Turning the Page

A dozen years ago Lou Pamenter walked in to Port Hope’s Furby House Books as the new owner. Her approach has always been to get to know her customers personally. Now, as she retires, she leaves behind a legacy of literature and goodwill.

To walk into Port Hope’s Furby House Books from the bustle of Walton Street is to enter a world where quiet browsing and leisurely page-turning are the rule of the day. The bookshelves of dark wood along the walls beckon, and the colourful book covers call out to readers. Virginia Woolf stares across the aisle at Sally Rooney, Mark Carney at Rick Mercer. It is hard not to want to read them all.

“My twelve years of owning Furby House Books have been so enjoyable for me,” Lou Pamenter says, with her usual quiet humility. “I have received more than I have given.”

And even now, she hasn’t quite stopped giving.

Furby House Books was begun in 1989 by Rod Stewart in Victorian publisher William Furby’s former house on Walton Street. He was followed by Susan and Joe Pignataro. Much of the interior décor we see today was done by Bill Edwards, who acquired the current building at 65 Walton Street in 1999 and renovated it extensively before moving in. After his work was finished, Edwards looked around for a buyer; it’s possible he was really more interested in restoration than in running a bookstore.

“The secret to owning an independent bookstore is to know your customers personally and know what they want to read.” Lou Pamenter

A dozen years ago, Lou Pamenter walked in the door as the new owner. Bringing along a love of words from her former career as a textbook editor, Lou found herself in the right place at the right time. Interior renos notwithstanding, the building was showing signs of its age, so with support from the Port Hope branch of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario, Lou re-stuccoed two of the exterior walls and, as she says, “replaced most of the old brick with better old brick.”

And so began a wondrous relationship between Lou, her customers and her staff.

Cherished memories of a career filled with memories include growing the store’s children’s book section and adding a subscription service for children, as well as introducing a storytime for pre-schoolers. She has also enjoyed cooperating with local libraries and organizations such as the ACO, the University Women’s Club, Horizons of Friendship and the Northumberland Learning Connection.

Meeting authors has been one of the highlights of her time at Furby House. “We all have Farley Mowat stories to tell,” she says.

Lou is known for her support for local authors, whether they are national names or yet to be discovered, but she is shy about naming any single author: “To name a few would be to leave out too many.”

What is the secret of bookselling success? “The secret to owning an independent bookstore is to know your customers personally and know what they want to read,” Lou says. The staff pride themselves on stocking the newest in-demand bestsellers as well as the right selection of lesser-known works that might speak to a particular group of readers.

In addition to the pure joy of matching the right book to the right customer, there’s a practical aspect too. “Chapters Indigo can afford to carry a huge inventory of unread books,” Lou says, “but not a small store.” This approach is critical to the future of independent booksellers as the spectre of digital publishing and online big-box behemoths looms over the marketplace. “I am confident that independent bookstores will continue to exist, with their curated collections, knowledgeable staff and supportive customers,” says Lou.

It is no surprise when she declares the keystone of her ownership these past 12 years: “Spreading the word about independent bookstores,” she says without hesitation. “It is not an easy business but the rewards are enormous.”

Her words were recently made manifest when she decided she was not going to put her store up for sale when she retires. Instead, she is transferring ownership to the Furby House staff she’s worked with. This simple gesture speaks to her regard for the community, her dedication to the independent bookstore business, and her respect for her coworkers, not to mention her devotion to them.

It may not be fair to ask so soon what her plans for retirement are, but for now she’s hoping to continue helping bring live jazz performances back to the community and to celebrate the work of the late artist David Blackwood in Port Hope. “And to continue to buy books.” Well, of course.

Success aside, what has been the most rewarding aspect of owning a small independent bookstore?

Again, without hesitation, the perfect answer:
“People are happy when they walk in the door. They want to be here.”

And it’s not a stretch to say that Lou Pamenter has been one of the reasons for that.

Story by:
Christopher Cameron

Photography by:
Mira Knott

[Winter 2022/2023 features]