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Ottawa Café Crawl: Black Squirrel Books

By Michelle Di Cintio on March 15, 2019


South of The Glebe, past the Sunnyside Library and a few steps away from the well-known House of TARG is where you’ll find Black Squirrel Books. Their small, outdoor shelf of dollar books is a common sight during the summer and fall. Peek through the windows and see a bustling array of people sitting, working, eating, and talking, but above all—reading.

The store is cozy, with the café aroma of pastries and coffee. Shelves are stacked as tight as possible, with the occasional pile on the floor as sorting happens. Wind your way through to stairs at the back, and head downstairs to be faced with even more shelves, tables, and stacks upon stacks of books. Go in far enough and you can find Comet Comics tucked in a back room of the basement.

A wall of dried plants and herbs, wooden furniture, an old type writer, colourful books on the shelves closest–Black Squirrel has its own unique vibe that sets itself apart from the rest. Even its sign is somewhat iconic, eschewing a regular design for just the image of its logo. Of course, seeing it in the day doesn’t give you a good idea of just how much activity is going on in the evenings.

“There’s still a place for used bookstores.”

While this location opened up in 2011 by Steven Yong and Vaughn MacDonald, Black Squirrel began as an online venture. Eventually, when their books threatened to take over all their available space they realized they would need a physical location. Their first shop on Somerset was dubbed Bibliocracy. It was rechristened when it moved to Bank and Arlington to Black Squirrel, and remained under that name when it made its third move to the current location.

“A lot of people think there’s no money in used books anymore, you know, nobody buys books, but that’s not true,” Yong says. “We were opened up after Kindle and all the other stuff came out. So we never knew what it was like before… There’s still a place for used bookstores.”

This store was admittedly a fixer-upper. Over 60 years old, a lot of work had to be put into renovations before it came together. Even now, renovations are ongoing in the basement. This location though, beyond its clientele, had the one thing the duo wanted most–more space. The increase to space allowed for the completion of an idea the duo had for a while: that of combining a café with their shop.

A lot of credit, Yong told me, went to their former café manager Gary Franks, who really helped in creating the space for the café and in designing the upstairs décor. Beginning with simple coffee and snacks, the café has now expanded with their coffee expert Stevie Pan at the helm. The café now holds a liquor licence and the menu is expanding with a new kitchen in place.

Book Club Comedy Night at Black Squirrel Books. Photo: Greggory Clark/Apt613.

This additional space also allows for bustling, popular evening events; everything from comedy shows, to bands, to trivia, to DJ nights where the tables are moved and a small dance floor opens up. Yong has only great things to say about the people they book, “the music scene in Ottawa is really helpful and friendly, really good guys,” and he and MacDonald have ideas about how to get even more shows running in the future.

All good used book stores feel intimate and cozy to me when I enter. It’s like stepping into a pair of worn hiking boots that fit just right and make adventuring a breeze. It’s like seeing a friend you’ve lost touch with and are eager to get reacquainted with. It’s like rereading your favourite book.

“A lot of [stores] sell only online now… but we like to have the brick and mortar, we like to find that right book for somebody and say ‘here it is for you’,” Yong told me. If it sounds like something you’re looking for, here it is, waiting for you to step on in.

Black Squirrel Books is at 1073 Bank Street. Check out their website for opening hours and information on upcoming events.

Correction: An earlier version of this post referred to Gary Franks as the shop’s first café manager. In fact, Alex Ekstrom, a guest on our podcast in 2016, was the first café manager at BSB.