Flying Books puts an unconventional spin on the indie bookstore.
In Neil Gaiman’s 2012 commencement address at the University of the Arts, he stresses the importance of establishing a mountain: a goal towards which you direct all your creative energies. When making career decisions, you have to weigh whether the path will take you closer or farther away from your mountain (regardless of salary) and then choose accordingly.
It’s an idea that keeps coming up during our conversation with Martha Sharpe, the owner of the newly opened Flying Books. Her mountain has always been discovering, polishing, and promoting excellent works of fiction, though her ascension hasn’t been without its setbacks. During her 12 years at House of Anansi press, she was credited with introducing the country to award-winning authors like Michael Winter and Lisa Moore. But after relocating from New York to take on the role of Editorial Director at Simon & Schuster Canada, Sharpe found herself laid off after just 11 months.
Sharpe’s now on a slightly different track to her peak, this time as a literary retailer who carefully selects each work she sells. And like with any responsible climb, she isn’t doing it alone. Flying Books is located inside the Weekend Variety, the “Cultural Gifts Shop” owned by gallerist Katharine Mulherin, whom Sharpe describes as a “community hub” unto herself.
It’s a term that equally applies to Sharpe, who posted a Facebook update when she sold her first book to someone she didn’t know. Sitting at the shop’s counter during the interview is Damian Rogers, the poetry editor for the Walrus, and the two frequently diverge into updates about their shared creative community: who’s living in Sheila Heti’s old apartment, who got published in the Paris Review, who used to date Brendan Canning. “Everybody working together, all on top of each at the same time,” is how Sharpe explains her circle.
To keep Flying Books’ stock fresh, Sharpe plans on rotating her selections in thematically linked “flights,” with each grouping linked by a unifying theme. “I wanted the first flight to be fiction by women,” says Sharpe. “And I wanted to make sure that I had a good representation of fiction in translation. Not just the straight white story. I consciously did that, but overarching everything, it has to be well-written and good and something that I feel good about recommending to people.” Each selected work comes labelled with a handwritten note that succinctly explains what earned it a spot on her small shelf. But beyond quality, she’s not discerning: “I was very aware of where the store is. Trying to think of what might work here, and also aware that the choices that I make, some of them may work and some of them won’t, and some will surprise me. I want to switch [the flights] to memoirs, and then science, and then crime, and then who knows, maybe zombies…I mean, I am on Queen Street.”
The shop’s only been open for a few weeks, but Sharpe’s already imagining new forms it may take, and which of her many connections she could leverage. Curating book selections for stores or boutique hotels is on her horizon, and “against [her] better judgement,” she’s already thinking of new works to publish under the Flying Books moniker. This blurred line between Sharpe’s work as editor and bookseller is already evident in her first flight selection: Lynn Crosbie—an early discovery of Sharpe’s at House of Anansi—claimed the title of Flying Books’ first sold-out work with Where Did You Sleep Last Night, while A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimear McBride, which was published by Simon & Schuster Canada under her tenure last September, takes up two spots on the top shelf. “It’s kind of eye-opening, being on the other side,” admits Sharpe. “I’ve been learning everything as I go…even how to build a bookshelf!”
It’s a large leap to be sure, but Sharpe seems entirely serene in her new surroundings. “Whatever your thoughts on Neil Gaiman,” she says “I think it’s an incredibly important idea. Make sure that wherever you’re going, however you get there, that you’re moving closer to that mountain.”
You can visit Flying Books at 1080 Queen Street West, east of Dufferin.