Sharing Lunch With….Mika Weaver… Owner of Singing Pebble Books

“The cornerstone
of my business is happy
customers…”


Thirty years ago, Mika Weaver finished university and started working full-time at Singing Pebble Books. She’s still there. Theresa Wallace spoke to her about what it’s been like to run an independent bookstore for three decades. She picked up some reading tips and advice on running a small business along the way.

In this Sharing Lunch With interview with the owner of Single Pebble Books, Mika Weaver explains that as for many other independent bookstores, the pandemic has helped to boost community support of her business, even as the business has helped to support the community in turn.

Singing Pebbles Books owner, Mika Weaver is pictured here - not surprisingly with an armful of books - at the entrance of her much-beloved bookstore at 206 Main Street. Photo by Theresa Wallace

Singing Pebbles Books owner, Mika Weaver is pictured here – not surprisingly with an armful of books – at the entrance of her much-beloved bookstore at 206 Main Street. Photo by Theresa Wallace

Q. You have been working fulltime at Singing Pebbles since you graduated from university 30 years ago, and you took over the store in 1995. How did you become a bookstore owner?

A. I started working on this block when I was 14 years old in 1983. I worked at The Wheat Germ, the health food store where my mother was manager. When I was 18, she started The Green Door and Singing Pebble Books and I worked at those places too. In my family, our family businesses have always been exactly that—all the family works in the family business. I was at McGill University, and I would come home because the bookstore needed someone to take care of it and my mom was overwhelmed taking care of the restaurant. I was the first-ever cashier of the Green Door; I used to take the bus from McGill on Friday afternoons and arrive for the Friday night dinner shift, work all day Saturday, then half a day on Sunday, then bus back to Montreal on Sunday nights. I came back to Ottawa in January of 1992, when I was 22, and that is when I started working fulltime at Singing Pebble Books. I took over the store from my mom in 1995 when I was 25.

Q. Mika, there’s a sense that independent bookstores have thrived during the pandemic. What do you think?

A. The news story of independents having their day in the sun has to be unpacked a bit. There has been a huge increase in the community supporting our store and vice versa. We have been so happy to have lots of customers coming in. The good news is we are not going out of business, but that doesn’t mean suddenly we can open 10 franchises. It is a success, for sure, but success relative to what the past two decades of declining sales have been like for independent bookstores.

Q. You were quoted in a CBC News article saying that in the first pandemic shutdown, you lost sleep over how you were going to pay for 300 puzzles you’d ordered. But soon they were flying off the shelves. Why puzzles?

A. I am a puzzler and I have a theory about that. With the stress and the anxiety of the pandemic, there is something soothing for the mind and body in puzzling. You know by the picture on the box what it is going to look like, but you have to puzzle through it, and at the end you have a sense of completion. You get to do this work, and you know how it is going to end up, and there is a calmness to it.

Q. You own a successful retail business. You have three kids. How did you manage when you, your business, and your children were all very young?

A. I had my first child in 1997 and I made it fit together with a lot of help from my support system. The first house I bought was in the neighbourhood on Simcoe; I remember walking with my few-month-old baby in the 1998 ice storm from the bookstore to my home and worrying about everything and thinking the storm looked pretty bad. But my staff have been a huge part of me being able to parent my kids and being able to survive as a business, and my mother helped me a lot with babysitting. I went back to work pretty quickly after giving birth to each of my three children, but I did not work as many hours, and I could do some of my work at home. Having my own business made it easier to take care of the kids because I could fit my schedule around them. On the down side, I do not know what it is like to have paid maternity leave and benefits.

“The collective bookselling
experience of Singing Pebble
Books staff verges on one
hundred years,
because someone here thinks
it is really good.”

Q. You keep your staff for a long time. Has that been a cornerstone of your success?

A. Yes, definitely. The cornerstone of my business is happy customers, but part of that is happy staff. Moira MacKinnon worked here for 20 years until she retired and moved to Prince Edward Island. Prior to working with us, Laura Rayner had her own bookstore, Mother Tongue Books, and before that she worked at the women’s bookstore on Elgin Street. We have Moira’s sister, Anne MacKinnon Diamond; she has been working in bookstores for decades. The collective bookselling experience of Singing Pebble Books staff verges on one hundred years

Mika Weaver(L) with her employee Laura Rayner(R), who also previously owned a bookstore. Photo by Theresa Wallace

Mika Weaver(L) with her employee Laura Rayner(R), who also previously owned a bookstore. Photo by Theresa Wallace

Q. Is Singing Pebble Books a spiritual bookstore?

A. Around the time I took over ownership of the store, Chapters moved to Ottawa. There were 24 independent bookstores in Ottawa then and it was important to distinguish your area of specialty. At that time there was Ampersand, a children’s bookstore. There was Food for Thought, a cookbook bookstore. And there was Singing Pebble Books, specializing as a mind, body, spirit store. If you wanted books about personal development, yoga, philosophy, and psychology, you came to us. Now almost three decades later, there are four independent bookstores in Ottawa, and we have, all of us, become more general bookstores with curated content. So we have the best of the best. We have some fiction, we have Canada Reads, the latest cookbooks, the latest Margaret MacMillan history.

Q. So you can order in any book a customer wants?

A. If a book is in print, we can get it. What is important to me is happy customers and not looking for the bottom line every day. Sometimes people call and say, “I don’t want to bother you, but I am looking for this book.” It is not a bother. We are the place to ask. If something is out of print and absolutely unavailable, we won’t be able to help, but that rarely happens. We have found some obscure titles and it’s all in a day’s work. We will call you as soon as your book is here. Another thing we can help with is urgent requests. If someone needs a book by tomorrow and we do not have it, we can check with all the other independents in town and locate it for the customer. If someone is urgently looking for a certain book and they need it by tomorrow for their Winnipeg granddaughter’s birthday, for example, I can go on my software system called Book Manager, which is located in Kelowna. I can see independent bookstores all over the country and I can find the book in Winnipeg and give that information to the customer. And, of course, customers can always order books online from us. Orders over $100 are shipped free all over the country.

Q. The independents that are left, do you have a connection with them?

A. I am friends with Lisa Greaves from Octopus Books. If she is out of a book, she will give me a call. Jim Sherman from Perfect Books will call. We have a back and forth. Hilary Porter, the manager of Books on Beechwood, worked here for about a year. Another one of my employees worked at Octopus during the pandemic because Lisa had a backlog of orders. There is a huge conviviality amongst all the independent bookstores in Ottawa.

Photo by Theresa Wallace

Photo by Theresa Wallace

Q. What’s the most memorable book you have sold?

A. My father was a huge book collector and had a massive personal library. After he died, some of his collection was passed on to me. I kept some things, and placed others for sale on AbeBooks, a network of used and out-of-print booksellers. One of them was a big book called Anthropologia Nova published in 1728. We thought for sure someone in Europe would buy it. One day Tiernan, my eldest son, who is now 24, was working in the store alone. A person came in looking for this particular book. It was not on our shelves upstairs. It was in the basement and Tiernan had to go down and root around. He was able to find the book and the person purchased it on the spot for $500. I still do not know who bought it, or how they knew it was in our store.

“We don’t get paid to
promote anything…if we are
saying it is good and we are
promoting it, it is because
someone here thinks it is
really good.”

Q. What advice do you have for people who want to open a bookstore or own their own business?

A. When you have children, when can you say you have done enough, and so you have nothing left to do? And when do you stop worrying about them? It is a very similar experience having your own business. When would you have done enough tidying, choosing, creating, displaying, reorganizing, hiring just the right employee, connecting with your customers, doing social media, checking your books, placing your orders? It could take up all the time you have if you want it to. So, pace yourself.

Q. If you could have any three authors in your bookstore for a book reading, who would you invite?

A. I would invite Maya Angelou, author of I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings. Her books are incredible literary works of art and deeply meaningful. I am showing my age here—I’m 52—but I would also love to have Gloria Steinem at the store. These are people with vibrant personalities, and I imagine meeting them in person would be really something. Oh, and the Dalai Lama for good measure. Definitely.

Q. What is your biggest worry?

A. The biggest worry is the unknown. Over the course of my many years here, before I knew there was going to be a bus strike, I didn’t know I should worry about a bus strike. Then the bus strike happened, and all of a sudden employees could not get to work, and business was significantly affected. In 2008, I did not know to worry about a global financial crisis. I did not know to worry about the rise of online booksellers and could never even have imagined how it would affect my business and how it did so drastically and so consistently for so long. I did not know to worry about Main Street construction until I heard it was going to be happening and then when it did people couldn’t physically get to my store. Part of the reason I went to Saint Paul University in 2014 and took a Master’s degree in counseling and spirituality was because I thought the Main Street construction was going to be the downfall of my store and I needed to be ready. But I am still here. I did stop counselling when the pandemic started because things got busier at the store, and I also had my own family to take care of. My youngest child was only 10 when the pandemic struck. But just to reiterate, having your own business is conducive to having a family, because when you work for yourself, you have a great amount of flexibility to deal with whatever day-to-day things come up at work, at home, and in the world, including a pandemic.

Q. What are you reading right now?

A. The Push by Ashley Audrain. I am also reading State of Terror. And The School for Good Mothers by Jessamine Chan, which is a bit like The Handmaid’s Tale meets Klara and the Sun, a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro.

Q. Who is your favourite author who also owns a bookstore?

A. Ann Patchett, and right now I am reading her book These Precious Days. On my list of books to read is Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence; I have heard good things about this novel and maybe Erdrich will become my next favourite author who owns a bookstore.

Photo Supplied

                                              Photo Supplied

Q. Can you explain two benefits of shopping at your store?

A. Compared to other loyalty programs, our frequent buyer points is a very generous system. It is the equivalent of me giving away between $30,000 and $50,000 per year. We are very happy to share with our customers that they have, for example, $10 to spend next time they are in the store. Another benefit is that when you shop with us, you know something is not in our window or coming up on the first page of our website because we have been paid by a marketing company or a publishing company to push that product. We don’t get paid to promote anything. That’s what we mean by curated: if we are saying it is good and we are promoting it, it is because someone here thinks it is really good.

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