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On South Railway Street in downtown Medicine Hat, you’ll find the newest of new independent bookstores: River Bee Books. Browse the shelves, and you’ll agree: Bridget Neigum, the owner and bookseller, has good taste.
When I say new, I mean new. River Bee Books had its soft open in March 2023, and the grand opening followed on April 29, which coincided with Canadian Independent Bookstore Day. Customers stood shoulder-to-shoulder for hours, and the rush continued for days afterwards. All in all, River Bee Books got off to a buzzing start. That’s right, folks: the indie bookstore is viable again.
On the viability of a bookstore, Bridget responds, “We’re treating this store like an adult child. It must pay its own rent.” She laughs before she adds, “and so far it is!”
The building was built in or around 1913, Bridget tells me. She consulted the Esplanade, the Hat’s Arts & Heritage Centre, to learn that it was first a bakery. The building has also been a shoe store, a bookstore (though several decades ago) and, most recently, a bike store. I joke that the spirit of those decades-old books must still inhabit River Bee.
A passing pedestrian will be drawn to River Bee by its somehow simultaneously fun and elegant logo: a bee, whose head and wings are both illustrated with books. If the logo draws them in, they’ve got no chance once they’ve reached the store’s double bay windows. In one window there is a gorgeous and larger-than-life hummingbird sucking the nectar from a flower, all carved out of some huge trunk of some huge tree.
Once the hapless pedestrian enters the store, their wallet might as well be shaken out and dropped atop the counter. This may be exaggeration, but to speak volumes of the beauty and charms of the shop is not.
The current landlord went through pains to restore the ceiling to its original tilework. I felt transported to another age when my eyes fell on the tilework’s intricate pattern. It made me forget about inflation, if only for a second.
A thread spun throughout my conversation with Bridget was “discovery.” A bookstore, especially one not necessarily controlled by external stakeholders and bestsellers lists, is fit to cultivate this sense of exploration in its clientele. A reader might want to obtain the book that’s received all the buzz to discuss it with their friends. That’s an inherently valuable connection, pop culture. To facilitate the uniqueness of discovery and curiosity in each reader, though, River Bee displays more books face-out than I’ve ever seen. The bestsellers can be found, bright covers and all, just as easily as the esoteric or the less immediately marketable ones.
To discover something deep about oneself, reading is most effective. The philosophy of browsing tells us that whatever powers you might subscribe to, be they gods, fate, magick—in fact, River Bee stocks both religious texts and books on witchcraft—the volume meant precisely for you at this exact moment in time might be face-out on the shelf screaming for recognition. It might answer a question you’ve been long pondering or present you with one you weren’t aware was an unconscious concern of yours. And we do this reading, this discovery, privately. There’s a reason book-burning and book-banning are such discernible barometers of fascism…
Staying curious is one of Bridget’s many guiding principles with the bookstore. Another principle is combatting the clip at which life passes us by: “I don’t want this to be a business, I want this to be a slowness!” (Bridget is an imminently quotable conversationalist.) “My intention is not to hustle books out the door as fast as I can—there has to be a balance,” she explains, mentioning her plans to keep her life healthy despite the ceaseless busyness one can create for oneself.
Speaking of balance, with a strong background in yoga, Bridget makes sense of reading as an act of pleasure, one that calms the nervous system amidst noise pollution and blue-light deluge. As a bookseller, she takes pleasure in gifting this sensibility to any reader walking through those doors. A customer bought and read a book she would have never otherwise found in the all-powerful algorithm. As it turns out, it was exactly what she needed to read.
“A city feels incomplete without an independent bookstore, especially in the downtown core. The bookstore is an organ in the ecosystem of a city.” Bridget has a brilliant optimism about Medicine Hat’s core, and she’s proud to serve the community. She thinks of a bookstore as a most-vital organ: the heart.
The community—both in Medicine Hat and in the wider publishing world—has in turn accepted and served her. When I press her on this subject, Bridget’s response is enthusiastic. She has had excellent guidance from folks from the Canadian Independent Bookstore Association, from Bookmanager, an inventory and POS system designed especially for indie bookstores, from Ampersand Inc., a sales agency representing dozens of publishers and other goods, and from Analog Books in Lethbridge.
Bridget notes how she’s sensed the independent book industry and all of its various arms are wildly non-competitive; rather, they help one another get up off the ground. They cross-pollinate wisdom for the betterment of the entire ecosystem—just like the bumblebees you can find in a tufted white prairie aster in the valley of the South Saskatchewan River. Now ain’t that something? Almost like a friend wanting another friend to thrive, and thus recommending them a book to help them through difficult times. I can only nod in agreement.
Colby Clair Stolson grew up somewhere in the in-between, in a town called Ponoka. Every day he asks himself, “Who knows if the moon’s/a balloon”? And some of those balloons have been published: in Edmonton’s Glass Buffalo and Funicular Magazine, and in Canada’s (via Ottawa) Touch the Donkey and periodicities.