was a long time coming, says Coyote, who has spent the past decade touring schools as a storyteller and motivational speaker. Her talks often centre on stories about her cousin Christopher, an awkward, unique kid who was often treated cruelly. After regaling high schoolers with her funny, touching stories of a cherished cousin, she tells them the sad truth: Christopher killed himself at the age of 22.

“I thought a lot about my cousin Christopher when I put this book together,” Coyote says. “I still feel like part of the work I do in high schools is my means of atonement for not being able to protect him more in his own school experience, for not seeing how serious the bullying was.”

Coyote’s extended family appears in much of this collection of fictionalized memoirs. “There are so many stories out there about gay, lesbian, transsexual, transgendered people being homeless and being kicked out by their families,” she says. “I wanted to present an alternate reality: a family that may have struggled with aspects of who I was when I first came out … [but] in which I’m just as beloved and adored as any other family member.” By casting herself as not just a valued member of her family, but a successful artist, mentor, friend, partner, and lover, Coyote hopes to fill a gap of inspiring and realistic models of queerness, especially for young women.

After years of stubbornly refusing to tone down her writing, Coyote says she finally heeded requests from teachers and librarians to publish a resource appropriate for teens because she saw first-hand just how badly many queer youth needed the positive reinforcement. These changes weren’t for the benefit of her younger readers, she quickly clarifies, but for those adults who would object to the book’s content, or to “a writer like me being in a public library.” Coyote adds: “They’re going to be looking for reasons … so I sort of took the easy things away from them. They can tackle the more complicated reasons why they might not want … their own kids seeing some reflection of themselves in popular culture.”

There’s no denying YA’s growing importance in Canadian publishing, leading to more options for young readers. But as Harris notes, a study conducted by author Malinda Lo found that only 1.6 per cent of YA books to be published in the U.S. in 2012 will include LGBT main characters (those numbers weren’t available for Canada). So while books by Tamaki, Harris, Yee, and Coyote are signs of positive change, their rarity makes them, as Harris suggests, political statements.

Tamaki, who says her inspiration for (You) Set Me on Fire came out of her belief in activism, agrees. “You can’t expect change to happen,” she says. You have to write it into being.

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Random House of Canada taps into trend of books doubling as decor

It’s common now to flip or click through style, home, and design publications and see books used as everything from accent pieces to the materials for DIY decorating projects. So it makes sense that, at Random House of Canada, the company’s three paperback imprints – Anchor Canada, Vintage Canada, and Emblem Editions (the paperback division of McClelland & Stewart) – are joining together to publish the Books Are Beautiful series, a project that taps into the burgeoning interest in books as markers of personal taste and as home accessories for the style savvy.

Books Are Beautiful is a celebration of the physical book as objet d’art, says Sharon Klein, deputy director of publicity at Random House of Canada. More specifically, it’s a limited-edition reissue of 30 backlist titles from across the three imprints. Vintage Canada publisher Marion Garner says the series roster – which includes M&S authors such as Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje, and Anne Michaels alongside Kazuro Ishiguro, Salman Rushdie, Arundhati Roy, Peter Carey, and others – represents the “backbone” of Random House of Canada’s paperback publishing program.

Each title in the series has been given a text-only, single-colour cover treatment, with matching spines and sprayed edges. Alone, the books are bricks of solid colour. Together, they look something like a Pantone sample book.

The series is based on a similar program launched last year by Vintage U.K. in honour of its 21st anniversary. Unlike the Brits, who worked with a pencil-crayon-box colour palette, Scott Richardson, vice-president and creative director at Random House of Canada, assigned colours in an almost indiscriminate manner.

“I arbitrarily chose 30 colours that I thought if you string them together makes this wonderful effect,” he says. On a second pass, Richardson made sure his choices fit the tone and content of each novel. For example, Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time went from bright yellow to deep plummy blue – “a darker, hopefully mood[ier] colour” – to reflect the nocturnal reference in the book’s title.

On the cover, Richardson emphasized author’s name over title, highlighting the publisher’s long affiliation with the “cream of Canadian and international writing.” To maintain a unified look, he used the same typeface (Adobe Caslon) throughout, and kept cover copy at a standard length.

“It was a real challenge,” Richardson says. “Normally, every imprint has their own style and their own editorial/marketing take on how they treat things like back-cover copy.” He even ditched colophons, instead  listing all three imprint names on the spine (subtle text shading identifies a title’s originating imprint).

With the minimalist aesthetic, a retail price of $16.95 per book, and a print run of 5,000 copies for each title, Random House of Canada is clearly angling for consumers who prize bold design and collectors’ items – a market that Indigo Books & Music has also tried to capture in rebranding itself as a lifestyle boutique. Naturally, it followed that the publishing house would name Indigo the exclusive retailer of the series throughout the holiday season (the books can also be purchased through Random House of Canada’s website).

Books Are Beautiful displays at Indigo (Photos: Random House of Canada)

“Indigo is merchandising its stores now by blending products and displaying them more in an aesthetic sense,” Garner says. “We thought this would be a good match.”

“Indigo is a huge component,” agrees Klein, who has been working with the retailer on marketing the series. (Indigo would not comment on its marketing plans.) Klein has also reached out to a range of Canadian style, home, and decor publications, in addition to traditional book media. “I’m trying to get outside the box and think different,” she says. She’s even pitched the series as an ideal backdrop for the morning talk show Canada A.M.

It’s this kind of inventive thinking that Garner suggests will give paperback publishers a leg up in a competitive category. “It’s just getting harder … to bring some of those books to the front of the store if you’re not getting helped by Canada Reads, or a movie tie-in, or even … a new book in the market that’s flying off the shelves,” she says. Books Are Beautiful is a way to “reimagine and re-present backlist in a way that people haven’t seen before.”

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Shortlist revealed for Lane Anderson Science Writing Award

The shortlist for the *third annual Lane Anderson Award for Canadian-authored science writing was announced today. The contenders for two $10,000 prizes, which recognize both adult and young reader trade titles, run the gamut of scientific inquiry, touching on everything from Earth-bound life to the most distant solar systems.

The nominees are:

Adult trade

Young reader trade

The Lane Anderson Award is funded by the Fitzhenry Family Foundation. Winners of the prize will be announced Sept. 27. Last year’s winners were The Ptarmigan’s Dilemma by John and Mary Theberge (McClelland & Stewart) and Evolution by Daniel Dixon (Kids Can Press).


Correction Aug. 22: An earlier version of this post incorrectly identified 2012 as the second year of the Lane Anderson Award.

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BookNet bestsellers: Canadian fiction

It’s been a good fortnight for Kelley Armstrong. The prolific fantasy author’s three most recent offerings have landed at numbers 4, 11, and 15 on this week’s bestsellers list.

For the two weeks ending Aug. 12:

1. Flash and Bones, Kathy Reichs
(Pocket Books, $12.99 pa, 9781451693300)

2. The Cat’s Table, Michael Ondaatje
(VintageCanada, $22 pa, 9780307401427)

3. Room, Emma Donoghue
(HarperCollins Canada, $10.99 mm, 9781443413695)

4. Thirteen, Kelley Armstrong
(Random House Canada, $29.95 cl, 9780307357618)

5. Secret Daughter, Shilpi Somaya Gowda
(HarperCollins Canada, $10.99 mm, 9780062203960)

6. The Virgin Cure, Ami McKay
(Vintage Canada, $22 pa, 9780676979572)

7. A Trick of the Light, Louise Penny
(St. Martin’s Press/Raincoast, $16.99 pa, 9781250007346)

8. Web of Angels, Lilian Nattel
(Knopf Canada, $22 pa, 9780307402097)

9. The Colour of Tea, Hannah Tunnicliffe
(Scribner/Simon & Schuster, $17 pa, 9781451686999)

10. The Lost Souls of Angelkov, Linda Holeman
(Random House Canada, $22.95 pa, 9780307361592)

11. Werewolves, Kelley Armstrong
(Vintage Canada, $29.95 pa, 9780307362902)

12. The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt
(House of Anansi Press, $22.95 pa, 9781770890329)

13. A World Elsewhere, Wayne Johnston
(Vintage Canada, $22 pa, 9780307399915)

14. Until the Night, Giles Blunt
(Random House Canada, $29.95 cl, 9780679314356)

15. Spell Bound, Kelley Armstrong
(Random House Canada, $17.95 pa, 9780307359032)

16. Alone in the Classroom, Elizabeth Hay
(McClelland & Stewart, $22 pa, 9780771037979)

17. The Midwife of Venice, Roberta Rich
(Doubleday Canada, $22.95 pa, 9780385668279)

18. Half-Blood Blues, Esi Edugyan
(Thomas Allen Publishers, $24.95 pa, 9780887627415)

19. The Jane Austen Marriage Manual, Kim Izzo
(HarperCollins Canada, $21.99 pa, 9781443407236)

20. The Wild Zone, Joy Fielding
(Seal Books/Random House Canada, $10.99 mm, 9781400025794)

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Google to buy Frommer’s brand from Wiley

Google has announced it will acquire Frommer’s series of travel guidebooks from current publisher John Wiley & Sons. The deal will expand Google’s investment in local hospitality reviews and ratings, reports The Wall Street Journal. (Google purchased the Zagat brand in September.)

According to Publisher’s Lunch, the sale includes “all travel assets.” The deal comes after Wiley’s March announcement that it was looking to divest various professional and trade brands “that no longer align with the company’s long-term strategies.”

From PL:

Wiley said recently that the entire collection of trade/professional assets up for sale drove approximately $80 million in annual revenues. The announcement indicates that other sales “may arise from the sale of other consumer assets,” and all proceeds “will be redeployed to support growth opportunities in Professional/Trade; Scientific, Technical, Medical, and Scholarly; and Global Education businesses.”

No word yet on whether Google will continue to publish Frommer’s as print guidebooks.

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Robert J. Sawyer wins third consecutive Aurora Prize for WWW trilogy

Penguin Canada editor Adrienne Kerr and Robert J. Sawyer, who won Best Novel at the 2012 Aurora Awards in Calgary, Aug. 11. (Photo: Tim Reynolds)

In Calgary on Saturday, the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association celebrated the winners of the 2012 Aurora Awards as part of the organization’s annual convention and the city’s When Words Collide festival.

The night’s big winner was Robert J. Sawyer, whose Wonder (Penguin Canada) took home the *$500 SF Canada Award and the Aurora for best novel, an award he’s won in three consecutive years for each title in his WWW trilogy. (Watch won in 2011 and Wake won in 2010). The award is Sawyer’s 12th Aurora since the prize was launched in 1980.

Here is the full list of winners:

Best Novel
Wonder, Robert J. Sawyer (Penguin Canada)

Best Short Fiction
“The Needle’s Eye,” Suzanne Church, from Chilling Tales: Evil Did I Dwell; Lewd I Did Live (EDGE)

Best Poem/Song
“Skeleton Leaves,” Helen Marshall (Kelp Queen Press)

Best Graphic Novel
Goblins, Tarol Hunt (Webcomic)

Best Related Work
On Spec: The Canadian Magazine of the Fantastic, Copper Pig Writers’ Society

Best Artist
Dan O’Driscoll

Best Fan Publication
Bourbon and Eggnog, Eileen Bell, Ryan McFadden, Billie Milholland, and Randy McCharles (10th Circle Project)

Best Fan Filk Musician (for music based on sci-fi)
Phil Mills

Best Fan Organization
When Words Collide, presented to founder and chair Randy McCharles

Best Fan (Other)
Peter Watts, “Reality: The Ultimate Mythology,” Toronto SpecFic Colloquium lecture


*Clarification Aug. 15: The original post did not specify that Robert J. Sawyer’s $500 prize was sponsored by SF Canada.

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David Rakoff, essayist: 1964-2012

Essayist and humorist David Rakoff, whose darkly comic work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, GQ, and The New Yorker, among other publications, has died. After two years of treatment for a malignant tumour, the 47-year-old passed away in his Manhattan home on Thursday evening, The New York Times reports.

Born in Montreal in 1964 and raised in Toronto, Rakoff left Canada in 1982 to pursue dance and East Asian studies at Columbia University in New York City. Rakoff later worked as a translator in Japan, though his time there came to an abrupt halt when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 22. With the Hodgkin’s in remission, Rakoff faced a second diagnosis of cancer in 2010. A malignant tumour had been discovered near his left collarbone.

Rakoff spent many years in the publishing trade, working as an editor and publicist, before turning to writing full-time. As an author, he released three affecting collections. Fraud (2001) and Don’t Get Too Comfortable (2006) both won Lambda Literary Awards, and Half-Empty (2010) was awarded the Thurber Prize for American Humor. In a tweet, Publishers Marketplace news editor Sarah Weinman revealed that Rakoff had completed the manuscript for a novel, which Doubleday will publish in 2013.

Rakoff was also a frequent contributor to This American Life and CBC Radio’s Wiretap, on which he memorably appeared as a petty Fred Flinstone (rebroadcast on a 2007 episode of TAL) and as a rhyming Dr. Seuss, offering medical/existential counsel to a metamorphosed Gregor Samsa.

While in Toronto for a 2005 reading, Q&Q had the opportunity to observe first-hand Rakoff’s trademark acerbity in critiquing the privileged (with whom he identified):

Rakoff is not an outsider hectoring from the sidelines, but a court jester poking fun from within….  “I was very lucky,” [he admits]. “Basically, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with enjoying fine things. I just don’t think they make you a better person.”

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Jo Walton, Lisa Hannett, ChiZine among nominees at World Fantasy Awards

World Fantasy Award winners take home "The Howard," a statuette depicting H.P. Lovecraft

Lovers of fantasy, sci-fi, and horror can get a taste of what’s in store at the upcoming 2012 World Fantasy Convention with the recent release of the 2012 World Fantasy Awards shortlist.

Canadian nominees include Welsh-Canadian writer and poet Jo Walton, who received a nod for Among Others (Tor) in the novel category; Canadian-Australian short fiction writer and graphic designer Lisa Hannett, who was nominated for Bluegrass Symphony (Ticonderoga Publications) in the collection category; and ChiZine Publications co-publishers Brett Alexander Savory and Sandra Kasturi, who will duke it out with international sci-fi/fantasy heavyweights such as Jo Fletcher and Eric Lane for a special award recognizing professional contribution to the genre.

The awards cover nine categories of fantasy fiction published in 2011. Winners will be determined through a combination of member balloting and a panel of judges comprising authors John Berlyne, James P. Blaylock, Stephen Gallagher, Mary Kay Kare, and Jacques Post. The awards will be presented during the conference, which takes place Nov. 1–4 in Toronto.

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Q&A: Linda Besner on organizing the Fish Quill Poetry Boat Tour

For the third year in a row, Linda Besner and Leigh Kotsilidis will lead a group of poets and one musician on a canoe tour down the Grand River in Southwestern Ontario. The lineup for this year’s Fish Quill Poetry Boat Tour includes Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, Moez Surani, Darryl Whetter, and singer-songwriter Jack Marks.

The 10-day, three-canoe author tour launches on Aug. 9 in Toronto, with readings scheduled in Elora, West Montrose, Bridgeport, Cambridge, Paris, Brantford, and Ohsweken, plus a campfire poetry night at Brant Conservation Area.

Besner spoke with Quillblog about the challenges and rewards of marrying poetry with paddling.

(Image: Ian Turner, courtesy of Fish Quill Poetry Boat)

What can people expect from your tour?
The towns we’ve chosen to go through often don’t get a lot of [author] tours going through. Like West Montrose, where we’ll read next to Kissing Bridge, the only remaining covered bridge in Ontario.

Because we’re coming by canoe there’s a kind of informal air to the proceedings. Once you get up there in your canoeing clothes and you’re sunburnt and mosquito-bitten, you’ve been paddling through people’s back yards, we’ve already got something to talk about with [the audience].

The people who come out for it aren’t always necessarily the kind of people who come to poetry readings. But because somebody is making the effort to come to them, and doing it in a way that has a connection to the place, people come out.

People come and talk to us after. Last year, this woman came up with her daughter and husband. She told us she had had a boyfriend who wrote her this poem. “I still have it memorized. Do you want to hear it?” she said. And of course I did want to hear this poem. She recited it by heart. Her daughter was like, “Mom, you never told me this story.” Her mom said, “Well, it never came up.”

What’s different this time around?
Last year, most people knew at least one other person on the trip well.

This year there are a couple of people I haven’t met at all – Darryl Whetter is coming up from Nova Scotia, and I haven’t met Kevin McPherson Eckhoff, or Jack Marks.

How did the trip go last year? Can you describe what it was like for you?
The organizing had been so stressful that I was actually surprised and pleased by how smoothly everything wound up going. Once you’re out on the water, once everybody’s together, I feel like it really brings out people’s teamwork skills. Everybody was nice to each other and took care of each other. On that river, because it’s so shallow and rocky, the person in front really has to call to the person in back to tell them what to do to find a channel through the rocks that won’t tip you.

For a lot of us, because we live in the city, it’s not often that we’re able to be out in the country for so long and spend days on the river. You spend day after day in the canoe and then when you’re going to sleep, you have this hallucinatory sense that you’re still moving from side to side and following the bends of the river. It really gets a physical grip on you.

What are some of the highlights of paddling through a community rather than embarking on a more traditional tour?
We link up with a lot of local organizations and try to incorporate local talent. We invite guest performers to join us at each location. Last year, we had Shelley Clark from the Six Nations of the Grand River community read with us, and she’ll read again this year.

One of the coolest places we’ll be going back to this year is our final stop at Chiefswood National Historic Site, which is the birth place of E. Pauline Johnson. She was sort of the first Mohawk poet in Canada to be taken seriously. Her house is still standing [as a museum] in the Six Nations’ territory. Going out there, learning about its history, getting to know the curator and the volunteers is amazing. You really do see how vibrant the culture is.

What kind of fundraising have you undertaken to cover the trip?
We do this trip on such a shoestring budget. We grocery shop and cook [at camp] as a group. We have gotten all of our camping sponsored by the Grand River Conservation Authority, which manages the campsites we’ll be staying on.

We have another really wonderful sponsor, Treks in the Wild. They’re a canoe company in Paris, Ontario, and they’re really who make this trip possible. They lend us the canoes and waterproof barrels for our merch for free, they shuttle us around, they come and get us when our campsite is too far from our reading venue for us to walk.

We’ve also been given some funding from our publishers: Véhicule Press, Coach House Books, Wolsak & Wynn, Palimpsest Press, and Brick Books.

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As one used bookstore opens in Halifax, another closes in Kitchener

Morgan Dambergs has had her finger in a few publishing pies. The Haligonian has worked as a reviewer, an editor, an intern at a publishing house, and can now add bookstore owner to her resumé.

This summer, Dambergs opened Orphan Books, a second-hand bookshop, in Halifax’s north end. In an interview that aired earlier this week, Dambergs told CBC News she’s aiming to keep selection small and to cater to younger readers as much as possible. She’s focusing on stocking her store with YA in all genres, plus horror, paranormal, and queer lit.

The CBC piece also features John Townsend, owner of Schooner Books in Halifax. Townsend is eager to welcome younger people into the bookselling fold, especially because there’s not much room for business-as-usual in the used-book racket these days. “The traditional [used] book business, in my opinion is over,” he says. Gone are the days of large shops filled to bursting with books in all categories and price ranges, adds the 35-year book business veteran.

Townsend might have a point. While Dambergs is jumping into used bookselling with both feet, Mark Pettigrew, proprietor of Casablanca Bookshop in Kitchener, Ontario, is scrambling to get out.

Pettigrew opened shop in 1986, but now finds it difficult to compete with online sellers some 26 years later. With the lease up on his King Street store, the time is right for a career change, the 51-year-old told the Kitchener-Waterloo Record.

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Eva Stachniak's Empress of the Night

Eva Stachniak poses with a copy of her book, Empress of the Night

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Eva Stachniak talks to the audience about the best and worst of Catherine the Great's favourites

Eva Stachniak smiles as she signs a copy of Empress of the Night for a fan

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