Bright Young Booksellers: Aimee Peake

Our Bright Young Booksellers series continues today with Aimee Peake of Bison Books in Winnipeg:

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How did you get started in rare books?

Twenty years ago this fall, I was 19 and taking Philosophy at University. Out for coffee with friends one evening, I saw a “Help Wanted” sign in the window of the adjacent used bookstore, so I went in the next morning armed with my resume and idealism. I’d happened upon one of Canada’s well-respected antiquarian bookstores, Greenfield Books. In my first year there, I vividly remember moving the shop to a new location, painting and assembling bookcases, and hauling countless loads of books. Trial by fire! I worked there on and off for years, inching along in my apprenticeship as I worked on my degree and came and went from the city. In 2001, the proprietor offered me the management position at the new shop he was about to open: Bison Books. I had my run of the place! I enjoyed the independence and responsibility and wanted more of both, so I became a partner in the business in 2007 then assumed sole proprietorship in 2010.

When did you take ownership of Bison Books and what do you specialize in?

I am a generalist, so I specialize in whatever comes through the door! I have a busy open shop in the heart of downtown Winnipeg and I love the daily challenge of filling the shelves with fresh, high-quality, wide-ranging stock, including everything from fine bindings, collectable and antiquarian books, through to quality contemporary literature, art, children’s, and everything in between. If I acquire a collection of cookbooks, well, that’s my specialty for the week! I also specialize in customer service, as I think the old-fashioned personal touch not only makes my days more fulfilling, but also gives customers a sense of belonging. 

What is a typical day for you?

First thing, I get a cup of something warm, put on some good music and sift through the email to enjoy all the orders, catalogues, and correspondence from clients new and old. New and long-time customers file through over the course of the day, to chat and/or browse: a welcome interruption from my paperwork! I handle all aspects of the business, attending to my social media accounts (I’ve been growing the Instagram @bison_books, which has been fun!), accounting, shipping & receiving, collections development, and of course acquisitions: every day, new books come in - or I leave the shop in the hands of my staff to go dig through basements and attics to uncover forgotten gems and restore them to their rightful place in society. Sometimes I tend to the backlog of acquisitions, and sometimes I make it worse. Inevitably I leave before the work is done, otherwise I would never get home!

What do you love about the book trade?

I love the books, and the customers, and the challenge of running a business. I love the daily possibility of discovery - of anything from a book of poems I know will garner a smile from a particular customer, up to a breathtakingly-illustrated antiquarian treasure to enrich the day. I love that every day, I feel a sense of community as customers turn into friends. I love characters who are attracted to bookstores. I have been taking forays into Collections Development work with a few clients, and I love having the opportunity to follow them into their niche, pour over catalogues with them in mind, quote them on items I see, and share in the excitement when we peel open the packaging on their newest acquisitions!

Favorite rare book that you’ve handled?

I remember working at Greenfield Books about 15 years ago, on a collection of Nonesuch Press books. There was a turquoise vellum Herodotus that took my breath away. It was out of range for me, and I remember/rue the day it sold. More-recently, I was working with one of my favorite customers, who collects 16th century books. When he opened up the front of his bookcase to reveal his stunning collection, I was filled with hope and awe, feelings that intensified as I leafed through a few of his breathtaking, important books: tangible examples of history, appropriately revered and painstakingly cared-for. For a little while, all was well in the world.

What do you personally collect?

A book can catch my eye for several of reasons: the author, binding, illustrations, content, etc., but my pulse quickens when style meets substance. Sometimes I’ll take a favorite item home with me, unless I know of another good home for it! I am the consummate dealer that way: I am happy when I can find the right placement for any book, be it my house or any other. I also help run the family antique/art auction business, so I really have to be diligent not to bring too much stuff home. Easy come, easy go.... most of the time, anyway!

Thoughts on the present state and/or future of the rare book trade?

I can’t imagine the uncomplicated practicality of the book’s perfect technology ever reaching obsolescence! Many of us will always relish the simple sensory pleasures of turning a page. Some books have lost their relevance, but at the same time books are gaining value as Objects. Vellum bindings, hand-coloured plates, handmade rag papers and the like will always gain ground and provide a living to those of us who remain quick on our feet. And there will always be a core of loyal intellectuals who want to preserve and grow our collective cultural knowledge, and thus continue to patronize the time-honored tradition of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore.

Any upcoming fairs or catalogues?

I plan to do one of the Canadian fairs this fall - either returning to the Vancouver Fair if it happens, or wetting my feet at the Toronto ILAB fair. As for catalogues, I don’t have any firm plans at the moment, though I make customized catalogues on request, and I regularly post photos of new acquisitions on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and the blog on my website!

Nominations for entries in our Bright Young Booksellers series can be sent to nathan@finebooksmagazine.com

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