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Crooked Timber Books: what it’s like running a bookshop

Bill and Bernice Schrank inside their bookshop, Crooked Timber Books, on Water Street in Digby.
Bill and Bernice Schrank inside their bookshop, Crooked Timber Books, on Water Street in Digby.

DIGBY, NS –Owning a bookshop is a hard read.

That’s what Bill and Bernice Schrank, owners of Crooked Timber Books on Water Street in Digby say about it.

“Every day is different and nothing is predictable,” says Bernice.

“That’s the blessing and curse of owning a shop like this.”

 

Building their bookshop

The couple has owned the Water Street shop since July 4, 2004 at 2 p.m., but first began the book business in England, where Bill taught at the University of Essex in Colchester, England.

The town had many bookstores, and prices were cheap: a perfect recipe for a burgeoning book buyer

When the couple moved to Newfoundland to teach at Memorial University, they shipped their books over with them.

Years later, they visited England with their three children and collected even more.

“We’d have two adults and three kids with four boxes each that cost only $4,” says Bernice.

“That’s 20 boxes and a cheap price, which meant we did it often.”

 

The plot thickens

Today, Bill and Bernice have their largest number of books ever – their shelves hold over 40,000 volumes.

“The attic is full, the basement is full and every nook and cranny is full. It’s like they’re encroaching!” says Bernice.

Even with thousands of books, Bill and Bernice can never predict which ones will sell.

The shop’s first day this season was one such example. Among the books bought by their first customer was Savill’s System of Clinical Medicine, from 1946.

The couple’s shop currently holds around 40,000 books with even more in storage.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it. People just want what they want,” says Bill.

When the shop first opened, the couple agreed to sell any book they put on their shelves.

This led to the selling of one of Bill’s favourites, Men of Dunwich. A favourite of Bernice’s, a book on Scandinavian knitting patterns, sold soon after.

“That lasted 12 years until we decided it wasn’t going to work,” says Bill.

He laughs as he remembers what his father envisioned when learning Bill was opening a shop.

“He pictured me in a tug-of-war with a customer over a book. It hasn’t felt far off sometimes,” he says.

 

Interesting characters

The couple have met many interesting people through owning their shop, such as the shop’s first ever customer, who returned four years ago.

“I remembered him almost immediately, and we had a great talk,” says Bernice.

“He bought a fairly obscure Spanish book by Miguel de Unamuno.”

Another interesting person was someone who came in and professed his love of President Donald Trump.

“I told him I was waiting for a social proletarian movement. You should have seen his face,” she says.

The shop also sells art pieces and vintage clothing. Two dresses sold were the subject of a Vinyl Cafe episode.

When a bus tour stopped in a few weeks ago, a crazy coincidence happened that took everyone by surprise.

A tour member grabbed The Colonel, a book about the once-editor of the Chicago Tribune, written by Richard Norton Smith, the group’s tour guide.

“We couldn’t believe it and everyone was utterly astonished. I think Smith was also surprised a bookshop around here had books like his,” says Bill.

 

The epilogue

Owning the shop is something this duo has fun with.

Whether it be helping someone find a rare book or helping teens find prom dresses and ending up on the late Stuart McLean’s Vinyl Cafe, Bill and Bernice have created many lasting memories to reread.

Bill points to the brochure of bookstores across the province, which is half the size it once was.

“We do it because we love it, but it is a hard business,” he says.

Bernice misses the feeling of acquiring new books.

“One of the joys of being a bookseller is the chase of finding that book you’ve wanted, but we don’t have the space to do that anymore,” she says.

But the couple looks forward to many new chapters written in their store and their continued place as Digby’s beloved bookshop.

“It’s a great adventure that we’re on,” says Bernice.

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