7 Notable Bookstores and Literary Institutions in Victoria, British Columbia

Photo of Emma Harwood
26 December 2016

Seven, why seven? In honour of the writerly tradition of seven character archetypes proposed by Vogler, I’ve cast each one as an archetypal character. You could spend days touring these bookstores, each with their own unique character to suit whatever mood or occasion, and a high level of Canadian customer service. This list features the big players, and also the minor characters.

© Munro’s Books

Munro's Books (The Hero)

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A regular on lists of top bookshops worldwide and an icon on the high street, Munro’s is a gem, firstly, for its famous founder Alice Munro. Her literary legacy extends beyond awards to bricks and mortar. Munro’s seems to have found its true home in its impressive building, originally designed and built at the turn of the twentieth century for the Royal Bank of Canada. The allure of its interior rivals that of its exterior, as any passerby on the street is drawn like a magnet to the shelves within. The inside resembles a library setting, with its quiet, studious air and well ordered high bookshelves. Indeed its 24 foot ceiling is reminiscent of an ancient Roman library. Perhaps an unlikely hero, unfashionably at its time of launch in the 60s, selling paperbacks, Munro’s nurtured a trend way ahead of its time and garnered a steady client base. Munro’s continues to sell today, and now, Murchie’s is next door to provide sustenance.

Renaissance Books (The Mentor)

Still in Old Town, just a short hop away but huddled behind the main thoroughfare, lies Renaissance Books. A maze of shelves navigable by subjects ranging from poetry to First Nations, walking in feels like stepping back in time. There is an online search machine, but the magic lies in wandering around, reviving the art of browsing and seeing what you might stumble upon. This venerable store surely has wisdom to impart to the lost, so open yourself up to discover something new.

14 Bastion Square, Commercial Alley, Victoria, BC, Canada 250-381-6469

Chapters (The Threshold Guardian)

The mainstay of bookstores, this national chainstore sells a lot more than books and is spread over three floors. A powerful superstore, Chapters combines electronics with homeware and magazines under one roof. Guarding its interests and certainly holding a monopoly in terms of services it offers: rewards programs and subscriptions, the store is keen to ally itself with its customers. Although more a department store and very much the modern face of book buying, it still keeps the physical book in circulation and hosts regular events such as book signings and debates. Don’t forget to check out the games selection in the basement. There’s a Starbucks upstairs too if all the page flicking wears you out.

1212 Douglas Street, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada 250-380-9009

Russell Books bookmark
© Russell Books Bookmark

Russell Books (The Herald)

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Russell Books is a bookstore to bookmark. A family business, the mothership store was established in Montréal and the Victoria site heralds new generations of dedicated employees. A floor-to-ceiling labyrinth, a ladder is required to navigate the warehouse space, to get to books (used and new) inhabiting these shelves. The space is seventh heaven for book lovers, inviting its guests to lose themselves in its corridors. Russell’s is also perfect for book clubs, stocking some titles in bulk and with a discount. Look downstairs at their recent addition, the Vintage and Rare Book Floor, housing a collection of well preserved old tomes. Russell’s sets the bar for atmosphere, once you’ve visited you won’t come out the same.

James Bay Coffee and Books (The Shapeshifter)

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With something hearty bubbling away in the kitchen, James Bay Coffee and Books is the place to read and refresh. For a first-timer, the concept of DIY coffee can be confusing but if you like to make your own drinks then look no further. The interior is decorated to the feel of a living room, with newspapers for perusing and homemade treats; the antithesis to Starbucks. Expect to see someone knitting in the corner. The bookstore features used books and music and if you’re brave enough, open mic nights as well as tea leaf reading. James Bay has a real community vibe.

Dark Horse Books (The Shadow)

Bookstore, Store
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Logo | © AbeBooks
A rare book shop appealing to the alternative crowd, the store wafts counterculture outward on a cloud of incense. Dark Horse Books is a small store featuring comics and graphic novels, a stock of local zines and science fiction. Though it will never threaten or achieve the success and status of Munro’s, Dark Horse has a dedicated, and loyal following.

AbeBooks (The Trickster)

Although not an actual bookstore, AbeBooks is a major source of economic income for the city. It sits slightly uncomfortably among the others on this list as the only online-only bookstore. Just as Munro’s championed the future of paperback in its time, AbeBooks.com looks to the next step in the journey of storytelling. An online marketplace for books that unites students and textbooks, the Victoria HQ is the birthplace of the virtual inventory. It continues to expand the horizon for book seekers and open up the value of used books for a whole new world to explore.

410 Garbally Road, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada 250-412-3258
If there’s still not enough choice for you, simply travel up the peninsula to Sidney to find another wealth of bookstores on Vancouver Island. Even in Victoria, there are many other bookstores to explore, and this list merely scratches the surface So see which one suits you best, from laid back to businesslike; lose yourself in a odyssey of fictional worlds and let the adventure begin.