Prince Edward County’s Newspaper of Record
May 18, 2024
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March 14, 2024
Volume 194 No. 11

A place of gathering

David and Barbara Sweet of Books & Company celebrate 30th anniversary on Main Street
<p>Barbara and David Sweet of Books &#038; Company (Photo Collage by Natalie Piper for the Gazette)</p>
Barbara and David Sweet of Books & Company (Photo Collage by Natalie Piper for the Gazette)

On or about 14 March 1994—they’re not quite sure of the exact date—David and Barbara Sweet opened Books on the Bay on Picton Main Street.

Thirty years on, they’re still going strong, now under the name Books & Company and further down the street. So many customers asked “where’s the bay?” over the years that they decided to change the name.

That they are still standing, in bricks and mortar, is a significant accomplishment in a centuries-old industry that has had its most radical transformations in the last three decades. Online retailers like Amazon followed the “big box” chains like Chapters and Indigo. 

To do it in a small town like Picton, is something again.

But Picton has a long history of bookstores, going as far back as the 1830s, when Joseph Wilson, a printer and also the publisher of the Hallowell Free Press—the first name of the Picton Gazette—ran one.

In 1994 there was demand for a Main Street bookstore: on the day they called their first landlord about the “For Rent” sign in the window, he was actually in Belleville asking the manager of the Coles bookstore to consider opening a Picton branch. The Sweets thought that a good omen.

What were they thinking? Two crazy kids (“David had hair, and mine wasn’t grey,” says Barbara) from Belleville with a young family. David “got the book bug” while cutting his teeth in Bill and Ruth Greenley’s bookstore on Front Street. Barbara, luckily, was a bookeeper, able to manage the “other” kind of books.

As they settled into County life, enrolling children in school, getting to know the book-reading public, they began to find the community had a lot of literary energy. Plenty of local authors have featured on their shelves.

The “Pep Rally” poetry reading series, which runs on the third Thursday of every month, co-hosted with Assembly Press, is the most recent iteration of a great variety of local as well as national author events at the bookstore. Most notably, until 2015, they spearheaded the Canada Council-funded annual Prince Edward County Authors Festival featuring new and emerging authors.

J. D. Carpenter is one of the authors who first participated in 2001. He says of David, “through the years he has been just a stalwart support for me and for so many other writers. He’s devoted to his passion, which is selling books and supporting writers.”

David has a soft spot for poetry, and he is proud to keep works from the small presses in stock.

But, of course, in the age of the internet, diversifying into other kinds of merchandise is required. “He can be ‘Grumpy David’ when stocking umbrellas and puzzles,” teases Barbara.

“I’m pretty good at guessing which books people want to buy,” responds David—and he’s willing to allow some stuffed toys if that keeps the poetry afloat.

Looking at an old issue of the Hallowell Free Press, they joked about Joseph Wilson’s frank approach to advertising in 1834: “just received a few copies of The Comic Annual together with a choice assortment of books and stationery which he is desirous to exchange for cash.”

“Now that’s an ad we could run!”

But selling merchandise is not the sole vocation of a bookseller. “A bookstore is a place of gathering,” notes Barbara. For years bookstores have always been a local “safe space,” and it came as a surprise that this is no longer understood in the age of social media. Becoming a “Rainbow Registered” business in order to declare the old “all welcome” message was an easy step to take.

High school students come by for lunch at the attached café, Lily’s; some of them appear after school, to spend time with Pushkin the cat and enjoy some reading while waiting for a parental pickup.

Most mornings, an informal “philosopher’s club” of dogwalkers can be found meeting for coffee at a table near the entrance to the café. Their subjects range from Ancient History to renditions of “Old Man River.”

Covid interrupted direct interaction with customers for a while, but the Sweets found the enforced solitude of the lockdown was something they could help alleviate. Cookbooks, books on gardening and art instruction, as well as literary classics were in demand. David notes with pleasure that interest in the classics has not declined since full reopening.

The community encouraged by a bookstore is not only about in-person gatherings, but also about continuity. The family names in that old newspaper are still those of people who walk into Books & Company to this day. Not only are the Sweets celebrating their 30th anniversary in the business, but they are also continuing a nearly 200-year history of bookselling in the County.

As Mr. Carpenter recently wrote in an email to the booksellers, “thank you David and Barb for owning and operating the best bookstore in the world.”  

This text is from the Volume 194 No. 11 edition of The Picton Gazette
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