Bookstore Solidarity Project: An Interview with Paul McKay of King’s Co-op Bookstore in Halifax, Nova Scotia

Welcome to the next installment of the Bookstore Solidarity Project! Every month, we’ll be highlighting indie bookstore owners and booksellers across the country (and beyond!)

For April, we’re featuring King’s Co-op Bookstore, in Halifax!

King’s is a kickass store, which they cheekily claim is “Canada’s hardest to find indie bookstore.” It’s Halifax’s only co-op bookshop, and they’re definitely good friends to the Microcosm community.

Check out our interview with Paul below!

Your name and pronouns?
Paul MacKay, he/him

Tell us a little bit about the store and your community!
Our store was primarily created in 2006 by students who needed an easy and affordable place to buy their coursebook texts. The Foundation Year Programme at the University of King’s College is about 45 books in very specific editions and translations and it could be incredibly hard to find exactly what you needed. A group of students got together and found a free spot on campus which is quite small but special shelves were created that allowed the bookshelves to open and close and lock up so that common areas could still be usable for the bookstore. (This shows an old video showing how it works, I’ve since updated the fixtures and it looks a lot better)

We’re pretty hard to find at first, being in the basement of a building on campus, so I leaned into it and describe us as Canada’s Hardest to Find Bookstore since even google maps will only put you on campus but not right at the store. Since we’re owned by the students we’re not like usual university bookstores and we’re also a regular indie bookstore with fiction, non-fiction, graphic novels, etc. We’re also totally open to the public and do special orders all the time either in store or on our website where we promote ourselves as a friendly and easy amazon alternative. We like to engage with things we think are important in the community and we like to champion books and reading, and work hard to bring authors to town who people might not usually have the chance to see.

Our standing in the community grew a lot as word of mouth got out of what we were doing during covid. Since the university closed we had to stay closed too, but I would run books outside for people and also delivered books on my bike. People really liked that idea and also were looking for ways to support local since so many businesses were struggling. Between that and a more personal approach to social media we’ve really become more of a community bookstore which was always my goal when I took over this place (about 6 years ago)

How did you choose your store’s name?
The store name was already chosen by the time I took over the store. I do appreciate it’s specificity, King’s co-op bookstore, a co-op bookstore at King’s. Does what it says on the tin.

What got you into bookselling?
This was never something I ever really intended to do. I’ve always loved books and would often cut classes in school to go hang out at the bookstore and learn things I cared about, but my real career plan was to be a musician and music professor. I picked up the guitar when I was around 18 and really took to it, earning a double major degree in music and psychology shortly after, and then went for more schooling in jazz guitar performance. That was my sole reason for being for years and it was all I cared about but eventually the strain and overuse of my arm caused repetitive strain injury that meant I had to quit playing. When I take to something I get kind of obsessive, so I was practising from about 8am to 10pm every day which my body just kind of revolted against.

I moved back home and needed to get a job quickly so I applied at the same chain bookstore i used to hang out at when I cut classes. I got hired there and would shelve books with my one good arm. I got promoted to being one of the managers of that store after a few years and during that time I met a lot of great people who introduced me to amazing books that really changed my life and that I developed a real passion for books that has only grown over the years

What’s something about your store that you think will surprise people?
I think the most surprising thing about our store is how we fold up and close down every day like we’re a pop-up shop every day. As far as I know we’re the only bookstore in the world like it, and it’s always something I show people when authors come to visit. I wasn’t around at the time the bookstore was started but I do love that it was a very DIY project with a sort of “whatever, we’ll do it ourselves” punk attitude. Bookselling is getting harder and hard nowadays and there’s a huge financial barrier to opening a bookstore or even buying one that’s for sale, so I take pride in what we’ve been able to accomplish in such a weird space without much in the way of money

What are some of you favorite ways your community supports your store?
We recently started a program with Books Beyond Bars which is a local group that works to get books to inmates in the women’s prisons here. I asked them to share their book requests with me and I put them on our website with a promo code so people can buy the books to support the program at a 20% discount.

So far we’ve managed to get them close to 100 books and we’re all really happy about it. The people supporting the program get to pay less, we help give the prisoners books they actually want to read, and the money stays the community instead of going you know where. You never know how a certain initiative will land with people and I’ve been really happy with the response this has gotten.

Outside of that, I manage all the social media for the store and people taking the time to make posts about how much they like the store or recommending us to others is always nice. They absolutely don’t need to do anything like that so if they feel the desire to do something like that you know they mean it 🙂

What are two books you can’t wait for people to read, or your current favorite handsells?
I’m really stoked for the new Hanif Abdurraqib book There’s Always This Year: On Basketball and Ascension. I read an advanced copy of it and like everything he does it’s just amazing. I’m not a big sports fan at all and even I was taking breaks from reading it to watch slam dunk contents from like 30 years ago because the way he writes about them is so incredible.

Kaveh Akbar’s Martyr! is easily one of my favourite fiction books in the last year too. It’s his first novel after some poetry collections, and his writing is just beautiful. Another one that I just devoured and want everybody to read.

How can customers who aren’t local shop your shelves?
Our website has everything on it that we have in store and we offer a flat $5 fee for shipping whether it’s 1 book or 20 books. we can also order in anything we don’t currently have also, so instead of going to the evil A they can just go to our website instead 🙂

twitter and facebook are: kingsbookstore , instagram is kingscoopbookstore , my personal instagram is @talentedruins

(Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance. – James Baldwin)

Anything else you want to share?
I won the contest for Danny Caine’s How to Resist Amazon and Why a while back which was great. I sold tons of them and also left copies at busy places in the city for people to find. Danny mentions us in the book which was a nice surprise when I was first reading it 🙂

Be sure to follow King’s Co-Op on their socials, and check back in a few weeks for their podcast episode!

You can read our other Bookstore Solidarity Project posts here!
And click here to get a copy of How to Protect Bookstores and Why.