By Geneviève Hébert
Brome Lake Books has been a cornerstone in Knowlton for 20 years. Its owners, Danny McAuley and Lucy Hoblyn, are pillars in the shifting downtown landscape and they have, in their own discreet and skillful way, literally been putting Lac-Brome on the map in the last decade.
Married with 3 children, in 2006 they bought Brome Lake Books where Lucy had been working for years. “Knowlton was busier then. It was a shopping town with outlets,” says Lucy. In a way, the closing of the Woolrich store recently marked the end of an era, being the last “name store” in town. As Lucy puts it, over the last decade or so, there has indeed been “a change in times.” More changes are yet to come as the building across the road in which the bookstore used to be as well as the Mill Pond Plaza next to it will be razed by the town in 2019 who plans to make way for the farmer’s market and possibly a welcome centre.
With ebooks and the relentless rise of Amazon, Brome Lake Books has gone through phases too but being the only exclusively English bookstore in Québec, outside of the island of Montreal and Quebec City, does help. That, and the fact that the store is accredited to sell its books to institutional buyers such as libraries and schools. As I learned from Lucy and Danny, the province of Québec has an Act[i] requiring institutional buyers to purchase books from accredited bookstores in their administrative regions. One of the conditions for a bookstore to be accredited is that they have over 6,000 titles in inventory. It’s no wonder this small-town bookstore’s shelves are so well laden!
Although the choice is exhaustive, the floor space on Lakeside Road is vast and the room breathes with its high ceilings and natural light. The beautiful wood shelving and jars of candies by the door give the place a friendly and heart-warming general store feel. Comfortable sitting areas prompt customers to leisurely browse and get acquainted with the books. When probed, the busy owners and well-read staff will gladly leave their duties aside to answer your questions. If you bring the kids, be sure to make time: new and old favourites, a puppet theatre and two very discreet fairy houses will delight them. Danny even moves the furniture around and makes mini-books for the fairies to read. Many details obviously make this independent bookstore a place where people come to over and over again.
The community involvement of the two owners is palpable as soon as you walk in and discover the large local section. What it doesn’t tell you is that Lucy and Danny are also actively involved in important local events such as the Literary Festival, Knowlton’s community plays, Arts Alive, Brome Bright Lights and Midnight Madness that Lucy initiated. On the other side of the counter, there is a whole corner dedicated to Louise Penny’s Three Pines. You can find her mystery novels in many languages, Gamache mugs and t-shirts, and sign the guestbooks that have been filling up more and more quickly in the last five years. The owners had noticed far more customers were visiting Knowlton because of Louise Penny’s books so, with Louise’s help, they created a map of villages and sights of the Eastern Townships that have inspired the writer. Tourist offices of the area have been giving out the bookstore’s map to thousands of visitors. As Lucy and Danny laughingly say, “We wanted to give the fans something else to photograph than the two of us.”
Louise Penny lives in Knowlton and she has been a long-time customer at the bookstore. Lucy confided, “The previous owner of the bookstore was one of the few to read her first manuscript back in 2004.” Before she even became a phenomenon, Lucy and Danny befriended Louise and supported her as a writer. This is why they will be organizing Louise Penny’s 14th book launch on November 24th at the Theatre Lac Brome. Lucy and Danny advise to sign up to Louise Penny’s newsletter to get the insider’s cue. Last year, places sold out in an hour and a half.
For fans who would like to revel in the inspirational details of Louise Penny’s books, you can now go on a personalized Three Pines Tour inspired by the bookstore’s map. “You can see the whole thing or bits of it and choose where you want to stop for lunch,” says Lucy. “As soon as Louise Penny announced the tour in her newsletter, she got hundreds of emails. After Bill and Hillary Clinton’s visit to the Townships last spring, the tours rocketed.”
If the Gamache series appeals to you, make sure you visit Brome Lake Books. Somehow I am convinced the low-profile, kind and very generous owners helped make Three Pines the friendly place it is known to be.