Folks from far-flung places land on Cortes Island every summer to swim the lakes, paddle the seas and explore the forests.
Yet a top destination in this B.C. outdoor adventure paradise is a tiny independent bookstore called Marnie’s Books. The red, cottage-like bookstore punctuated by an aquamarine door is a hive of activity whenever it’s open.
Tourists and locals alike trundle up and down the wooden stairs to search the one-room shop for their summer read.
For many returning visitors, it’s a rite of summer to visit Marnie’s.
One of Cortes Islands Draws
“It’s definitely a tradition for us to come. It’s something we look forward to,” said Louise Young, flanked by her two young sons and clutching a bundle of books and games.
“Actually, one of the draws in coming to Cortes is to come to the bookstore.”
Despite its small size, Marnie’s has a thoughtful but fun selection of children’s options, Young said, adding she typically buys enough to keep her kids reading into fall.
“The owner knows so much about the books, and is really able to help direct us to really good books for their age and level of reading,” she said.
But the bookstore generally just reflects the feel of Cortes Island, Young said.
“Well, it’s very eclectic, open and interesting. And sort of entrepreneurial but off the grid.”
Those very same descriptors could be applied to bookstore owner Marnie Andrews herself.
The 63-year-old former librarian from Haida Gwaii, with a passionate love of literature — and a fierce commitment to sharing that love with others — originally started out by converting a bread truck into a mobile bookstore.
“I decided to start a store, so I bought a 30-foot McGavin’s square aluminum bread truck and my husband changed it into a bookstore,” said Andrews with a laugh.
“We put skylights in it and painted it white inside.”
She sold her wares from the bookmobile for five years at farmers’ markets on both Cortes and neighbouring Quadra Island before deciding to set up something more permanent in 2003.
At first blush, Cortes — an isolated island community with less than 1,000 permanent residents, separated from the nearest city by a two-ferry journey — may not seem the ideal place to set up shop.
But Cortesians are enthusiastic and avid readers, Andrews said.
“I love being here. People really read on Cortes. It’s a warm, friendly community that loves its books,” she said.
The island’s love of reading is likely in part the result of the limited activities on offer, especially during the dark, rainy winters, Andrews said.
“I don’t think anyone would live here that didn’t love to read,” she said.
As such, her 302-square-foot enterprise, plunked in the garden outside the Cortes food co-op, is still in existence 17 years later.
One might wonder how a tiny island bookshop continues to survive in an age where many independent and corporate book vendors in large urban centres like Vancouver are gone, or threatened with extinction.
The bookshop’s success can’t be measured solely by its modest margins, Andrews said, adding she’s willing to live frugally and doesn’t have a mortgage.
Plus, Andrews profits in a number of other ways.
“Well, it’s a very fun place and way to indulge one’s love of books for sure,” she said. “And to share with other book lovers, or folks that you hope will become book lovers, like children.”
One of Andrews’ joys is watching children grow and mature, both as individuals and readers.
“It’s been interesting to be here long enough to see little children you saw when they were born,” she said.
“And now they’re adults and still love to read, and they still come in to get their books and tell you what they’re reading.”
A Long Time Customer
One of those grown children is Melissa Campbell, who remembers getting books from Andrews’ bookmobile.
The mother of three hovers around the central table, piled high with books, with her 13-month-old son bound to her side in a colourful sling.
“I came back and started reading by the fire here at the store with my first child eight years ago,” Campbell said, noting that she repeated the cozy winter ritual with her other children too.
Her kids, like their mother, now love books.
“Books are absolutely my favourite things. I’m addicted to them,” Campbell said, suddenly lifting a book to her nose.
“And the smell of them! Ohh! Don’t you just love it?”
A Chat about books
Before making her purchase, Campbell, Andrews and another woman waiting in the store’s doorway chat about the book she’s selected.
Andrews talks about the themes and tone of the book and lets Campbell know what other people have said about it.
In some ways, the shop strung with fairy lights feels more like a book club discussion taking place inside somebody’s living room.
Andrews says spontaneous engaging discussions among neighbours and strangers break out regularly in the intimate space. Boring or mundane chat almost never occurs in room packed with literature, she added.
“Books just always give you a stepping stone to an interesting conversation,” Andrews said.
“With them, you can find that spot where you can connect, over ideas packed in that lovely form of a book.”
Links of interest:
- Manda Aufoch Gillespie’s visit to Marnie’s Books (and interview with Shaena Lambert) on Folk U Friday
- A Daily News story of Lambert’s virtual book launch at Marnie’s Books
Top photo credit: Marnie Andrews runs a tiny, one-room book store on remote Cortes Island that is beloved by locals and visitors alike – Rochelle Baker