New bookshop offers more than just books

Faculty of Arts' alums Matthew Stepanic and Jason Purcell's Glass Bookshop opens up space for marginalized voices

Donna McKinnon - 24 April 2019

When electronic readers hit the market a decade ago, predictions were dire for bricks and mortar bookstores, especially independents with bottom lines that are heavily reliant on foot traffic. In the last five years, however, e-reader sales have stagnated, while print book sales have been on the rise.

There are many reasons for this. Specifically, independent booksellers offer something that algorithms cannot: face to face recommendations, curated stock, and serendipitous encounters with unfamiliar books and genres in a community-based setting.

This is precisely what Matthew Stepanic ('12 BA, Honors) and Jason Purcell ('15 BA, '18 MA) will offer when their new venture, Glass Bookshop, opens this fall.

While currently up and running as an online bookstore, the physical manifestation - funded in part by a successful Indiegogo campaign - will be located in the Quarters in downtown Edmonton, a developing neighbourhood adjacent to other arts venues like the Citadel Theatre, the Winspear Centre, and the Art Gallery of Alberta. The bookshop will be inclusive, accessible, and will favour what they identify as an underserved community: queer and Indigenous writers, writers of colour, and the smaller, independent publishers who support them.

For both Purcell and Stepanic, Glass Bookshop is a culmination of their personal and literary journeys.

Purcell graduated last year with a master's degree in English and Film Studies, and also holds a BA in Comparative Literature. Both degrees have served him well as a writer, poet and musician, and as the Programs Officer for the Faculty of Arts' Canadian Literature Centre, among other literary activities. His popular YouTube channel features reviews of books, as well as music.

Stepanic also pursued literature at the University of Alberta, earning an honors degree in English and Film Studies in 2012, followed in 2013 by the launch of Glass Buffalo - an award-winning literary magazine for emerging writers. A freelance writer, poet, and editor, Stepanic is currently serving as the 2019 Writer-in-Residence at the Edmonton Public Library.

As Stepanic notes, after several years of supporting local writing, this feels like a natural fit - "the next part of our literary careers". He credits Ruth Dyck Fehderau, his creative writing instructor, for influencing his writing, and indeed, his life as a young, queer writer.

"I was always writing around my identity, because I hadn't really seen it anywhere else," he says. "She made us very aware that if we have a queer story or have a marginalized voice in any way, [her classroom] will be space where you will feel comfortable and protected. I've taken that everywhere I go, from being the writer-in-residence, to publishing a magazine, to opening a bookstore. It shifted my perspective on writers and books."

While Stepanic and Purcell didn't meet until after completing their undergraduate degrees, their mutual interests eventually converged into a deep friendship and multiple ongoing collaborations, the latest of which is the bookstore.

Conceived last year, they describe Glass Bookshop as "part bookstore, part wine bar, part community space". They are hoping that it will become a "third space" for the community - a place that is not work, not home, but somewhere in between. A space for conversation, book launches, and readings. A place where everyone feels welcome.

Faculty of Arts alumni Jason Purcell and Matthew Stepanic collaborate on new bookstore Glass Bookshop

"When I go into bookstores and see that the queer, Black or Indigenous studies sections are small and hard to find, what that says to me as a consumer and as a human being is that the publishers and the booksellers are not invested in telling these stories," says Purcell. "What we want to do is have books that people can see themselves in, everywhere. It's very powerful."

Stepanic and Purcell are part of a thriving and diverse literary community in Edmonton, made up of writers, poets and publishers who are choosing to stay in Edmonton and invest in the city's creative energy. Fellow alums Todd Babiak, Marilyn Dumont, Vivek Shraya, Curtis Gillespie, Jason Lee Norman, and current Griffin Poetry Prize recipients, Jordan Abel and Billy-Ray Belcourt, are just a few examples of Edmonton (and Alberta's) literary depth.

But Stepanic adds, it's not just about who is here now.

"We are also thinking about the new writers that we can attract to our city," he says. "We have some connections with bigger publishers across Canada who are also excited about this new space in Edmonton. They see the strength in our mandate, and the value of it."

As for the name, they explain that while it owes some allegiance to Glass Buffalo magazine where Stepanic serves as editor and Purcell as both contributor and interviews editor, as Purcell explains, it goes much deeper.

"Glass is this clear, pristine material that you can see through, that can hold things, but it can also be something sharp, that can cut through things," he says. "I love all the different evocations of the word, which is reflected in the types of writing that we want to promote. Up and coming writers who are publishing with small presses, queer writers, writers of colour, Indigenous writers - they are all doing work that is cutting through dominant narratives, and that is really exciting."

Visit Glass Bookshop here. ADDENDUM: Glass Bookshop is now open at Edmonton City Centre Mall West (pedway level).