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Well Read Books celebrates 15 years

The pusher stands on a street corner in downtown Whitehorse. A fresh shipment has just come in. It's Saturday and everyone's jonesing for a fix.

The pusher stands on a street corner in downtown Whitehorse. A fresh shipment has just come in. It’s Saturday and everyone’s jonesing for a fix.

The clientele is scandalous: a former Yukon premier’s daughter, notable business owners - everyone is looking to score.

A man sidles up, his face pocked and scarred. Opening a frayed backpack he displays the contents and nervously asks, “how much?”

The pusher reaches in, handling the contents with a practiced hand. She pulls three packages out. “$12.50 for these,” she says “but I don’t want the rest.”

After almost two decades in the business, this pusher can tell the good stuff from the bad in a heartbeat. “What about you?” she says, turning on me. “You need anything?”

I wet my lips. It’s been almost three weeks since my last hit.

“Some Fitzgerald,” is all I manage to stammer out.

Jan Stick turns and leads me into the doors of Well Read Books.

This Thursday the store is celebrating its 15 year anniversary. In an era dominated by mega chains like Chapters Indigo, which in 2011 accounted for almost half of all Canadian book sales, this independently owned second-hand book store has reached a significant milestone.

Stick, the book pusher, is part owner of Well Read Books. Over the past decade and a half the store has managed to pay off its investors and maintain a steady, if somewhat modest income. “We pay the staff, we pay our rent, we pay the bills, there’s not a lot left over after that. Our value is in our inventory - it’s in what we own.”

The store works on a straightforward trade-in system. People are offered store credit for books in good condition at a quarter of the cover price. The books are then resold for half the cover price. Customers may apply half of their store credit to any purchase.

“Yukoners are very well read,” Stick says. “Most of our customers think about (used bookstores) most in terms of cost, but there’s also the recycle, re-use aspect. We have some customers that like to recirculate books all the time and others that probably have more books than I do.”

The system keeps a steady rotation of titles in the store, some as fresh as I am Malala, only four months off the New York Times bestseller list, and others as old as first editions from the northern collection. From behind the counter Stick produces the most valuable book in the store, a thumbnail size copy of Robert Service’s Songs of the Yukon, published in 1913.

“It was printed in Edinburgh,” says Stick. “It’s worth about $500.”

The business, however, has not been immune to changing consumer tastes. Electronic books, which accounted for 17.6 per cent of Canadian book sales in 2013, have taken a bite out of the market. “There has been a plateau in sales over the past three years,” Stick tells me as we walk through the store. “We noticed the change with the onset of e-books. When people are travelling they just download e-books and are on their way.”

Despite this potentially grim shift, Stick is optimistic. “When you shift to online you lose the feel of books. And you can’t get everything online.”

As Stick leads me through the rows of bookshelves my fingers brush across the spines of countless stories. The cackling voice of Pratchett’s Nanny Ogg calls out to me, I can hear spray from Hemingway’s giant Marlin, snared and splashing in the Caribbean Sea.

“We have a lot of books,” Stick comments. “When we opened we had maybe 11,000. We have over 40,000 titles now.” With so many titles Well Read could easily have become a cluttered quagmire of musty books, yet the store has maintained a neat sense of propriety.

“We’re very fussy about the quality of our books, we’ve also gotten really good at weeding,” Stick says, laughing. “We’ve even banned certain genres and certain trashy authors,” she confides. The result is a spacious, sun-soaked store where a copy of Tender is the Night presents itself freely.

Thumbing through the pages I find a hand-written inscription: “Berlin - January 2009, and so my darling, we try again. I’m sure this one will hit the spot, with love. Luke.”

The physical memory of used books is one of the quirks that makes Well Read an irreplaceable commodity among bibliophiles. In the basement of the store, where duplicates of books and special editions are stacked from floor to ceiling, Stick shares some of the more peculiar aspects of owning a used bookstore. Like the time Karen Walker, a partner in the business, grabbed a random book off the shelf only to discover the book, from 1930, was signed to her own mother and had made its way to the Yukon all the way from Ontario.

Upstairs, Stick shows me the wall covered with various items staff have found hidden among the pages of sorted books. “We’ve found $50 bills, pressed flowers, old letters. We even once had a wedding picture that someone came in and claimed!” Stick exclaims. “There’s always little magic stories.”

Well Read has also served as a well-used public space. “We’ve had book clubs, play readings, we have an annual craft sale,” says Stick.

Over 15 years there are a lot of things to remember, and it falls to me to remind Stick that Well Read was once the generous host of the FH Collins writing club. “That’s right!” she exclaims. “I used to be behind the counter and just listen… it was like somehow the kids thought there was a cone of silence. I loved it. It cracked me up.”

Stick says she is optimistic that Well Read will manage to carve its niche into the next 15 years. “I don’t think we need to change much,” she says, gazing wistfully across the rows of books. “It’s a good business to be in. Books, literacy, it’s a good thing to push.”

Pavlina Sudrich is a recovering bibliophile and freelance reporter.