North

As Yellowknife's Book Cellar celebrates 40 years, owner prepares for next chapter

While brick-and-mortar book stores across the country face increasing pressure due to online retailers, a downtown Yellowknife shop has beaten the odds: surviving — and thriving — for 40 years.

'I feel very fortunate that for that many years, I've had a job that I love,' says owner Judith Drinnan

Yellowknife Book Cellar owner Judith Drinnan originally moved to Yellowknife in the 1970s to teach. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

While brick-and-mortar book stores across the country face increasing pressure due to online retailers, a downtown Yellowknife shop has beaten the odds: surviving — and thriving — for 40 years.

Yellowknife's Book Cellar celebrated it's 40th anniversary this weekend, an incredible accomplishment made even more unlikely by the fact that owner Judith Drinnan had never planned to open the store in the first place.

"This was not in my life plan," she said, with a laugh. "It'd never been a goal to open a book store. But always in my life, from a very young age, books have always been a part of my life."

Drinnan came to Yellowknife in the 1970s to work as a teacher, but after being "fed up" with dealing with government, she decided to start her own business. While working part-time at a stationary store, she asked the owner if he was interested in selling.

"He said: 'No, I'm not interested,'" she said. "So I sort of went away and was still thinking about what I wanted to do.

"But he came to me in the street one day and said: 'You know, I've been thinking about that, if you'd like to buy the bookstore side of things."

The Yellowknife Book Cellar is celebrating 40 years of business in Yellowknife. (Alex Brockman/CBC)

With no business experience, Drinnan took out an $8,000 loan on a "second-hand suburban," and bought the store.

The rest, as they say, is history.

"You know, it was just crazy," she said. "And it certainly didn't make life easy the first five years ... but I guess, by then, I was sort of passionate about the book side of things."

As the store continued to grow, Drinnan says she learned the importance of networking early — making connections with schools and communities across the territory through their nursing stations and holding book fairs. 

She also credits her "incredibly supportive family" with the store's longevity.

"I think they thought mom was a bit crazy sometimes ... but they've all helped one way or another in the store."

Drinnan says that N.W.T. author Richard Van Camp's novel The Lesser Blessed is one that she's most proud of putting on her shelves.

Over the four decades of running the store, Drinnan says she was most proud of putting Richard Van Camp's first novel, The Lesser Blessed, on her shelves. Van Camp was a long-time customer who often motivated her in difficult times, she said. 

"He comes in when I'm feeling low and don't want to do this anymore, right?" She said. "And he reminds you that it's really important. And it is."

As for what's next for the next 40 years? Drinnan says that the future of the Book Cellar will ultimately be up to someone else, as she looks to transition into retirement.

"Just to sit and read would be a plan for me," she said. 

"But I don't regret [opening the store]. I feel very privileged that I can say pretty well every day of the year I'm happy to go to work. I feel very fortunate that for that many years, I've had a job that I love."

Written by Garrett Hinchey, with files from Alyssa Mosher

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