2 min

Ottawa says goodbye to beloved women’s bookstore

Mother Tongue Books will close its doors this summer

Mother Tongue co-owner Evelyn Huer is closing the bookstore after almost 20 years in business. Credit: Andi Schwartz
Ottawa feminist institution Mother Tongue Books will be closing its doors this summer, but not before hosting a month of events to celebrate almost 20 years of business.
“We’re no longer making a living,” says co-owner Evelyn Huer. “It’s been increasingly difficult to be sustainable and also to keep the spark there for us.”
Huer says the challenges of being an independent bookseller in a climate that favours big-box stores and electronic forms of reading, coupled with the desire to pursue other goals, led to the decision to close Mother Tongue for good.
“Almost every bookseller I know is now or has faced the pressures of trying to sell books in this climate. When we opened this bookstore in 1994, there was no Chapters; there was no internet presence,” she says.
Though many are sorry to see the shop close, Huer says she has received an amazing response from the community.
“People have been coming in and buying all sorts of stuff. So before we close, we have to actually get more stuff in.”
Over the years, Mother Tongue has played many roles, from retail store to workshop space to community ally and educational hub.
Shoshana Magnet, a professor at the University of Ottawa, has been shopping at Mother Tongue since she was 13 years old.
She says that upon hearing the news that the store is closing, she burst into tears.
“I’m so sad. The whole community is going to suffer,” she says.
Magnet has sent all her women’s studies students to Mother Tongue but will now order course reading materials from other independent bookstores, like Octopus Books and Venus Envy.
Huer says the other independent bookstores will continue to serve the niche community that Mother Tongue did, but filling the physical void will be more difficult.
“Something will open up, I’m sure. Something that will be more dynamic — it doesn’t have to be a retail space,” she says. “Those things will happen, because they have to happen, because we need them.”
At the age of 90, Jeanne Wolfe is one of Mother Tongue’s dearest customers. She says she doesn’t know where she will go for books after the shop closes, but it won’t be online.
“You can’t stop progress. Having an eBook is progress; not to me, but I guess to some people,” she says. “There’s nothing like having a book in your hand to read.”
Huer gets wistful talking about the history of Mother Tongue but says she is excited to move on.
“Nobody stays in the same job for almost 20 years. My business partner and I have occupied less than 1,000 square feet together for a long time.”
Huer says she and co-owner Laura Rayner look forward to serving the community in other ways. Rayner will continue working in cooperative housing programs, while Huer has plans to become an acupuncture practitioner.
The month of celebrations kicks off Friday, June 22 with author Elizabeth Hay and singer/songwriter Jill Zmud.
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