Howard's Bookstore, 40 Years and a "Million Weird Tales"

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The focus at Howard's Bookstore in Bloomington, Indiana, has always been outward – centered on serving the community – and not so much on itself. It's only appropriate, then, that the bookstore's 40th anniversary will be low-key. Owner Joie Canada said, "We'll put out a sign that says, 'Thanks for letting us serve you for the past 40 years.'"

Howard's Bookstore started out as a Little Professor in 1970, but Howard and Mary Jane Canada left the franchise after a year and a half. By 1976, the growing bookstore needed more staff. At the time their daughter, Joie, was managing a zoo concession stand and bookstore in Chicago's Lincoln Park. Joie Canada planned to save her money, move out of the city, and buy a farm. "I wanted to raise a few animals and have orchards," she explained. "Just a place where I could go to be private and not have to live in the city." But then she got a call from her parents, who asked if she could leave Chicago and work at their bookstore.

Joie Canada decided to work for her parents and buy a farm. "That way I could work at the bookstore for a combination of shares and a small salary while working at the farm at the same time." She eventually bought the store from her parents, and still has the farm where Angus cattle were raised. They were a "hassle," so Canada switched to Large Standard donkeys. She also has a Shetland sheepdog at the farm and several "literary" cats at the store.

Howard's is in downtown Bloomington's historic Fountain Square. The building once belonged to a blacksmith, who used the artesian spring (the "fountain" of Fountain Square, since capped) for quenching. The store's façade is limestone and brick with mullioned windows that double as book displays. The 2,000-square-foot store stocks between 10,000 and 15,000 titles.

Howard's is known for its willingness to fill special orders. "Our specialty is, 'If you want it, we'll get it for you,'" said Canada, who'll search for anything, from a USDA pamphlet to unusual reference books. "We've had terrific, weird coups," she said. One example was a 13-volume set on English jurisprudence that a local professor wanted. He'd ordered it from a chain store and had been waiting for months. It took several hours of convincing the academic publisher, but Howard's had the full set the next day (with the publisher paying for overnight shipping).

Customers can have their books delivered, often by Canada herself, but if someone is "shut in," she'll bring over a selection of titles from which they can choose. "With us it isn't 'What you see is what you get,' but 'What you want is what you get,'" she said.

When orders come in from overseas, Canada does what she can to ensure the books pass through customs. "We got an order for children's books from Saudi Arabia," she said. "The customer said there could be no women's shoulders or bare arms showing in the illustrations, otherwise the books would all be burned. This was for pre-school. So we got magic markers and very carefully drew costumes while matching the colors.

"I'm quite sure any small bookstore that has survived for 40 years has a million similar weird tales," she added.

Canada – who is 66 years old and has more than the usual busy bookseller workload, with both the store and the farm – said she sometimes thinks about retiring. "But then I think that my dad didn't retire until he was 80. Work keeps you alive."