All Dan Wells wanted was a life lived in books. And it was happenstance, he said, that made such a life possible.
Nearly 20 years ago, while Wells was finishing his History MA at Western, he stumbled upon a large collection – thousands upon thousands of books – at a Gardner Galleries auction. The library once belonged to an English professor, and for $100, Wells took it home.
“At that point, I had been in university for six years, and I thought I’d take a break. The real genesis of everything was sort of accidental – that library provided the basis of a bookstore,” he said, noting he thought it would be a good respite, to open a store after finishing his MA in 1997.
“Everyone said a bookstore would fail, but I could get it out of my blood, and then I’d go on and do a PhD. This is what I assumed my career path would be. But it (the store) didn’t fail,” he said.
Today, Biblioasis – the store Wells founded in 1998 – is not just a quaint, independent bookshop in Windsor’s Walkerville District. It’s also a publishing house, one that counts two of its recent titles among the 2015 Scotiabank Giller Prize shortlist – Arvida by Samuel Archibald and Martin John by Anakana Schofield. A third title – Confidence by Russell Smith – was included on the longlist and was nominated for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize last month.
Although neither of Wells’ titles won, another Western connection was triumphant at the Giller Prize. André Alexis, the 2010-11 Writer-In-Residence in the Faculty of Arts & Humanities, was named the winner of the Scotiabank Giller Prize for Fifteen Dogs, published by Coach House Books, at ceremonies Nov. 10.
Back in the late 1990s, timing was on his side, Wells said. The Canadian dollar was low, and opening a bookshop in a border community was a good opportunity. For some time, Biblioasis didn’t just sell used books; it served as a wholesaler to American dealers who came through, spending anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 in one shot.
“They kept me in business for many years, and those years were profitable, as I learned to run a bookstore, and the process of building a collection. I think that was a form of apprenticeship for doing the same with a literary list – that sort of curatorial aspect, which is actually more important to a used bookseller than a new one. That was a good training ground in many ways for being a publisher,” Wells explained.
It wasn’t long until he was approached by a couple of other booksellers who wanted to organize a literary festival and together they launched what has now become BookFest Windsor, an annual event. Through the festival and its connections, Wells acquired a taste for publicity work and access to writers he admired.
“I wanted a life lived in books, and this brought me closer still to where I hoped to be,” he noted.
On the side, Wells dabbled in book-binding by taking classes with London’s Dan Mezza, a Visual Arts graduate from Western. He did a few chapbooks, and “once it was in the blood,” there was no stopping it, Wells said.
“There is this accidental strain through the whole narrative. A customer of mine came in looking for work – an older gentleman, mid 50s. I didn’t have work for him, so he said he’d make a job in my basement, building bookshelves for $200 a week,” he added.
It turned out this man – Dennis Priebe – had 30 years of publishing experience in British Columbia, working as a typesetter at Geist magazine and Arsenal Pulp Press. Priebe was part of the grassroots Canadian small press movement, Wells said, and he served as Biblioasis’ production manager until 2013.
“I didn’t know anything, but he had all this knowledge I could rely on. It was just this wonderful partnership. A lot of it was accidental, but it worked out really well. The press developed from there; we did chapbooks, started working with writers who were either local or ones I met through BookFest Windsor. Big names came through and progressed to good partnerships,” Wells added.
As for how he fought the fiscal windmills in an ever-evolving age of e-readers and online book sales (the Biblioasis logo is a B underneath a windmill, a nod to Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote), Wells said it took a combination of blind ambition and relentless enthusiasm. And some good fortune, of course.
“I’ve been very lucky. I had a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but I was able to work with a generation of important and experienced literary people who helped shape how the press developed. The bookstore was, very quickly, self sustaining. The publishing side is more fragile. One of the hardest things about publishing is maintaining a certain level of care in a world that doesn’t care. We care passionately about the writers we publish and the books that we do, in a world that generally, doesn’t give a shit,” Wells said.
Times can be difficult because finances depend on grants and sales which are unpredictable, he went on. But somehow, every year, Biblioasis makes it by the skin of its teeth.
This year, Biblioasis’ list is wide and broad enough with a list of regional and commercial titles, so much so, it’s almost self-sustaining. This season is promising in giving the publisher more breathing room.
“You realize this is a fool’s errand, of a sort. I have to be consistently aware of the fragility of everything we’ve built. But there’s never been a moment where I haven’t wanted to do this,” Wells said.
“I think book for book, for book, we’re one of the best publishers in the country. The work we’re doing matters in a long-term way. But it doesn’t feel like work. It’s been a wonderful way to spend nearly 20 years. I have friends counting down to retirement and I can’t imagine living my life that way. I think the trade-off for financial security has been an easy one to make. I feel extremely lucky.”