Jim Sherman's been wishing his store Perfect Books was in a bigger space since the day he bought the Elgin Street shop in 2009.
As the exclusive bookseller for the Ottawa Writers' Festival, Perfect Books had been increasingly profitable for years. The challenge wasn't finding customers, it was finding the space to accommodate them.
“It was hard to shop in here before, very tight,” Sherman admits. “At Christmas time, you couldn't move.”
Currently, he has 7,000 titles shoehorned into a 1,000 square foot shoe box. Last March, he acquired the vacant jewelry store next door and is combining the two to create a larger 1,600 square feet space that will be easier, more comfortable space to shop in when it opens next week.
While the need for more floor space has been apparent for years, it became even more of a necessity in March 2020 when the pandemic triggered a huge demand for books. Like many retailers, Sherman closed Perfect Books the weekend city council and the public health office shut the city down.
Two days later, the store's email box was swamped with 112 orders; four times what would normally be sold in a day.
Apparently, boredom is even more infectious than COVID. People were bored and suddenly had the time to read.
Overnight, Sherman and his store manager Michael Varty updated the store's website with purchasing technology and started processing orders online, using the store as a mini-warehouse for curbside pickup.
“At the beginning of the pandemic, a lady called and asked 'How many books has Louise Penny written?' 'Seventeen,' I answered. She said 'Good, I'll take them all.' I delivered them to her personally with a gift.”
His manager Michael Varty is a big reason why the store's done so well. The former manager of the much-beloved video store Elgin Street Video, Varty has, in his boss's opinion, “a great eye for titles people, serious readers are looking for; fiction, politics and philosophy you won't find anywhere else.”
“A customer will hear something in the news or on social media and think 'I should learn more about that,' and down the rabbit hole they go. They order three books at a time,” explains Sherman.
Trump, Black Lives Matter and Indigenous titles are among the most asked-for subjects.
“Customers were ordering four, five, eight books at a time,” Sherman says. “Sales here have been growing for years but since COVID, our business jumped about 50 per cent.”
“Readers come here because they know we probably already have the books they just read about in the New York Time Books Reviews last weekend because we're readers too.”
Sherman bought the store originally as a retirement project after his long teaching career.
“It was a stupid thing to do,” he admits with a wry laugh. “E-books were coming out, and it was going to be the end of books. I didn't care, I needed something to do. Then the Writers' Festival came on board giving us great exposure to the reading audience, people who are passionate about books. We've been growing steadily ever since.”
“It's not the money, it's the idea of building something that excites me,” he explains. “We're building a community of interesting people here.”