The role of books in the development of civilization cannot be overstated. They have allowed us to travel through time, to witness the lives and experiences of people around the world and exchange ideas about the defining elements of civilization such as technology, ecology, philosophy, laws, arts and culture.
British author C.S. Lewis wrote, “We read to know we are not alone.”
Few Guelph institutions have better demonstrated the social value of books than the Bookshelf.
“Bookselling is a conversation with the customers, publishers and authors,” said Bookshelf co-founder Doug Minett. “Booksellers are at the nexus of those three groups. Authors normally don’t talk much to customers. Publishers don’t talk much to the customer. Booksellers talk to all of the above, which is a very interesting job to have.”
It’s a job he and his former wife and business partner, Barb Minett, created for themselves in 1973 to indulge their love of books and by extension create a working model for independent bookstores and transform Guelph into a destination for book lovers from across Canada and around the world.
“It’s about localism,” said Minett. “I’ve talked about coming here and being amazed by the quality and character of Downtown Guelph and to me that has always been a kind of driving force.”
Their contribution earned them honorary PhDs from the University of Guelph in 2018.
“What is really quite fun is the people who recommended Barb and I for that were Margaret Atwood, who is a friend of mine, Phyllis Yaffe ,who is currently the chairman of Cineplex Odeon, and Michael Tamblyn who is the president of Kobo internationally, but he used to work for the Bookshelf as the dishwasher,” said Minett. “The book industry is riddled with people who at one time or another worked at the Bookshelf.”
Each of those people have their own Bookshelf story to tell. Some, no doubt, could write an adventure novel based on the many colourful characters, plot twists and epic battles of culture, commerce and conscience that have captured the community’s affection and imagination.
Minett retired in 2012 and his children Ben and Hannah Minett took over the store, but he is still very involved in the book business as a tech consultant and as executive director of Canadian Independent Booksellers Association.
“I am working with hundreds of Canadian bookstores trying to assist them in developing their skills and educating people about the very different approaches to selling books,” he said. “We only, actually, became operational in January of 2021 and now we have almost 150 members.”
Leading CIBA is a role he seems destined for given his boundless curiosity, love of community and wealth of experience.
Minett’s origin story begins at the end of the 1940s in Norwalk Connecticut, where he was the third of five children born to Everett Minett from Toronto and Alice “Parker” Minett from Guelph.
“My father, at the time, was working on the Manhattan Project in New York,” he said. “I didn’t move to Canada until 1966 when I came to McGill University.”
He developed an idealized, some might say, storybook image of Guelph during those early family trips to visit his grandmother, uncle and cousins.
“My grandmother lived on Arthur Street right across from the Heffernan Street footbridge, so, we thought it was terrific to be able to walk across this bridge into Downtown Guelph and what a delightful downtown it was,” he said. “Mind you, I never had a notion I would live in Guelph.”
That notion didn’t occur to him until he was in his early 20s and had gained valuable work experience at large well-run companies such as Xerox in Rochester, New York and Cadillac Development in Toronto. He also never missed an opportunity to broaden his education.
“I’m curious so, I was all over the map,” said Minett. “I took science at McGill and geography and history at York. I moved to Guelph in 1971 to go to U of G where I took math, history and politics. I never graduated from any of those universities.”
The main reason he moved to Guelph was to be with Barb, who had just completed an education degree and got a job teaching in the city.
They first met as pre-teens in Georgian Bay when their families were on holidays. They reconnected in the late 60s when she was studying at Western University and he was at McGill and were married in 1969.
They decided to change careers and open a bookstore in 1972 after a soul-searching, book-buying summer vacation backpacking through the UK.
“Most landlords didn’t want to touch us because we were kids,” said Minett. “We were 24, something like that, and what did we know about business? ‘You want to run a bookstore? Are you crazy?'”
They defied their critics by focusing on local and staying one step ahead of consumer trends. In 1980, when many Downtown businesses were closing due to competition with the new and modern Stone Road Mall, they opened the Bookstore Café, as it was originally named.
“We were the first people to do that in Canada,” said Minett. “So, for us it was always, ‘What is the next thing that nobody is doing?’ Why would that support the initial reason we are here, which is our love for books and our growing affection for publishers and writers and our customers.”
Their community of authors and activists included such notables as John Irving, Karen Armstrong, Michael Ondaatje, Salman Rushdie, Naomi Klein, Margaret Atwood and Seth, not to mention countless other local and lesser-known authors.
Within a decade they added a second floor and were hosting movie releases and festivals in the Bookshelf Cinema and showcasing independent music artists in the eBar nightclub.
Minett, a largely self-taught techie, with influence from his father who was a pioneer in computer programming, helped design Canada’s first online bookstore, bookshelf.ca, which they sold to Indigo in the 1990s.
There is a perception that focusing on local is just a quaint idea about returning to a simpler time and retreating from the modern world, but the Bookshelf has demonstrated that it’s about personal connection, about offering something better.
Minett cites research published in the book The New Localism: How Cities Can Thrive in the Age of Populism, by Harvard scholars, Bruce Katz and Jeremy Novak.
“He called it ‘re-inventing retail’ and in a lot of ways it is reflecting on how consumers are getting smarter about supporting local,” said Minett. “Sure, some people are going to stick with the big guy because it’s quick and cheap but, I’m not sure that any of us want to live in Guelph if all we get is Amazon Prime white vans driving around.”
He worked with members of CIBA and others to identify what they described as the “predatory” and “unfair trade practices” of Amazon.
“I ended up writing a grant proposal to the department of Canadian Heritage to deal with the structural imbalance,” said Minett.“We were asking for $5 million a year. The amount they announced was $32.4 million or something like that.”
Minett said the Bookshelf’s enduring support in the community was evident during the early days of COVID.
“The Bookshelf developed within the first calendar year, 5,000 online Guelph customers and I would be willing to bet that a huge number of those were previously Amazon Prime,” he said.
“That to me speaks volumes about this city, about how they care. Again, going back to the relationship thing between the retailer and the customer and I think those kinds of stories are huge.”