Mid-way through Fair’s Fair used bookstore in Calgary’s Inglewood, flanked on both sides by shelves stocked with comedy and cookbooks, two generations of Hendersons sit at a wooden conference table.

George Henderson, 77, leans back in his chair. His jacket is still on as he softly chats about his distaste for lazy workers, threatening that the second time he catches someone reading on the job is that person’s last. His son, Bob Henderson, 49, perches himself atop a white stepping stool, speaking in a similar soft tone, though with more speed and urgency as he periodically checks over his shoulder — always expecting to have to rush back to work.

The Henderson family have found themselves surrounded by books for the majority of the past quarter century. George opened his first store with the helping hands of several family members and friends back in 1988. The original location, stocked with roughly 7,300 paperbacks and hardcovers scavenged from personal sales over the years was located on 9th Avenue, underneath what is now Swans Pub. Since then, the Hendersons have remained synonymous in Calgary, opening three other locations over the years and overseeing the coming and going of millions of novels through their doors. It’s a feat only made more impressive considering neither George nor Bob have ever considered themselves readers.

“We knew nothing about the book business when we started. I had to ask my wife who the popular authors were because I had no idea — I always read non-fiction,” George explains of the opening process.

“I read comics at the time, so I wasn’t a big book reader either,” adds Bob.

Novels and biographies rest tilted on a shelf built by Bob Henderson. Henderson says classics remain some of the stores top sellers, and books by Ernest Hemingway are nearly always purchased when they come in the store. Photo by Nathan Kunz

Other than a recent renovation to add a nook for DVD’s and children’s books, the current Inglewood location has remained roughly the same since it was relocated to the corner of 9th Avenue and 8th Street S.E. about 17 years ago. Through the doorway, nestled between a brick mural of scattered novels, a slight downward ramp takes you into the cozy interior. An elbow turn to the left takes you to literature shelves packed with lightly worn copies of Jane Austen and Ernest Hemingway’s life work, straight ahead leads to non-fiction language handbooks and textbooks of various natures — some of which softly crackle for the first time when the cover is folded over. Every wooden shelf gently vibrates as freight trains periodically pass by above.

Bookworm purists

Recalling times when his intentions had been questioned by bookworm purists, George sticks to his guns.

“I like business more than I like books,” says George, pausing briefly before adding. “But I like people way more than I like either of those things.”

Reminiscent of the neighborhood used book peddler in his own childhood, George made the decision to open a bookstore in hopes of creating a location where the community could come together and converse over their favourite titles.

The customers, both George and Bob acknowledge, are what keep the business enjoyable. Whether it’s a return customers – ‘Guy’ was greeted by name as he wandered by the table, finds of the day clutched underarm as he did so – or travelers passing through the city, George and Bob insist it’s people that drive the business. Searching their minds, the two recall some notable customers – musician Bryan Adams, Canadian novelist W.P. Kinsella and several local politicians.

One of the most memorable customers, Bob says, was an ‘African King,’ visiting the city to see the hippos at the Calgary Zoo who originated from his country.

“I went out to go grab some books, and one of my long time customers was in a dashiki [a colourful, traditional West African garment] and I go, ‘Wow, you’re a little overdressed for the bookstore,’ and the short little King guy laughs,” Bob recalls of the afternoon.

The ‘king’ was actually a community Chief visiting from Ghana for the opening of the ‘Destination Africa’ exhibit in 2012, which works with the Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary in Ghana, a visit confirmed by the Calgary Zoo.

The customer, who accompanied the Chief for the duration of his visit, had decided to take him to some of his favourite Calgary spots — one of which was the Inglewood bookstore.

“So I asked the king ‘are you looking for any books?’” said Bob. “And he was looking for Sidney Sheldon books.”

The Chief, sitting in a chair staff now refer to as ‘The Throne,’ bided his time as another man retrieved all the Sheldon suspense novels he could find, which Bob gifted to him in return for the memorable story.

A family endeavour

Over the close to 30 years of operation, Fair’s Fair has remained a family endeavour. With two generations situated within two aisles, and a third one over stocking shelves, George deflects the question of ever selling the store, advising anyone in the market to consider the store’s history.

“If you were thinking of opening a bookstore, don’t buy an existing bookstore because the people like us have pissed off everybody they could piss off, and they’re not coming back,” George says, offering his knowledge to any would-be book store entrepreneurs. “And the people that see you behind that desk, they love us, they don’t want to see you in our bookstore.”

The Hendersons are now in the slow process of passing off the store to the next generation.

“I like business more than I like books. But I like people way more than I like either of those things.” – George Henderson

Some of the current workers, such as Bob’s son Tyson and nephew Owen, already have a history with the store. As we spoke, Owen worked at organizing new arrival titles on the laminate wooden shelf. Bob, who recalls Owen working at the shop since he was about 12, yells over to him.

“How much was your wage when you started Owen?” Bob hollers through the shelf to his nephew.

“$2.50 in cash, $2.50 in book credit,” he replied, pausing for reaction before adding, “I still want my book credit.”

nkunz@cjournal.ca 

The editor responsible for this article is Paul Rodgers, prodgers@cjournal.ca