Fringe Ashore: Dartmouth’s prized bookstores

City of Lakes abounds with literary riches

The exterior of John W. Doull, Bookseller in Woodlawn, Dartmouth. Photo By Jaime Kerr

I’ve always been proud to be from the Dartmouth side. I grew up scrambling over the stones of Rainbow Haven Beach, weaving through the trees at Shubie Park. and spending countless hours plunged deep within its myriad lakes. 

Despite facing increasing gentrification and, historically, battling a reputation of being Halifax's "dark side," the City of Lakes remains a place not quite like anywhere else. Though far from the only evidence of this, I present the following bookstores as Exhibit A and dare any reader to think otherwise. 

Quality Used Books: 

Quality Used Books is situated where I least expected to find a store of its kind; wedged between a strip mall pharmacy and a smoky pizzeria.

According to owner Ronda Roche, the store has operated successfully out of this location since 1989. Roche, who took over operations in 2010, said the shop’s impressive stock stems from its credit system; a service where locals can bring in old volumes for in-store credit.

The interior challenged whatever expectations I had. There was barely any room to stand. Books had been chucked against the walls with reckless abandon. Countless volumes of James Patterson and P.D. James leaned forwards at anxiety-inducing angles; it was dead silent. Though sections were technically labeled by peeling bits of scotch tape, they appeared to melt into each other without any concrete boundaries. 

My search for Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl proved fruitless, but others had more luck. As I made my way out, two older ladies shimmied past me. The first jumped when Roche announced her presence by informing them of the shop’s 2-for-1 special. The pair asked where the gardening section was and hurried off to the back annex, giggling like children who just asked after the comics. I heard their coos of admiration as they observed the withered spines. 

“Look!” one said, “This one’s almost as old as you!”

Literal pillars of books ensure readers have plenty of material to browse within Quality Used Books. Photo By Jaime Kerr

John W. Doull, Bookseller:

Immense, immersive, alluring—John W. Doull, Bookseller can rightfully be described as a wizard’s lair on top of its already impressive title of Canada’s largest used bookstore. In addition to housing a spectacular array of all genres, the shop boasts a back catalogue of 60,000 rare books, as well as Canada’s largest nautical and maritime literature section. 

Where is this icon, this beacon of literature located, you may ask? You won’t find it in some glossy district of downtown Halifax, or tucked into a gentle Annapolis Valley village. It’s in the suburb of Woodlawn, Dartmouth. From the outside, it appears as an unassuming garage left stranded on a dusty industrial corridor. Across the busy street is the Smitty’s—think Denny’s—where my dad had his first job as a dishwasher. 

The interior, then, is shocking to the uninitiated patron. Old wooden archways turn rows of shelving into the corridors of a monastic library. Tiny, handpainted signs cheerfully indicate every genre you can think of. Throughout, curious volumes are left on display to lure readers in: A Russian Dance of Death, The Delights of Learning Turkish. If it weren’t for the cave-like silence, one could easily forget they weren’t in the hold of an 18th century tall ship. At the back, like the vintage wine section of an SAQ, stands an orange wall of Penguin mass-market paperbacks.

Hand painted signs denote sections and genres within JWD. Photo By Jaime Kerr

A veteran of the industry, the eponymous owner John W. Doull worked at Schooner Books in the 1970s before opening his own shop in 1987. He credited his initial success to his knack for selecting intriguing books to display, and by specializing in rare and antique volumes.

“While nature abhors a vacuum, I tried to be careful about keeping a quality stock. One could fill the Bell Centre with junk books in a matter of weeks,” he said.

According to Jacob Smith, one of the shop’s clerks, JWD receives the vast majority of its stock from private collections. He explained that many of these are received posthumously from long time clients.

“If anyone loves books around here, chances are John knows them. So, we definitely have a steady supply of material,” he said.    

Whether you’re searching for a $350 first edition of One Hundred Years of Solitude, or just want to start at “Adams” in the literature section and work your way down until you reach “Zola,” I promise your experience will be an enchanting one.