“Magic” buried in Regina’s hidden store, Spafford Books

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Spafford Books greeter Oxford, sitting in wait to take book lovers into the cave of wonders. Gillian Massie

The mystery begins trying to find the entrance

This small bookshop hidden in the shadows of Regina buildings proves that there is still magic in each corner of the city.

Spafford Books is a place for intellectuals and dreamers, with a coveted fountain of knowledge beaming from the academic library and bookshop. Entering through a hidden back-alley entrance, through a squeaky metal door, you can find owner Leah Spafford at her desk organizing and cataloguing books while bookstore resident Oxford the dog sits on the back of a recliner greeting guests. Spafford’s love of books shines through in her value of each antiquarian book she acquires.

“It is magic, touching history, and becoming immersed in it,” Leah says. “With significant volumes, you become part of the provenance. You become part of this story… a step in the journey [of] the item. And it feels wonderful to be a part of it, it builds up a part of history.”

Unlike any other bookstore, tours are available to graze the rich history of the building and the items within it. Sections of antiquarian books are divvied up into sections to great extent. With large directories from Indigenous to Prairie Canadiana, the store is perfectly organized and catalogued with rich history stuck between each corner. Employee Robin Clark only grazed the surface of the history of books in the store, telling me about the stories behind antiques like a Cree typewriter, to wallet-sized pornography for men, to toothpick sculptures ordaining the tops of bookshelves.

Running a bookstore comes as second nature for Leah, who learned the tricks of the trade from her father, Richard Spafford.

“We lived in the back of the bookstore when I was a kid,” Leah says. “I quite literally grew up underneath this particular desk.”

Richard got his start at book selling by watching a friend in Saskatoon make his living off of buying and selling antiquarian books before getting involved himself. He worked under many booksellers, learning how to appraise and find value in each of the books. Working under different booksellers provided him with the confidence to work as an independent, and he then established his own business. The Spafford family moved to the Regina area, where the bookstore scene was slight in comparison to Saskatoon. Richard began focusing his store to antiquarian books as well as developing a large variety of Prairie Canadiana.

Spafford Books has adopted its business model from Richard’s own method since the beginning of establishment – let your reputation speak for itself, and the people will come to you. Spafford Books has remained in the shadows of Regina’s busy streets entirely on purpose. The hidden bookshop is for the curious, which is why it attracts different academics, historians, or those who stumbled upon the back-alley entrance.

When Leah began to take over shop, she began encouraging a few more visitors a week from once or twice a week to once or twice a day. When Leah began making maps for people to find the store her father had said “but people will be able to find us then!”

Spafford Books was not always located off Broad Street. It spent many years hopping to different locations, originally getting its start as “The Book Cellar,” located in the basement of a quaint townhouse on 13th Avenue, in the Cathedral area. Later they moved into a separate townhouse, which is now occupied by Dessart Sweets Ice Cream & Candy Store. The bookstore also resided in other well-known Regina areas such as the Antique Mall and Centennial Mall until another major event struck: the internet was created.

Richard Spafford – a true introvert at heart – fled to a different location where he could be pursued by academics, historians, and those curious enough to find his book shop. Leah reminisced with a laugh about her father frantically packing up shop and leaving to “hide in a warehouse, hang out with my dog, and drink wine.” A section in the store is dedicated to the late Richard Spafford humorously labelled as “the largest Dick section” in Canada with any books pertaining to the name.

Spafford Books has found its ideal location after years of fast moves. The building is an old Hudson’s Bay Company cold storage warehouse for furs. Although it is a bookstore now, the origins of the building remain by the embellished tin ceiling. “There’s a feeling of history that fits with the mystery of the store,” said Spafford. “Its palpable, its memory contained within the stone walls.”

The old warehouse is rich with history like the books within it. Around every corner there is a new section full of knowledge, reeling in guests of the establishment. Scattered between the catalogues of books are other items of history that brightly accent the store. A trip around the store is like sitting in a villain’s library to plot your next scheme, but instead of a cat sitting in your lap you have Oxford the dog laying right at your feet.

In this profession, knowing how to appraise books is essential to fully immerse yourself into the knowledge of the story, from research to background information. Appraisals have come to a halt during the pandemic, but that’s not to say that Spafford doesn’t miss new clientele walking through the door.

“Every time you do an appraisal, you have to learn everything about the thing,” explained Leah. “If it’s a person, you learn everything about the person, and the time that they were in, and how they slot into history and the significance of them and the historical value of that, and so that’s the learning part that I miss a lot.”

The bookshop dives down the rabbit hole of knowledge and takes great care of the books contained within its walls. Of course, every great bookkeeper needs a break, and so there is always a puzzle on the go at the store to pass the time.

All of this is to say that Spafford Books is undoubtably the best place in Regina to spend the afternoon in the pursuit of knowledge.

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