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Bringing books back to life: Black Squirrel Books and Espresso Bar

Steven Yong and his friend and partner Vaughn MacDonald made every mistake an entrepreneur can make with their first business. Fortunately, they learned from their mistakes.

Steven Yong said he and his partner and friend Vaughn MacDonald made every mistake in the book opening earlier iterations of the Black Squirrel used book store.

However, it looks like they learned from their mistakes, and got everything right with their current version, Black Squirrel Books and Espresso Bar in the Glebe.

It's the middle of the afternoon and the place is busy with customers either having coffee at the bar, talking and listening to cool music or over in the stacks, intently going through the 90,000 books.

Part café, part club, part bookstore, Black Squirrel Books and Espresso Bar is a social hub hangout for restless readers, students and socialites in the Glebe. The vibe is cool, sedate and the people are friendly.

I spoke with Yong on Friday about the store, and how he turned the dusty used book store into a hip, thriving business.

What are customers coming here for, lunch, or books?

“The cafe was a way to bring people in, make them feel comfortable," he said. "Coffee and books go together. It's a stress-free place. So, many customers buy a coffee and look at the books. A lot of people meet on dates here because the atmosphere is chill. We've even had rock concerts and DJ dance parties here as well as poetry readings and more traditional events.”

How did you, a pre-Law and philosophy student at Carleton, get into the book business?

“Vaughn and I started selling books on Amazon," he said. "It was pretty casual, but we got the book buying bug. We're both book people, so we enjoyed it, finding great books and connecting them with readers. So, we decided to throw the dice, quit school and open our first bricks-and-mortar store, Bibliocracy on Somerset Avenue in 2011."

What was that experience, jumping from academia to retail full-time like?

“We made lots of mistakes with our first store," he said. "The name, for one, was terrible. Bibliocracy. People thought we only sold bibles. We only lasted a year there, but we learned from our mistakes. Our customers told us what to do, what kind of books they wanted. The books people want online is different from those they buy in a store. Customers often come into the store to browse, but people who shop online tend to know what they're looking for.”

Instead of closing the store and returning to school, you doubled down and moved to the first Black Squirrel with a better location on Bank at Arlington in 2012.

“We were confident we could make it work," he said. "So, we changed the name to Black Squirrel because it's easy to remember, and we bought more books for a general reader, not just the serious student. And we created an environment people feel comfortable in.”

How long did it take before you and Vaughn felt confident the new store would succeed where Bibliocracy didn't?

“About two years of working 70-80 hours a week," he said "By the time we left Arlington, we felt comfortable enough to hire help including the cafe and build the brand bigger.”

One of the industries that did well during the pandemic was the book business. Was that your experience?

“Lots of people got into reading during the pandemic," he added. "Our business grew, and we started selling new books by under-represented contemporary authors mostly who aren't readily available. There are a lot of young families in the Glebe, so our kids' section is growing, and we've added pop-up kiosks at the Gore Street Flea Market in Carleton Place and Murray's Flea Market in Perth. We're also looking at creating book vending machines around the city in the future, but that's still in the dream stage. There's a popular website called Goodreads. It's like social media for readers. It's really cool. People thought the internet would kill the book stores, but our experience is it's actually helping book stores.”

Did you have any regrets about quitting Carleton?

“Would our lives be different had we finished university? What we did was pretty exciting and it was a lot of hard work but it's not something we dislike doing," he noted. 

What are your plans for the future?

“After 15 years in the business of buying and selling books, I don't know if I could ever not work in a bookstore because I don't know if I have any other skills," he stated. "People have been selling books for millennia; what was true about the business during George Orwell's time is still true. People love stories; there will always be a market for books.”




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