During the half hour Liz Crocker sits on a window seat inside Woozles’ new location, two eager customers come to the door. “Are you open yet?” one woman asks from beneath a mask. “I really need an advent calendar,” says the second, peering expectantly at the LEGO toy calendars on a shelf just a few feet away.
Longtime Woozles employees Suzy MacLean and Lisa Doucet apologetically turn both customers away, promising that if they come back soon to the 6013 Shirley Street shop, they’ll be able to get just the birthday gift or stocking stuffer they need.
Locking the door, MacLean and Doucet go back to the office, where they’re busy sorting and coding new inventory, and putting together the white particle-board IKEA shelves it will rest on before plucked up by tiny hands once the children’s bookstore re-opens Saturday, November 20.
“One of our missions is to put the right book in the right hands at the right time,” says Crocker, turning back to our conversation. A woman with kind eyes, who seems she could instantly connect with children and adults alike, Crocker's been the driving force behind Woozles since it first opened 43 years ago.
“Often we will have people come in and say, I have an eight-year-old, he says he hates to read. He's really interested in chess. Do you have anything?” Crocker says. “And the extraordinary staff we have usually can go, Oh, yes, we do! How about trying this?.”
Over the years, that became what Woozles was known for: giving children exactly what they need. And not just in terms of books, but in terms of a place to play, learn and ask questions.
“It's back to that notion of being in a community space, and also a space where kids can come in and they're not told not to touch things,” says Crocker. “I guess what we're trying to create is a place that has excellent products in books and toys and puzzles and stuff like that, but also a place that feels friendly and enthusiastic and personal.”
Crocker thinks back to decades ago, when she was in her early 30s and first dreamed up Woozles for her own child. “I couldn’t get books for her, not the ones I wanted,” she says. So after a “market survey of one,” she started the business. “I talked my husband and a friend into doing it and off I went. And now here we are.”
Halifax’s children have grown up with Woozles over the years, reading Robert Munsch and L.M. Montgomery books in the “big comfy chair” (an armchair Crocker and her husband bought at the Salvation Army as newlyweds in the 70s) and running through the halls of 1533 Birmingham Street, a converted house right downtown off Spring Garden Road that was originally built in 1941, according to the sales listing.
Parents who grew up coming to Woozles now bring their own children there. “And grandparents who are now great grandparents,” says Crocker. “We're into sort of the fourth generation.”
That’s why it’s understandable so many people were sad to hear Crocker was selling the building.
“We announced it back in the spring, before we’d even put the building on the market, just letting people know that we're going to move,” says Crocker. “They [customers] have shared nostalgia with us, and wistfulness for the ‘yellow house with the green door,’ but have said, we get it, and we'll find you wherever you are.”
The reasons for the move were multiple: partially due to the age of the building, partially due to the lack of accessibility that comes with a building so old, partially because of the accessibility of downtown Halifax itself.
“It was already an old building when we bought it, so it's become an older building,” Crocker explains. “We were having to put more and more money into sustaining the building and more effort and attention, and that was taking away from actually running the business.”
And while Crocker says the ongoing roadwork to Spring Garden itself has been well-communicated, the shopping district overall has changed a lot since Woozles first launched in 1978.
“When we opened, Spring Garden Road was known as the most pedestrian-trafficked street. It was a different vibe in that area and more of a neighbourhood,” she says. “And increasingly, we were hearing from our customers things like, I'd love to come to your store, but it's just too difficult.”
The Birmingham Street building sold just days after going on the market in July. Crocker managed to negotiate the closing date to keep the old Woozles open there until late October, but she immediately set out to find a new location. Eventually she discovered 6013 Shirley Street, a new development near Quinpool Road that will have other businesses on the ground floor and residential tenants above.
“We are their first commercial tenant and we're thrilled that they wanted us and we're thrilled that we’re here. So the other commercial spaces are being rented as we speak. The one next door to us is going to be Edward Jones, financial planner,” she says, offering a tour of the building. “And the others, there's lots of interest. And of course, we arrogantly think that once people see that we're here, they're gonna want to be here.”
When Woozles first signed the lease in mid-August, the space was bare-bones. No walls, no lighting, no electrical wiring. It took until early October to actually get into the building because of permit delays.
“We couldn’t do anything because we didn’t have our permit. And it took seven weeks, so we lost seven weeks,” says Crocker. “So really, we got in first of October.”
The past six weeks have been full of renovations, from installing a bathroom, carpet and electrical, to building bookcases and bringing stock in from a storage locker. After plenty of hard work, Crocker says things are finally coming together.
“We got all the IKEA stuff Monday, built by Tuesday, all the inventory stuff showed up Wednesday,” she says. “And we’ve been dealing with placing inventory while people have been working overhead and underneath.”
Since then, Woozles also got an occupancy permit and electrical inspection, allowing the official date for re-opening to be set for 10am on Saturday, November 20.
Crocker says the impatient knocks at the door have been frequent. “I think there's just lots of interest in this neighbourhood,” she says. “I've heard of any number of nine-year-olds and six-year-olds and 11-year-olds who just go, Oh my gosh, it's gonna be so close. I can go up by myself! So that feels good about it.”
The new store is bright and big, with plenty of space for children to play and guardians to rest. A few days before opening, when Crocker chats with The Coast, there are still some finishing touches to be made to make it cozy, quaint and cute.
“As we get some of the construction things out, like those huge things of garbage, then we can see where we're going to place things,” Crocker says. “Like, where's Clifford gonna end up? Where’s the big comfy chair gonna be?”
As for the merchandise, the books will largely stay the same, with the goal of expanding a few sections including Indigenous authors, local authors and novels for teens venturing beyond YA (young adult) lit—a section that’s rapidly changing.
“I've often said to people that if you really want to know what the hot issues are in society, read young adult literature,” Crocker says. “Because there are novels that show up about all the emerging issues in that world faster than anything else. So for example, the whole issue of sexual identity and non-binary and gender fluidity. The fact that something like that shows up and helps people understand the language.”
And as COVID becomes more endemic and less pandemic, Woozles will also bring back events like their YA book club for adults, the Battle of the Books for local students and other things to make readers feel welcome. “The subtitle of Woozles is not Woozles: the children's bookstore, it's Woozles: a place for and about children,” says Crocker.
She’s excited to dive into the second chapter, but also has kept a few homages to the old store. This includes the “big comfy chair” that was recently re-upholstered by the Halifax Furniture Clinic, a few shelving units and bookcases, and one special tribute.
“It’s a small little detail,” says Crocker. “But the door to the office room, as a little thing for nostalgia we're gonna paint it green, the same colour green as what it was on Birmingham Street.”