Curiosity House waits for a little magic

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Once upon a time there was a bookstore, a small shop in a pleasant village, a place where people could buy books and newspapers, meet their friends, listen to stories and celebrate art. The people have loved their bookstore and can’t imagine life in the village without it.

So far this has been a happy story, but it is no fairy tale. Because there are clouds on the horizon and if this story is to have a happy ending, it’s going to need more than magic.
This coming spring, Creemore’s Curiosity House Bookstore will close its doors for good if some book-loving soul doesn’t come forward to take it over.

“We are open to anything,” says part owner and proprietor Catherine Randall who, with Miriam Vince and silent partners Rowland Fleming and Tom Vandewater, has co-owned the bookstore for the past six years. “Our main concern is to keep the bookstore open, but right now we have two choices: to close it or sell it.”

Randall, who at 68 is ready to retire, has been trying to come up with a succession plan for the past year. But last fall’s sale of the bookstore’s Mill Street location has forced the issue. The new owners, who plan to open a restaurant at the site, will take possession at the end of April. The Curiosity House’s lease is up in June.

Randall says that she has had a few expressions of interest, but so far new owners have not materialized. And although she did not reveal numbers, she says the price is very negotiable.
“We are committed to keeping the bookstore in in the village,” says Vince, “and to that end, we are willing to sell for lower than market value.” As well, both Randall and Vince say they will help in any way they can to “transition and mentor the new owners.”

“It is a successful business,” says Randall. “It is profitable; someone could make a modest living.” And despite the fact that bookstores these days are under siege with the advent of e-readers and other electronic devices, sales at Curiosity House have “at least doubled” since Randall and her partners took over. “We have an incredibly loyal customer base. All our staff members read. The service you get here you can’t get anywhere else.”

But business considerations aside, Curiosity House is also “an invaluable asset to this town,” says Vince. “It’s become a hub for cultural activity and interactions between people.” Indeed many residents use it as a meeting place and as an informal pick up and drop off centre for communications and small packages. The bookstore provides community liaison, it acts as an information centre and a small tourism bureau.

“ ‘I’ll leave it at the bookstore,’ has become a familiar phrase,” Vince says. “It has become a touchstone in peoples’ lives.”

Last fall, Curiosity House was named one of Canada’s 10 favourite bookstores by CBC Radio listeners. In addition to selling books, there is a thriving art gallery with regular exhibitions of local artists; there is a book club, a knitting group and a children’s reading hour. Randall and Vince regularly hold book signings, art openings, special author lunches and other literary events in Creemore.

Chris and Pat Raible opened the Curiosity House in 1995 at 191 Mill Street (now the office of Ferris and Celhoffer) because the couple felt Creemore “needed a bookstore. We wanted it to be a place where interesting people could visit and buy books,” says Chris. And that’s exactly what happened.

“We were delighted to see the interest,” adds Pat. “Creemore was not exactly a hotbed of intellectual activity,” she says, adding it was difficult to find a Globe and Mail at the time. The Raibles began the tradition, still carried on today, of reserving clients’ newspapers with wooden clothespins. “We brought authors in and connected with the artists’ community. Sue Miller had her very first showing at our bookstore,” says Chris.

“We have been delighted that for more than 15 years the store has not only survived but flourished,” says Chris. “We dearly hope someone will continue it in their own way because it is so important to the community.”

Director and part owner Rowland Fleming remembers the day six years ago when he and the late Jim Vandewater had lunch at Chez Michel and speculated what would happen if the bookstore closed. At the time, then owner Louise Richardson had put the business up for sale. “We didn’t want that to happen,” says Fleming. “Now we are again hoping that a way might be found to keep Curiosity House open.” Fleming assured the Echo that he and his partners are willing to “create a very attractive arrangement. Let’s make a deal,” he says. “This is not a usual circumstance where we’re selling a business and want to get our money back.”

Randall and Vince say it has been a fantastic job but both are ready for a break. “You do it for love,” Vince says. “But it’s time for some new life in this business, for someone who has fresh ideas and enthusiasm.”

A fairy godmother perhaps?

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