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Last Modified: October 27, 2023
Owl's Nest Books Graphic with facade of store
Owl’s Nest Books

Britannia Plaza, in southwest Calgary along Elbow Drive, may be the last cluster of independent businesses before hitting suburbs and big box stores familiar to any city. Because of the essential uniqueness of local businesses, Britannia Plaza is one scene that makes up the vibrancy of Calgary.

If Britannia Plaza is one such vibrant scene in the city’s array, Owl’s Nest Books is the plaza’s earliest brushstroke. In fact, Owl’s Nest Books is the oldest bookstore in the city, first opened in 1975 and purchased four years later by Evelyn de Mille. Amidst the innumerable challenges existent for local businesses, against competitors like Amazon who grow fiercer and more ginormous by the day, Owl’s Nest stands strong and packs a wallop: small, old, and mighty still.

With only eight hundred square feet of retail space, you will not find a display with fifty or more copies of the same book. There will be no great wall of Elon Musk or Prince Harry’s Spare staring down at you. Rather, you may have to ask one of Owl’s Nest’s superb booksellers to bring you to their shelves of memoirs and biographies, or to any genre you fancy. They will attentively listen to your interests and are always glad to make recommendations for your next great read.

With a team of ten employees (that’s one employee for every 80 sq ft!), Owl’s Nest Books excels at the hand-sell. The hand-sell is when a bookseller recommends a title to a curious reader, often passionately, and without the aid of giant, flashy adverts. When the pitch is successful, that curious reader becomes a customer, and a relationship between bookseller and reader is formed.

Photo of interior of Owl's Nest Books. The space is filled with books including shelving on the left side as well as multiple tables of books.
The interior of Owl’s Nest Books.

Because their retail space is limited, every single title is ordered by hand and every ordering decision is made by a real human being, not an algorithm. Though the algorithm may be able to predict, reliably, that six in every ten readers will want to read whatever James Patterson pumps out, only the trained booksellers at Owl’s Nest will know that, for the specific community they serve, that number may be much lower.

With every book ordered and re-ordered line by line, Owl’s Nest’s booksellers know the tastes of their customers extraordinarily well. And they have a hand in developing those tastes, too. Every month they feature a new staff pick, and readers soon become familiar with which Owl’s Nest staff shares their taste in books. These customers then pick up new titles based on what their kindred bookseller is reading. In one example, operations manager Kristi left a stack of books she sensed a regular of hers would enjoy. When next she was in, she discovered that customer purchased over $200 worth of these recommendations, no questions asked. With loyal customers like that, it’s no wonder the business has stayed afloat for close to fifty years.

In another example of reciprocal customer relationship-building, the only display wall you’ll find in Owl’s Nest—that is, a wall of books categorized by something other than genre—is the Book Club wall. With several local book clubs in the area, Owl’s Nest ensures these clubs’ reading lists are stocked well in advance of their discussion dates. The shop features these book club picks with nametags for the book club—QUEEReads YYC is the newest club fly into the nest. Then, the shop offers a discount on these titles to every patron, not just the book club members. Owl’s Nest’s Book Club wall serves as a brilliant affirmation of the exchange of ideas facilitated by books and their dedicated readers. Purchase a book from this wall, and you can be certain people in the area are reading the same book you are. If you feel like starting a book club yourself, Owl’s Nest is a great venue, and they would be thrilled to host you!

Photo of Book Club Wall at Owl's Nest Books
Book Club Wall at Owl’s Nest Books

Piloting this small, old, and mighty operation are co-owners Ryan Smith and Judith Duthie, two bibliophiles with a lifelong passion for good storytelling. While their love of books has stretched decades, their co-ownership is only a little over one year old. Both were approached by previous owners Michael and Susan Hare in the last two years, and both Ryan and Judith officially assumed their co-ownership in 2022.

For Ryan, owning a bookstore is a dream. When he was approached with the offer in 2021, he couldn’t pass it up, and spent the next year getting his ducks in a row to make the deal work. Judith’s career as a retail bookseller began over twenty years ago at a bookstore in Lethbridge. When asked about the highlights of running Owl’s Nest, Judith unequivocally replies, “I said this as an employee and I’ll say it as an owner: I get up in the morning and I come to hang out at a bookstore all day. The day starts good every day.”

Of course, the action at Owl’s Nest extends past their walls. Ryan Smith tirelessly sells books after store hours at events around the city, including school book fairs and the world-class literary festival, Wordfest. Ryan’s sold books at the festival for internationally renowned authors like Gabor Maté, Jeanette Walls, and Camilla Gibb—and he does so in style, always donning a bowtie, a sweater vest, and a smile.

Ryan and Judith and their experienced team of booksellers are ready to bring Owl’s Nest deeper into the 2020s and beyond, making connections and fostering a sense of community. Ryan recounts several moments where patrons have designated Owl’s Nest as their rendezvous spot. Friends meet here—they chat, they browse, they recommend books to one another. Owl’s Nest’s calming effect helps folks wind down from the bustle of the day before they head out into the evening for ice cream or dinner. Similarly, Judith is pleased that Owl’s Nest contributes to this idea of the “third space,” a space where people can feel comfortable and spend their leisure time outside of the home and the workplace.

I certainly felt calmer as I departed from the bookstore to head back onto the sidewalks of the plaza, which were teeming with activity. If ever you need to unwind, try browsing the shelves at the small, old, mighty Owl’s Nest Books. If you’re not sure what to read, why not welcome a recommendation from the owls themselves?


Colby Clair Stolson lies on a rug with a stunned expression on his face. A typewriter rests on his stomach, and books are on the ground beside him.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.