Fringe Ashore: the best literary spaces in Halifax

Coastal capital a delight for the shipwrecked reader

Ailes of reading material line the shelves at Atlantic News. Photo By Jaime Kerr

Having relocated to Halifax alongside my family after a fifteen year absence, it seems every spare minute between work and my other ventures has seen me surrounded on all sides by books. 

As it turns out, despite only hosting a population of under 500,000, the Halifax Regional Municipality punches above its weight for literary spaces. Boasting a thriving public library system, steadfast independent ventures, and what may be the largest used book store in Canada. The shipwrecked reader will never be short of material here. I hope, should you ever find yourself in this corner of the world, you become as enchanted with these places as I am. 

Atlantic News:

Atlantic News is an institution, and a fierce survivor of a dying tradition. Blocks away from central Halifax, Atlantic Canada’s last remaining news stand retains a thriving customer base of loyal locals and curious visitors alike. Stepping inside, it's easy to see why. 

Ailes of glossy magazine covers are organized into every subject under the sun. Hobby issues on cars, fishing, skydiving—literary journals both international and local in scope and, of course, issues upon issues of every newspaper one can think of. 

According to co-owner Michele Gerard, the variety that Atlantic News offers is one reason the institution has been able to survive since its inception in 1977, even in an age where the news has never been more accessible thanks to technology.

An employee packages pre-paid copies of The Globe and Mail for Atlantic News customers. Photo By Jaime Kerr

“I think we're one of the few retailers who literally has something for everyone. You can have a person who's looking for opera and a person looking for a tattoo magazine at the same time. You just don't get that breadth of customers outside of a grocery store,” she said. 

Gerard explained that much of what the shop keeps in stock is determined by customer demand. 420 copies of The Globe and Mail, for instance, are flown in from outside the province every week; each having been prepaid for by Atlantic News customers. Following The Globe’s 2017 decision to cease physical publication in the Maritimes, Atlantic News is the only outlet in the region where a print copy can be found.

An even more archaic tradition of the press industry lives on in the shop. In the back office sits a printer where a back catalogue of 2000 international papers (The New York Times, Financial Times, etc) can be printed at a moment’s notice. 

“A customer came in yesterday and pulled last week’s issue of The Wall Street Journal off the shelves. I asked him if he wanted today’s issue instead and he agreed. Seven minutes later I handed it to him, still hot off the press!” said Gerad.

Halifax Central Library:

Throughout all the chaotic days, awful customers at work, bouts of homesickness, or episodes of despair at the world’s state of affairs, there has been one place in the city that’s welcomed me each time. 

A marble palace of glass and steel, the Halifax Central Library is a monument to community-building and the public it serves. Residents can access free programs like tech tutorials, language conversation groups, and housing counsel among others. Those who register for a free library card are also allotted 2 hours of free computer time per day, and benefit from reduced printing costs. Outside, in all weather conditions, library staff and volunteers hand out free Covid-19 rapid tests to anyone who asks.

The building’s interior houses Haligonians from all walks of life, and I always feel a part of something greater when I step through the main doors. Everyone, Indie kids dripping in thrifted fits, old women browsing the erotica section, teens gossiping, construction workers downing coffee between shifts, can be found here. 

The Halifax Central Library is designed to resemble a stack of books. Photo By Jaime Kerr

Children, too, are a constant presence. They run amok through the Library’s five levels, log endless hours of Roblox on its computers, and munch eagerly on chicken nuggets from the Spring Garden Mcdonalds. There’s even a dedicated youth floor, and activities ranging from summer reading clubs to sundae building hour are hosted on a daily basis.

And, of course, there’s books! Books upon books! Boasting an efficient inter-library loan service, cardholders have access to the system’s entire back catalogue. Books can be shipped to one’s location of preference, and returned at whichtever branch is most convenient for them, much like in Montreal. A generous selection of international newspapers is also available thanks to Atlantic News’ aforementioned printing service.

When I first gave my name to sign up for a library card at the Alderney branch, the staff member gave me a confused look. “It looks like you already have an account with us,” she said. That account was from when I lived here over fifteen years ago. I checked out my last book when I was eight; it was about volcanoes. 

So far, I’ve almost exceeded my borrowing limit twice, and my room has become cluttered with more books than I moved down here with. It's good to know that some parts of moving back to the place you’re from are as simple as opening up to the page you left off.