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Photo by Elizabeth Emond-Stevenson/Apt613

Blind date with a book: An independent Ottawa bookstore is thriving on the sale of novels wrapped in brown paper

By Apartment613 on February 11, 2019

By Elizabeth Emond-Stevenson, a local dance artist and writer. She works under the moniker TAKE UP SPACE and organizes Ottawa-Gatineau’s bilingual monthly artist meeting Le motton.


Customers make their choice based on one quote, the book’s genre, and several plot or character points of interest which are handwritten on the wrapping.

As Tom Lee of Troubadour Books & Records tell it, “it’s a long story, but one thing lead to another and next thing I knew I had a bookstore and a record store.”

I would have loved to hear the long version, but I settled for the shorter, albeit more mysterious retelling on my recent visit to 508 Bank Street. The small storefront faces the Centretown United Church and sits between Wilf & Ada’s Diner and Hair Today Dye Tomorrow, where its wall-to-wall niche collection of new and used books, records and memorabilia has been attracting customers since 2013. Troubadour’s unique offerings, laid-back vibe and bluesy sound contribute to a focused yet relaxed browsing experience that speaks to Tom’s passion and attention to detail.

Photo by Elizabeth Emond-Stevenson/Apt613

Many of Troubadour’s regulars, says Tom, are customers who enjoy the act of perusal, taking the time to look around and wander from section to section. From my first visit, I appreciated the labeled alleyways and freedom to check things out at my own pace. “People comment on how well the selection is curated by Tom, who works hard at going out and finding all these little places where you can procure interesting books,” says employee Brandon Alliston. “He’s pretty selective about what he chooses, so it’s got an interesting, pretty dense range of material”.

Photo by Elizabeth Emond-Stevenson/Apt613

One of Troubadour’s intriguing features is the DON’T JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER series. These books are covered in brown paper to disguise their title and author. Customers make their choice based on one quote, the book’s genre, and several plot or character points of interest which are handwritten on the wrapping. Of the three books I have purchased this way, over the last couple years, two became part of a select group of my favourites, while one was a pleasant if forgettable read. I’d say those are pretty good odds.

“Of the three books I have purchased this way, over the last couple years, two became part of a select group of my favourites, while one was a pleasant if forgettable read. I’d say those are pretty good odds.”

As an independent business, Troubadour Books & Records seems well aware of the importance and impact that community-building and personal rapport have on longevity and visibility. “We get a lot of community support. A lot of our customers are repeat customers we recognize. People appreciate that. We also support local music with the posters we put up on our door, that we change frequently and keep up to date,” and when Troubadour does not carry a particular item, they are quick to recommend another local bookseller. “We gladly tell them that they might check Book Bazaar which is just up the street from us, or Black Squirrel. We support each other in that respect.”

When “basically anything you want on the internet” is less than a click away, there is still something to be said for the look and feel of an actual book or record. “People who come here are aware of that,” says Brandon. “They want to support a local bookstore and I think people get a nice vibe out of getting to enjoy a book, just the tactile nature of a book. Records, too. The artwork on a record is big enough for humans to look at easily—they’re fun to look at, to touch while you’re listening to the record. People haven’t lost interest in physically connecting to art”.


Troubadour Books & Records is located at 508 Bank Street. Hours are 11am–6pm Monday to Friday and 10am–6pm on weekends.