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Minetts reflect on 45 years of The Bookshelf on eve of receiving U of G honour

On Thursday, the pair will each be honoured by the University of Guelph with a doctor of laws degree from the College of Arts
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When Barb and Doug Minett opened The Bookshelf in 1973, they didn’t think it would be around 25 years. Now, 45 years later, the iconic Guelph landmark lives on and the pair are being honoured with doctor of laws degrees from the University of Guelph.

“It was surprising, but really lovely,” said Barb of the honour during an interview at her home on Wednesday.

The Bookshelf is probably the only book store/cafe/restaurant/bar/movie theatre in the world.

“I’m pretty sure of it,” said Barb.

When the store opened, they thought it was just about books, said Doug.

“But the interrelationship with the community is what made the place grow,” he said. “There is a really close linkage between the community and the business.”

The store had humble beginnings. The Minetts wanted to open a book store in downtown Guelph at a time when retail space was scarce. 

“The original landlords, when they looked at our application to lease, said oh no, another book shop?” said Doug. “The book shops in Guelph at the time sold wallpaper and paint and cards. That was the mix.”

“That was the culture of the 70s,” added Barb.

The Bookshelf had three locations, but ended up in its current Quebec Street address in 1980. At the time it was a one-storey former carpet store.

That is when The Bookshelf Cafe concept opened, the first book store and cafe/restaurant in Canada. Over the year, a second storey theatre was built and they expanded sideways to accommodate Bookshelf.ca, a pioneering online book retailer business that began in the 1990s and was eventually sold to Indigo.

In the early 2000s, the pair made a gut check decision to keep the business open in the face of a changing retail landscape for book sellers in Canada. In the years since, they have watched countless other independent book sellers go out of business.

“Two went out of business in just the last month,” said Barb.

Doug noted the retail landscape has changed for everybody, not just book sellers.

“Especially when you look at the number of huge brands that have vanished. It’s quite amazing,” said Doug. “These are big famous brands that we thought would be there forever — the Sears’ of the world, Eaton's. Just go down the retail list.”

Barb’s thoughts of closing the shop hit a low point in September of 2001 when she was attending the Toronto International Film Festival and heard of terror attacks in the United States.

She thought the economy would be ruined.

“I came home the day after and I found (The Bookshelf) full of people who were talking and commiserating and just being with each other. I though then there was a place for us and that it was really important,” said Barb.

The Minett children, Ben and Hannah, were born into The Bookshelf lifestyle.

“Our kids always felt like The Bookshelf was their sibling, because it has a life,” said Barb. “There’s some kind of heart beating there.”

That’s one reason Hannah, Ben and his wife Stephanie took over management and ownership of The Bookshelf over five years ago, said Barb.

“I tried to discourage them, to be quite honest,” added Doug. “I said, ‘you don’t want to be saddled with the responsibility for this thing,’ but they really wanted to do it.”

On Thursday, the pair will each be honoured by the University of Guelph with a doctor of laws degree from the College of Arts for of their contribution to the city’s literature, film and ideas.

Barb said she is glad the university understands the importance of daily pleasures in every day life.

“We didn’t discover anything really fantastic, we don’t have huge brains. We just created something that people come to every day and enjoy,” said Barb. “It’s nice to have that recognized.”

She added, “I think we get library cards at the university.” 

“I think they give us a hat,” quipped Doug.




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