Field Trip: Happenstance Books & Yarns
The day before the latest pandemic stay-at-home order hit Ontario, I popped into Happenstance Books & Yarns in Lakefield, which is in cottage country, about 150 km northeast of Toronto. The space is warm and cozy, with painted wainscoting, a sky-blue ceiling, and a collection of books to suit all tastes. A table by the front window displays new titles—the first stop for browsers. Two shelves are dedicated to the other main product on offer: knitting and crochet supplies, wool, and patterns. Mounted high on one wall is a photograph of five women—the current and past owners—standing in front of the store. Susan Twist has owned Happenstance Books & Yarns for nine years. We conducted this interview by email in the days leading up to Canadian Independent Bookstore Day.See more details below
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All Lit Up: How did you come to own a bookstore?
Susan Twist: I was raised in Lakefield but left to pursue a career in the museum field, which took me to Brantford, Ontario for nine years and then Whitehorse. After 13 years in Yukon, I returned to Lakefield to be close to family. I was browsing the stacks at Happenstance when Julie Dillon told me that she and her business partner were thinking of selling the store. So, after some deliberation with the bank, I decided it would be a great fit for me and an opportunity to carry on the store’s legacy. I purchased the store in January 2012, and I am the fourth owner.
A photo inside Happenstance Books & Yarns
[Image description: A photo inside Happenstance Books & Yarns taken by the front window with a pink, green, and yellow floral curtain covering it. There is a white wooden table by the window with books displayed on top and wooden bookshelves lining one side of the store with books on them, spines facing out.]
ALU: How did the store get its name?
ST: The store was originally known as “Eleanor’s Yarns and Books” after one of the original co-owners. In 1989, Martha Whatley and Julie Dillon purchased the store and changed the name to “Happenstance Books & Yarns”. “Happenstance” was taken from the title of one of their favourite Carol Shields books. I decided to keep the name, as it is a clever double entendre to what you will find inside the store – books and knitting/crochet yarns.
ALU: What is your role in the community?
ST: In a small community like Lakefield, small independent businesses not only provide essential products and services but are also social outlets. Browsing books often leads to engaging chats—from family events to global affairs. It’s rewarding that the majority of customers feel comfortable in the store and with me, to dive into great conversations.
Happenstance has always been a great community supporter. I’m very proud to be a sustaining member of the Lakefield Literary Festival. It’s really important to give back to the community that supports your business, and to charities that work to make our village a better place. I financially support Lakefield Animal Welfare Society, Christ Church Community Museum, and Lakefield Horticultural Society, to name a few.
A photo from inside Happenstance Books & Yarns
[Image description: A photo of a white-panelled wall inside Happenstance Books & Yarns with five decorative faux sheep and ram heads on it; two are wearing green knit scarves. Below them is a row of knitting supplies.]
ALU: What is the best part of your day at Happenstance?
ST: “Happenstance” is founded on great customer service with the goal to match books to readers’ interests. I feel privileged to be the one carrying on the store’s tradition and the best part of my day is when a customer thanks me for a recommendation I have made for an author or book that they enjoyed and would not necessarily have chosen to read. I also really enjoy perusing the book catalogues for new releases.
ALU: What is your curation process like?
ST: Because the physical foot print of the store is small, I am very selective as to the books I bring in. My curation process it done through reading lots of book reviews. I subscribe to a number of book related newsletters, publisher catalogues, and Quill & Quire. I also follow recommendations from sales reps. I have gotten to know the majority of my customers very well over the years, and so I bring in books that I think will appeal to their reading tastes and interests. As well, some of the titles I stock have come from customer recommendations.
A photo inside Happenstance Books & Yarns
[Image description: A photo inside Happenstance Books & Yarns that shows rows of wooden bookshelves with books on them, spines facing out. At the back of the shop are shelves with bundles of brightly-coloured yarn.]
ALU: How have you managed during successive COVID lockdowns?
ST: Overall, I have been able to maintain previous years’ sales levels and had a few months that sales exceeded my expectations despite the cancellation of author events, the Lakefield Literary Festival, and a drop-off in summer traffic. I attribute that to the loyal customers who supported and continue to support me through the various COVID lockdowns. From the first day of lockdown in March 2020, they called in orders and I worked curbside pick-up, mail service, and home delivery to get the book orders out. Many of my customers recommended my store to friends and family, which helped grow my customer base.
COVID forced me to beef up my use of social media and my website. I am not very tech savvy, but I have learned to use it as an alternative option to get books into customers’ hands. As a result, I would estimate a 60% increase in book orders coming through social media and my website, and many of these orders are new customers.
ALU: How do you feel about being a bookseller?
ST: My dad read to us every night and took us to the library on Friday evenings. Going to bookstores, both new and used, was a real treat. He instilled in us a love of reading and to this day the greatest pleasure for me is getting lost in a book. I never dreamed my career path would lead me to own a bookstore, but it was pure happenstance that I wandered into “Happenstance” at the critical moment the owners were contemplating selling the business. I believe a bookstore is vital to the health of a community, and I’m so happy to be able to continue the store’s legacy.
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