Prairie Sky: A love letter to a favourite bookstore

Dear Prairie Sky Books,

I’ve been going to Prairie Sky Books since 1989. I was in grade 9 and was doing something vaguely political at the legislature (I can’t remember what exactly. Peace March? Pride?) and was at loose ends afterwards. I was just walking around, looking for a washroom, actually. I found one in a church and decided to continue my wanderings. I came across this little strip of shops in an otherwise older residential neighbourhood and there you were, under the green awning: Prairie Sky. You turned out to be the second sacred place I visited that day.

Even the name evokes dreaming.

Growing up, my friends and I had a working knowledge of pretty much every used bookstore in town. For my friends, it was mostly to track down comics. I read comics too, but I also would be on the look out for elusive, hard to find books. “Prairie Sky”‘s name came up once in a while, but we had never been as a group. Probably for two reasons: it didn’t deal in comics, and it didn’t deal in used books.

So fate left it up for me to discover this place of marvels on my own.

The thing that hits you first as you enter is the smell. Instead of mustiness, you’re hit with the exotic notes of sandalwood and cedar. Prairie Sky makes its own incense and the aroma permeates everything.

The next thing, as your eyes are adjusting to the light, is the gentle sound of wind chimes. Somewhere around the store there is a set of them and you’ll hear them occasionally tinkle.

Once you’re fully into the store, you’ll hear some soft music playing in the background. I would describe it as the type of music you might hear if you were receiving a massage, or maybe participating in some form of yoga. If I was any other place in the world, I would call “B.S.”, but there’s something earnest about this place that just wins you over. It did in 1989 and it continues to do so today.

The total effect is immediate relaxation. You feel like you should whisper to the clerk if you have a question. But I’m normally not looking for anything specific, I usually just like to browse and get lost for a while.

On the right-hand side, there are a couple of racks of greeting cards. Not your usual hallmark specials. These are often handmade, or are produced by various organizations as fundraisers. Often they are unique, one a kind pieces that you won’t see anywhere else. For example, my friend Ed and I have an inside joke about “Otters”, and wouldn’t you know that the last time I visited there was a card featuring an otter wearing a jaunty cap. I bought it for him for his birthday. He was amazed. “Where in the heck did you FIND this?”

“Prairie Sky!”

The stock tends to run heavily in the “New Age”, “Spiritual Growth” vein, but you can find popular titles here too. To say that there is something for everyone is a cliché, but in this case it is also mostly true.

It has a large “faith” or “spiritual” section, but what impressed me at a young age was that “Christianity” was given no more or no less shelf space than “Buddhism”, “Islam” or other faiths. It opened my worldview at a young age and reminded me that there was more than one way to approach God.

Aside from books, you can get masks from Africa, jewelry from India, and scarves from the middle East, to name just three things.

Over the years, I’ve specially ordered books through Prairie Sky. I figured I could hit Chapters, or I could order it through Prairie Sky, wait a couple of weeks, and then let them get the commission. Plus, it would give me an excuse to head down there and have a little browse. I don’t get there as much as I used to, but there’s a certain comfort in visiting. The stock is always changing, but the spirit of the place is constant.

The owner, Grant, was there the first time I stumbled upon “Prairie Sky” close to 25 years ago and he continues to be an everyday presence there. He is “Prairie Sky”, and he’s managed to weather the storms of big boxes, Amazons and eBooks. So far, at least. It’s hard to say how much longer I’ll be able to visit “Prairie Sky”. It seemed to be going strong on the Saturday before Christmas, but the prognosis of an independent bookstore in this town or country is not encouraging by any stretch.

We’re in the sad trend of losing things important to us in this city, and I’ve written memorials to things I’ve loved, so I thought I would take a moment and write about something that I love (not loved) while we still have the pleasure of it.

I’m old-fashioned. I’ll be the first to admit it. I love books. I love real books. The texture of them,  the sound of them as they open and the smell of them. And I love Prairie Sky. I love the realness of walking the hardwood floors, the texture of the wooden bookshelves and the artifacts from around the world, I love the sound of Grant’s voice as he talks to a vendor or a customer on the phone, his rich baritone voice, or the time when a little boy was in the store and he only had a loonie and there was a little rubber ball at the counter that he wanted and he was fretting over whether he had enough money and he bravely asked Grant if there was tax on the ball and Grant said, “For you, there is no tax on that ball. For you, it is only a dollar.” I love the smell of the incense in the corner and I cannot make a visit without buying at least one bundle of the stuff. When my wife came home after I had burned a stick, she said, “It smells like your old room in your Mom’s basement! I loved that smell.” I love everything about Prairie Sky. Have I made this clear?

I know the term “sacred” shouldn’t be bandied about, but for me, “Prairie Sky Books” is just that. On the door, as you come in, there is a little faded rainbow triangle sticker and above it are the words “Safe Space”. That sticker has been there for as long as I remember, from a time when it really meant something. For me, it still is a safe space, an escape from the world, a place to discover new things and a place to recharge my batteries.

Thank you SO MUCH,

A loyal customer.

P.S.

There is a Mary Engelbreit drawing that is captioned, “Books fall open, you fall in.” I always think of you when I see it.

P.P.S.

I’m pretty sure I first saw it at “Prairie Sky”.

books-fall-open-mary-englebreit[1]

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