A Special Celebration for a Local Cornerstone

April 27th marks National Indie Bookstore Day and we wanted to share some love for our local independent booksellers—one in particular. Words Worth Books, an Uptown shopping cornerstone considered a top tourism destination for book lovers by the Province of Ontario, is also celebrating 40 years of business this year. In recognition of these milestones, we spoke with David from Words Worth to talk all things books and bookselling.


This year, you’re celebrating 40 years in Uptown Waterloo. Tell me what that means to you, and your staff.

In the main, this means we get to continue to do what we enjoy doing in our work life. The pandemic has brought concerns around work/life balance to the fore and the old standby in the book trade still applies. There’s not much money, but the people are great and the working conditions are pretty much unbeatable.

Secondly, forty years means that Mandy Brouse (co-owner) and I didn’t drive this car into the ditch right away. Tricia Siemens and Chuck Erion opened the shop in 1984, put in twenty seven years and were able to retire. Mandy and I were very aware that our flaming out after a few years would have made the whole enterprise look bad.

Whatever happens now (we’re fine, thanks) we can feel alright about our part in things.


How has the way Words Worth served the community changed over the years?

The community has changed, diversified and of course, has become bigger and more tech laden. Like most small businesses we changed with it and just tried to keep up. Again, the previous owners did the initial shovel work, and lots of it. We stood on their shoulders through most of it. What they didn’t do, Mandy took on afterward. She was instrumental in our first couple of years as far as keeping track of everything that was going on and making sure we were pretty much everywhere there was a crowd. Fundamentally though, it’s putting names to faces and doing what you can to remember it all. It will always be both fun and important to go through new release titles for the first time and thinking “Oh, ‘x person’ will like this!”


What drew you into the book world and to this store in general?


I don’t know how to do anything else, so…there’s that. I worked in a used bookstore since I was 18, and did that for about 14 years. I loved it, but that went as far as it could, and one day a staff person from Words Worth came into the used place and said something like “hey, we’re looking around.” I went to Words Worth the next day and Chuck and Tricia hired me. They’re both fine looking people, but I’m responsible for some wrinkles and changes to their hair colour.

I distinctly remember not picking up the minutiae and processes of working at Words Worth that quickly and thinking that I should just go back to the used place. Thankfully, that thought passed after a week or so, and 25 years later, this is as good as retail gets. Bookselling has a fairly high percentage of “lifers” because it allows for the right kind of oddity to flourish, but it’s also the perfect inflection point between being a people person and an absolute introvert at the same time.

Booksellers prefer books to people, but only by a little bit, and not always.

This store in particular? Too many reasons to count. Even during the lean years (and there were a few) I still bounded to work most days. Words Worth, at its best, for a still relatively young person, was tantamount to Christmas morning: a treasure hunt and a fresh canvas to paint on almost every day. What more could one want?

Although I’m still baffled by some of the aforementioned minutiae and processes.


Would you do anything differently, knowing what you know now about the community, and the book selling world?

A crystal ball would have helped immeasurably. I’m simply not as organized as I should be. I kept too much in my head, rather than writing things down. Had I recognized those kinds of weaknesses early on, it would have made for a better start to things. In the larger sense, I suppose I could have relaxed a bit. The first few years were pretty tight, and then King Street closed in February of 2016. The community support that year was something I’ll always remember. People seemed to crawl over rubble to get to us. That made me aware in a real way that we were, macroeconomic matters notwithstanding, probably going to be alright. Now alright, just means that after every single thing is paid for, you still have the keys to the store, with maybe a handful of nickels left over, but that’s a good deal. Again, it’s not as much a question of doing things differently, but rather taking time to be a bit more thankful for my lot, instead of steeling myself against a perpetual war with Amazon, chain bookstores, etc. It was exhausting dragging that cross all the time.  As much as businesses and jobs change, we tend to do the same in tandem with them.


How has Words Worth changed your world?

Pretty much the last question. It’s allowed a perfectly mediocre fellow to feed himself in a circumstance way better than his early life suggested. Every friend I’ve made, every person I’ve respected, everyone who has made me laugh, the woman I married, has come through the door at Words Worth. I’ve done the same thing in tandem with this place and that’s perfectly fine. What do indie bookstores mean to the community? Indie bookstores are a reflection of the staff. Their passions, interests, tastes and quirks. Each of the few hundred bookshops in Canada is unique. Indigo looks the same everywhere. Again, in the larger sense, independent businesses in a community mean a viable tax base. Without that, nothing else can work. It’s why small business has an outsize importance in actual dollars and cents, rather than the hoary notion of supporting a small business due to some innate sense of right and wrong. The continued existence of the tax base is it’s own reward. For that reason alone, small business matters. Many folks would have considered that e-readers were the harbingers of doom for the publishing industry, yet it still remains strong, given current economic conditions.


What are some of the challenges indie bookstores face going forward?

Oh e-readers. There was a time when they were going to eat printed book’s lunch, but it came to pass fairly quickly after everyone got a Kindle under the Christmas tree in 2012 for so, that the reading experience wasn’t the same. It became almost an axiom of sorts, that a screen is what you took when you travelled. No one reads deeply when travelling. Consequently, books of not much importance came to be read on a screen, stuff that mattered stayed with “dead trees.” A ridiculous term if there ever was one, as though the production of all that electronics had no environmental impact. There’s anecdotal evidence that, due to AI, digital book sales are going through the floor, because the sump pump of AI produced “books” are everywhere now. That’s the existential challenge, I suppose—along with the larger economy and the strains that are apparent to anyone with a pulse and a window. Commercial rent was always a challenge, but the pandemic may have muted that just a bit. It’s Indigo that’s had a rough few years, but indie bookshops are, in the main, doing pretty well. Now again, no one gets into bookselling to pay off their yacht, so doing pretty well means everyone who needs to get paid on time, does. If there’s enough to replace a computer once in awhile, great.


What are some projects you’re working on that customers and community can get excited about with you?

Words Worth Books turns 40 this year. In June of 1984, Tricia Siemens and Chuck Erion, the story goes, signed a lease on an Uptown Waterloo property and put a sign in the window a few weeks prior to opening that said something like “Wouldn’t a good bookstore look great here?” and they kept at it for 27 years, surviving the Chapters rollout, a few recessions, and I imagine any number of things that could have taken them down. They even got past the questionable move of hiring me. On a Saturday later this spring we’d like to invite Kitchener-Waterloo to Words Worth for a party. Specifics are under wraps, but everyone gets a drink, and no one leaves empty handed. We’ve also, relatively speaking, asked for the moon as far as our fall author events go. The Waterloo Public Library has done wonderful work helping out with our spring events* and this fall will look great, even if we don’t get everything we’ve asked for. We’re looking forward to the rest of the year.

*See below for where to find a list of upcoming author events at WPL.


If we did another interview like this 40 years from now, what are some accomplishments you hope to see for Words Worth through that time?

Forty years from now, I’d very much like to have been retired for 30 of those years and still have something resembling a habitable planet to watch the birds on. There are still authors I’d love to discover, meet and be genuine about in pressing their books into unsuspecting hands, and then have those people come back with thanks and ask what else I’ve got. I’ll never stop learning from staff and customers at the shop about what should be next. It’s always been the best part of the whole job, being 25 pages into an unknown author’s first novel, or a couple stories into the first short story collection, a third of the way through a memoir or artfully put together work of nonfiction, and tingling with the knowledge that you’ve got something special ahead of you. Everything else is just administration—although, again, this is as good as it gets.


More Local Indie Bookstores

Looking for more indie bookstores in Kitchener-Waterloo? Here are a few other gems to explore:

Upcoming Author Events

For a full list of upcoming author events at WPL in partnership with Words Worth, visit our online event calendar.

Charlie C.
Programmer & Library Assistant, Main Library

Charlie loves to read across genres. His favourite part of working at the library is connecting people with resources to help better their lives and experiences; knowledge is a path to empowerment. Accordingly, he is interested in reading and borrowing adult non-fiction books related to almost everything. He enjoys reading about business, self-improvement, environmental sciences and spirituality/esotericism. Books that help ask big questions and invoke equally big wonder are among his favourites. Charlie’s other hobbies include writing, hiking, photography and cooking.