Saskatchewan

Magic and 'a love affair' with the printed word at Regina's hidden bookstore

It’s easy to walk past this store, never knowing what fantasy worlds lie inside. A discreet sign over a back door facing away from the street is the only indication of the eclectic collection of books, furniture and art inside Regina's Spafford Books.

Owner of Regina's Spafford Books says there's a resurgence of interest in collecting books

Leah Spafford inherited Spafford Books from her father, Richard, about 14 years ago, after he suffered a stroke. Despite a period of about six or seven quieter years, she says she's seeing a resurgence in the demand for books as collector's items. (CBC News)

This article was originally published January 6, 2019.

It's easy to walk past this store on Regina's Broad Street, never knowing what fantasy worlds lie inside. A discreet sign over a back door facing away from the street is the only indication that it's a bookstore.

But just a few steps inside and beyond the door, with a dog named Oxford bounding up to welcome a newcomer, it quickly becomes evident it's not your typical bookstore.

Inside, Spafford Books channels the famed Paris bookstore Shakespeare and Company, with leather-bound and gilded books lying next to a stack of religious papers dating back to the 17th century, with art and antiques thrown in for good measure. The little details — a Remington typewriter or a rotary phone — evoke a nostalgia for a different time.

Oxford gets himself settled on a dog bed by the fireplace. It looks like it'd be an equally cozy spot to read.

Visitors to Spafford Books, located at 1637 Broad St., may feel like they've stepped into a different time — one where typewriters, not computers, rule. (CBC News)

"My father and I are both rabid collectors," Spafford Books owner Leah Spafford says of her store's eclectic collection of books, furniture and art. "So between the two of us, we had a lot of stuff and no place to put it."

It's not uncommon to hear newcomers exclaim with surprise that it's like a scene out of Harry Potter's Hogwarts School, she says.

Leah Spafford says both she and her father are rabid collectors, leading to the wide-ranging collection of unusual items in the store, from antique furniture to Inuit art. (CBC News)

She understands the magic allusion, only to her, it's visions of the Land of Oz that dance before her eyes when she thinks of her shop.

Spafford inherited her love of books and the bookstore itself from her father, with Spafford Books living on in what was once a Hudson's Bay store.

Richard Spafford and his wife at the time, Catherine Lauritsen, operated a bookstore called The Book Cellar in 1972. His bookstore business at first offered all kinds of books, before he began specializing in antiquarian books and Prairie Canadiana. (Submitted by Leah Spafford)

Her father began by selling all kinds of books, but over time the shop began to specialize in the antiquarian books and Prairie Canadiana that are now its hallmarks. An early adopter, he sold books over the internet in its early days, with his daughter now continuing to sell books all over the world.

Interspersed amongst the books are all kinds of visual delights, including two bridge replicas made of toothpicks. Spafford says these bridges have turned out to be popular gifts for graduating engineering students. (CBC News)

As she walks past the shelves of history and literature, Spafford stops to stroke the spine of a book and sighs with delight.

The basement of the bookstore includes a collection of Prairie tomes, including histories of little villages from Kamsack, Sask., to Vegreville, Alta. (CBC News)

These books are not just words, but tactile and sensory delights, with musty scents or delicate art protected by wax paper. While most everything in the shop is for sale, Spafford describes a few of the books as her babies, impossible to part with, like a rare 1930 edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

"Someone would have to offer me something that would make me fall over," she says, carefully turning the creamy white pages.

Beyond books, you may find nearly 400-year-old manuscripts like this one. (CBC News)

Books remain troves of knowledge, say shop owners

Independent bookstores have been around forever, but how do they survive into a digital future?

For a dry spell of about six or seven years, Spafford says she felt the dread of the e-book and Amazon, and slackening sales, but she carried on undaunted.

"My dad's motto was always 'If you're not selling, you should be buying,'" she said, explaining that she ended up with an enormous stock in that time.

The basement of the bookstore reflects its eclectic feel, with a collection of art and furniture amongst beloved books. (CBC News)

At some point, the dry spell was broken, with people reawakening to the allure of physical books, Spafford said.

"We're in a resurgence now of the books being interesting, and we're getting this whole new batch of clientele and collectors."

People buy particular books or classics because of their visual appeal, says Spafford Books owner Leah Spafford. (CBC News)

Chris Scott, co-owner of Centennial Books, agrees, saying that most customers buying books at her Regina store are under the age of 40.

"There's more books being printed than ever," she said, noting that e-books make up only around 20 per cent of the market — and that share is falling.

Jordan Ethier, a high school teacher and book lover, often comes to the store to browse, but also helps out researching and authenticating books and artifacts. Books, he says, will always be the treasure troves of knowledge for the world. (CBC News)

Independent bookstores are run by people who know books, and who are ready to answer questions and delve into research to find a book or solve a mystery, according to Scott.

"And that's what makes a bookstore work."

As an owner, to be surrounded by the treasures of these leather bindings, crackling paper and word concoctions is simply magic, to hear Spafford tell it.

"It's a love affair and it just keeps getting better and better."

About the Author

Janani Whitfield works on CBC Saskatchewan's Morning Edition. Contact her at janani.whitfield@cbc.ca or on Twitter, @WhitfieldJanani.

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