EDITOR'S NOTE: This article is part of a new BurlingtonToday series — 'THIS IS BURLINGTON' — that showcases the people, places, organizations and businesses that make our city so special. Click HERE to read every story in the series, which will run throughout the month of November.
In 1970, when Al Cummings and John Richardson opened a bookstore in Burlington called A Different Drummer Books’ the book-selling business was simpler. No scented candles, no trinkets at the sales counter.
People came for one thing, the books. And maybe a friendly chat with staff knowledgeable about authors, titles, genres and newest releases.
From the mid-'80s when Richard Bachmann took over the helm until 2010, the book-selling landscape had changed dramatically. Superstores and online services promised a wider selection, faster delivery and maybe a coffee while you thumbed through a book or magazine. Meanwhile, hundreds of small bookstores in Canada were pushed to the side or right out of business.
Publishers and authors still made the pilgrimage to bricks-and-mortar stores with ‘author chats’ and book signings, but even that became rarer, except for the handful of boutiques owned and run by bibliophiles and antiquarians (look it up – but use a dictionary for heavens’ sake).
Aside from the three or four used books stores in Burlington, that leaves A Different Drummer Books as the longest serving, and surviving, bookstore in town. Now owned by Ian Elliot, A Different Drummer Books still hosts sold-out authors’ talks, still has knowledgeable staff, and still has a big selection of books on shelves or on order. “A proudly independent community bookstore” is its motto.
Elliot came into the store in 1990 as a graduate of English Literature at Western university to stock shelves, be the shipper/receiver, to help with sales and the inevitable “duties as required”. His love of books, the art of writing, and the sharing of storytelling drew him in to eventually become the owner when Bachmann decided to step aside.
“There’s still so much being published these days it’s hard to keep up,” said Elliot. “I have a hard time thinking that this (publishing) industry is in peril.”
Speaking about his transition from employee to owner, Elliot stated, “I was fortunate to be able to learn about the trade and meeting authors, learning about how a book is marketed, what works for some titles and not for others.”
He noted that the learning curve to running a business was steep but after a dozen years as owner, he’s got it figured out, mostly. “I’ve been very lucky through the support of the community,” Elliot said. “It’s the main thing that drives us and keeps us going. I must also note my colleague, Kate Riley, in the store and the publishers and the authors.”
A Different Drummer Books celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic. “I was fortunate to be the owner at the time,” said Elliot. “At the same time I thought we wouldn’t have any revenue coming in, we’d have to tighten up the operation (and wait for better days). But from the first day, the phone rang and rang, the email cue was full, I put a lot of miles on the vehicle delivering books and we had a pick-up box at the side of the store.”
Elliot also mentioned that, unbeknownst to him, some customers had created a commemorative book filled with photos and comments from customers, authors, publishers and other well-wishers to celebrate the anniversary. Elliot was overwhelmed by such support from the community that continues to this day.
A Different Drummer Books, one of the entities that makes Burlington awesome, is located at 513 Locust St. in downtown Burlington. For more information about authors’ talks, new releases or to register for its newsletter, email [email protected].