A 185-year-long tale of what was once Canada’s oldest bookstore
Posted on February 02, 2024 | By Alexander Chafe | 0 Comments
Before the popularity of tablets, Amazon and audiobooks, readers had to find a new novel the old-fashioned way by visiting their favourite local bookstore and browsing shelves of paperbacks and hardcovers. Once labelled Canada’s oldest bookstore, the history of The Book Room in Halifax dates back over 150 years. After surviving the Great Depression, two World Wars and various economic ebbs and flows, the shop closed its doors in the early 21st century. However, some still remember this long-standing business.
Once upon a time…
The Book Room was first established in 1839 by Wesleyan minister Reverand Charles Churchill. With increasing local interest in reading, Rev. Churchill set up a bookstore in his own living room on Lockman Street in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He quickly grew an impressive catalogue of books and began taking orders.
During the early days, the business was known as The Wesleyan Book Room. By 1876, the bookstore had outgrown its space in Churchill’s home and upgraded to a storefront on Granville Street. Almost 50 years later in 1925, the shop was named The Ryerson Press Book Room.
A new chapter
In 1949, the store closed for a short period after being destroyed by a fire. However, Hon. Charles J. Burchell collaborated with two business partners to reopen the store in November of that very same year. The bookstore was relocated to the Halifax Chronicle Building and renamed The Book Room.
Years later, Burchell’s grandson Charles P. Burchell joined the business and eventually took over operations. In 1996, The Book Room moved for a final time to its home on 1546 Barrington Street.
After 42 years of operating The Book Room, Charles P. Burchell announced in January 2008 that the business would close that coming March. Throughout its 169 years, The Book Room survived many economic hardships, but it was no longer able to compete with big box stores and online retail. There was an increasing prominence of chain bookstores in the area, grocery stores and pharmacies began to carry books and more people were shopping online. Plus, there was a rising demand for lower prices. This all led to the end of what was once Canada’s oldest bookstore.
According to a CBC article from 2008, Burchell said in a press release that hundreds of authors came to The Book Room to meet readers over the years and before computers, he received special book orders from across the globe. In other words, The Book Room had an effect on the local community and beyond.
Today, the building where The Book Room last operated on 1546 Barrington Street still stands. Most of the building is now an apartment complex, with the Downtown Halifax Business Commission operating on the ground floor and an art store and Vogue Optical next door.
While The Book Room is long gone, a representative of the Downtown Halifax Business Commission reported that a couple visiting Halifax in the fall of 2023 came into their office looking for the old bookstore. After all this time, stories are still to be told.
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