The proud fish firms of Montague Street, formerly the lifeblood of Lunenburg’s fishery, are gone. But now, with the rise of tourism, a culture of literature is breathing new life into the buildings which once produced the blocks, oars and sails for the town’s fishing fleet.
Lunenburg, which boasts a mere population of 2,263 people according to the 2016 census, is able to support a thriving library, a literary festival and three independent bookshops.
Alice Burdick, one of the three owners of Lexicon Books, explained that the town is part of a literary renaissance.
“I feel like we are this microcosm of a larger trend,” she said, emphasizing the importance of Lunenburg’s literary appreciation.
“It means that there is really hope for literacy, for literature, for ideas, for intelligence in the world.”
Lunenburg’s three bookshops are all contained within a 60-metre stretch of sidewalk perched just above the painted waterfront.
Lexicon Books is housed at 125 Montague St., taking up residence in the old block shop. Elizabeth’s Books is only a short distance away and Lunenburg Bound Books completes the circuit, occupying 139 Montague St. The whole section is fondly referred to as the book district.
Three years ago Michael Higgins of Lunenburg Bound Books decided to change his life and open a bookshop.
But he wasn’t the only one looking to deal in paperbacks.
“It was a bit of a coincidence that Lexicon (Books) and Lunenburg Bound opened within a week of each other,” said Higgins with a smile.
Elizabeth’s Books, which is the oldest of the three shops, has been a staple of the community for years. Although much has been made out of the demise of print, Higgins highlighted that, like vinyl, people are returning to the printed word.
“I think we (both) felt there was an opportunity to have an independent bookshop. A lot of the troubles in the book retail business are behind us,” he said. “People are looking for an intimate connection with books and a bookseller.”
Burdick also saw an opportunity in Lunenburg to make a difference.
“It’s a really diverse community, in the sense of the different ages of people here, people from different backgrounds and interests. There’s a lot artistically happening in general in town. It’s a literate population,” she said.
Tourism has in many ways enabled the growth of these three shops, given that hundreds of tourists flock to the town each day throughout the summer. Together, Higgins said, he believes the book district has helped expand the market for literature in town.
“I think there is a greater appreciation for (literature) than there has been for the last 20 years,” he said.
The interest in literature has extended itself to the repurposing of historical spaces in Lunenburg.
For example, the Lunenburg branch of the South Shore Public Libraries is preparing to move from its current location on Pelham Street to the Historic Lunenburg Academy.
The academy, which was constructed in 1895, has undergone a revival in the last few years and in addition to the library houses other organizations such as the South Shore Genealogical Society. The library portion is expected to be unveiled later this summer.
Jeff Mercer, the deputy chief librarian with South Shore Public Libraries, noted the importance of revitalizing the academy.
“We will definitely help liven it up and give it a new lease on life. We’ll be looking at new partnerships with the organizations that are already there. It is starting to become what we’re calling a cultural hub,” said Mercer.
And the academy isn’t the only building in town that has been revitalized in the name of literature.
A plaque on the exterior of Lexicon Books has been placed to commemorate its time as the block shop of Alfred Dauphinee and Sons. The building was constructed in 1925 and was vacated by Arthur Dauphinee, who was also a block maker, in 1985.
Walking into Lexicon Books, some of the old beams and bricks are still visible, adding a charm to the place for Burdick.
“It feels kind of magical. It makes sense that these buildings are going through different iterations,” she said. “I love the fact that this building was a blockhouse. Giant pieces of wood were in here being processed. It’s craft, it’s art, it’s intelligence. I like these changes.”
Lunenburg Bound also sits in a historical building, occupying the space where Power Brothers Plumbing and Heating formerly stood.
Higgins said his shop also bears witness to the industrial past of the town but Lunenburg has been really thoughtful about its past and its place in history.
Given the town’s budding literary interests, South Shore Public Libraries CEO Troy Myers saw an opportunity to launch the Lunenburg Lit Festival. Entering its third year, the festival is scheduled to take place on Sept. 28 and 29. Myers said the event, which highlights writers and local stories, is a fun, relaxed environment — a perfect fit for Lunenburg.
“I think it’s the history, it’s the architecture. There’s a real sense of community in Lunenburg,” he said.
And the public has taken notice. Myers noted that most of the tickets have been sold and that there is never an issue getting volunteers. Mercer also said that the previous two renditions of the festival were successful and it is the type of activity the public expects from their local library.
“We’re a place for people to gather and meet. We’re a community centre,” he said.
The town’s sense of community was on display when the library organized volunteers to form a human chain to help move books up to the academy. Burdick agrees, citing that the people are engaged in their community.
“These are people who are interested in what’s going on around them,” she said.
To satiate this interest, Lexicon Books holds author readings and signings throughout the year and they are often well-attended. Higgins said he also feels that people are engaged.
“It’s a part of a community and Lunenburg is blessed right now with a strong community. It speaks volumes about a community that is passionate about knowledge and (its) access to books,” he said.
Between the library, the literary festival and the bookshops, Lunenburg has established a burgeoning literary culture.
And according to Higgins, this growth is necessary for the survival of a place that simultaneously has a foot in the past and the present.
“If you remember the Ivany Report, if there is a future for rural Nova Scotia — and I certainly believe that there is — it is about people doing interesting things on a smaller scale.”