British Columbia

Mel Bolen, who built one of Canada's largest independent bookstores, passes away

A trailblazer of Victoria's thriving independent bookstore scene has died unexpectedly. Madeline ("Mel") Bolen was founder of Bolen Books which she grew from a tiny shop in Hillside Shopping Centre to one of Canada's biggest independent bookstores.

Victoria bookseller challenged chains, supported local authors

Bolen Books expanded from its 1970s beginnings as a tiny shop into a one of the largest single independent bookstores in Canada. (Bolen Books)

A trailblazer of Victoria's thriving independent bookstore scene has died. 

Madeline ("Mel") Bolen died unexpectedly on Wednesday. She was 72 years old.

From its beginnings as a tiny shop in the Hillside Shopping Mall in 1975, Bolen Books became a favoured Victoria destination for more than four decades of book hunters, from UVic students scouting for hard-to-find computer books in the 1970s to youngsters lined up for the midnight release of the latest Harry Potter offshoot. 

Bolen Books moved and expanded several times within the mall over its more than four decades.

Mel Bolen sold Bolen Books to her daughter Samantha on her retirement in 2010. (Bolen Books)

In 1996, it opened its current 20,000-square-foot store, making it one of the biggest single-location independent bookstores in Canada.

Store manager Colin Holt said Bolen realized the store needed to expand to face the challenge at the time from superstore book chains such as Chapters.

"Mel knew that she could continue to steer it in the right direction and take on those big companies and show them just how good an independent store could be," Holt said.

Holt said Bolen Books' advantage over Chapters was having an owner in the store every day who knew about local history books, knew what the local community wanted, and what authors to promote.

Hosted popular events

"Mel made a real community book store and I think that paved the way for keeping people here when the big chain stuff was happening," he said.

Holt said Bolen's contributions to Victoria's culture and community include its popular annual series of events featuring well-known and local authors.

"In a lot of communities that would be something that would be taken on by an outside committee," Holt said.  "We put on the equivalent of a literary festival every year."

Bolen also sponsored the Bolen Books Children Book Prize which awards $5,000 to a local author every year.

Canadian Astronaut Chris Hadfield was among the authors featured at Bolen Books public event series. (Bolen Books)

"Mel always believed it was so important for children to read and to have good books," Holt said.

Bolen retired and sold the store to her daughter Samantha in 2010. Her granddaughter, Madeline, has worked at Bolen Books since 2014.

Bolen died one month after the death of the founder of another renowned local bookstore. 

Jim Munro founded Munro's books in downtown Victoria with his first wife, Alice Munro in 1963 and operated it until he turned over ownership to four senior employees in 2014.

To hear the full interview with Bolen Books' Colin Holt on CBC Radio One's On the Island program, go to Mel Bolen, who built one of Canada's largest independent bookstores, passes away.