New Brunswick

After 23 years, a beloved Saint John bookseller has reached its final chapter

Time stops for no one. That is especially so, it seems, for used booksellers in the Maritimes.

Dave Shoots Bookseller will close up shop and move to online sales at the end of 2023

A middle aged lady, looking like she's not having the best day of her life, sits by boxes and stacks of books at her closing shop.
Wendy Matheson, who calls the bookstore her 'happy place,' took over operations from her father, Dave Shoots, in 2019. 'I'm tired,' she said. 'I've been paying too much rent for two years and I can't do it anymore.' (Julia Wright/CBC)

Entering the stone 1820s doorway of Dave Shoots, Bookseller is like opening a portal to the past. 

There's the smell of antique paper and leather. Hardcovers piled high from the floor to the fireplace. Much of the day-to-day business is still done by hand: receipts totted up with a pen, a little tin box stuffed with requests from regulars.

A carefully-lettered sign above the cash register reads, "If a book is worth reading, it is worth buying." 

But time stops for no one. Especially, it seems, not for used booksellers in the Maritimes — even ones who have been in business for years. 

First, Moncton's Folio Books announced its closure in 2016. Then Fredericton's Owl's Nest closed in 2018 after 25 years in business.

Just last week, Seaside Bookshop in Summerside, P.E.I., received notice from their landlord that their lease would be terminated effective May 31.

Now, the time has also come for Dave Shoots, Bookseller to close this chapter in Saint John.

'We need more space, not less'

Owner Wendy Matheson, who took over the business from her father in 2019, said rent was manageable at 40 Coburg Street until 2020. 

A crowded, antique-looking store packed with old leatherbound books, with a cardboard sign advertising same.
Dave Shoots, Bookseller has carried thousands of titles at 40 Coburg St. in Saint John, N.B., for more than two decades. Owner Wendy Matheson announced her intent to close the store in late 2023. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Under new landlords, the cost of the space gradually rose compared to the favourable arrangement they'd worked out with a previous owner. Most recently, she said, she was given the option to either drastically reduce the floor space, or vacate the premises by the end of the year.

"Anyone who's seen our bookstore knows we need more space, not less," Matheson wrote in an open letter to customers. 

"We had no choice. There is no suitable, affordable rental space in uptown Saint John."

A Neoclassical arched entryway that has seen better days.
The distinctive entryway of the historic former James Peters, Jr. Residence on the east side of Coburg Street, has been home to the bookshop for 23 years. (Julia Wright/CBC)

Attempts to contact Bedore Jeffrey Property Management, the publicly listed owners of the property, were unsuccessful. 

The bookshop started in 2000 as a partnership between Shoots and late bookseller Saint John bookseller Terry Keleher. Before settling in as a dealer of used books, Shoots had worked in a range of jobs, including Methodist minister, photocopier technician, security guard and pub maintenance worker. 

Dave Shoots Bookseller owner Wendy Matheson talks about the changing times in the local book industry.

"This was the only thing that he ever stuck with for any length of time," Matheson said. 

A loss for the community

His tenacity in the trade was remarkable. Even after his diagnosis of Parkinson's and dementia, Shoots, now 86, continued working in the store six days a week until 2019.

Part of the fun has been the collecting and curating — trying to anticipate what customers might want, or what gems scored for a good price at a sale might prove unexpectedly valuable. 

A hand-lettered sign at a bookstore reads "if a book is worth reading, it is worth buying."
While online sales are brisk, much of the daily business at the bookstore is still done the old-fashioned way. (Julia Wright/CBC)

"We try to have things that you don't see everywhere else," said Matheson. "We go for the uncommon stuff. Good literature. We try to steer away from the stuff that you find every day in other stores."

"It's definitely a loss for the community, and I feel awful," she said. 

She hasn't told her father about the decision to close. 

"He would just lie awake at night and worry about it. Until we're bringing home boxes to the basement, he won't be aware that the shop is gone."

The octegenarian owner of Dave Shoots Bookseller stands in a room of aging volumes wearing a shy smile.
In a 2017 interview with CBC, Dave Shoots observed, 'people who are easily distracted depend on the noise and excitement of TV or the computer. People who are able to picture things in their mind and appreciate the value of being alive, and being able to respond to ideas, are still reading.' (Julia Wright)

The epilogue for her family business, Matheson said, will be digital. With online sales still relatively brisk, she plans to sell the remaining inventory online from her home in west Saint John.

"Online kept us going during the pandemic," she said. "It was very, very good: the business doubled. My best year ever was 2021, and 2020 wasn't bad … It's amazing how many orders from all around the world come looking for Saint John or New Brunswick history."

A sign advertising bookseller Dave Shoots
The bookseller's signboard, handpainted with Gothic lettering by Saint John artist Norm Jackson, is a familiar sight directing book-lovers up Coburg Street. (Julia Wright/CBC)

But with gross sales down by 20 per cent in 2022,  a return to brick-and-mortar sales is unlikely.

They simply can't balance the books.

"I'm tired. I've been paying too much rent for two years and I can't do it anymore," she said. 

When the shop closes on Dec. 16, Matheson says she'll most miss "the contact with the people" she meets through books. 

"I learn from my customers every day. Just having that human interaction," she said. "You don't really get that when you're buying online."

A man examines one of the many old books for sale in a store filled with bookcases.
Shoots, pictured in 2017, examines a 19th century pulpit Bible - one of the the many rare books in the store. (Roger Cosman/CBC)

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Julia Wright

Host, Information Morning Saint John

Julia Wright is the host of Information Morning Saint John on CBC Radio 1. She previously worked as a digital reporter focused on stories from southwestern New Brunswick. She has a master's degree in English from McGill University, and has been with the CBC since 2016. You can reach her at julia.wright@cbc.ca.

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