Carol Hoffman is always the first to open on Wednesday morning.
She has volunteered at the SHAVA charity bookstore inside the old Grandin Park Plaza mall for 20 years, mostly with the same group of women.
They are old friends, so Wednesdays are days to look forward to. But today things are different, and Hoffman feels a tinge of sadness walking into the building.
The store had spent its last years in a corner beside the Scotiabank toward the back of the mall. And while the hallways had turned ghostly over the years with businesses closing, the bookstore had always survived.
Most of the mall is gone now, demolished more than a year ago to make room for a major housing project. And the bank has turned into a skeleton of its former self, with empty countertops and desks, and forgotten paper cups.
The eviction notice arrived months ago. There is no room or reason to keep the little bookstore open. So the store, with its faint smell of used books and old carpet, and a history of almost 30 years, is closing. Saturday, Nov. 28, will be its last day.
"It has sunk in now. We've had a while to let it sink in now," says Hoffman. "We knew once the bank left that there was no hope for us."
"But it will be a sad day."
On their first day, Betty Golliff and Mary Bondarevich sold one book.
It was 1986, and the two women wanted to ramp up fundraising for the Sturgeon Hospital Auxiliary Volunteer Association (SHAVA). So they packed their car full of used books and drove to the City Ford dealership just south of St. Albert.
It wasn't a success right away but people noticed them, says Golliff.
"We had the books stored in the garage and once a month we would drive out there," she says. "Then they said come into the mall."
The Grandin Park Plaza mall, located at the corner of Sir Winston Churchill Avenue and St. Anne Street, was already dying at the time. Stores were moving in and out and businesses closed every couple of months.
Management decided to give the volunteer group space for free. The idea was SHAVA could sell its books and maybe attract customers to the mall.
Over the years that led to a lot of moving around, says Golliff.
The first SHAVA bookstore opened in an old hardware store. It collected book donations from residents, and resold them for cheap.
Later on, the store relocated to a Chinese restaurant, the Silver Lantern.
When that space flooded, the volunteers packed the books in a hurry and moved them into the empty store beside the bank.
The flood did a lot of damage but former businesses and friends donated furniture and shelving units, says Golliff.
The books were not kept on tables anymore but neatly organized on shelves along the wall. And they had a small office space for staff in the back.
The volunteer base had also grown, with five or six people on staff every day.
Golliff is still one of them. She spends her hours by the cash register where she can chat and joke with the customers. She and Mary Bondarevich still go for dinner every month.
She always liked the people best.
"I had fun, I enjoyed the people, I enjoyed the customers," she says. "You get all these hugs and it doesn't take much to make you feel like you've done something every day."
"But we always knew it was iffy and all good things come to an end."
There is a great hoo-ha when Doug Styles walks into the store on Wednesday morning. He brings a bouquet of flowers and a camera, to capture a memory of his favourite volunteer ladies.
They call him one of their favourite customers.
"We adopted him," laughs Hoffman. "At least I did."
Styles has been a constant at the SHAVA book store every Wednesday morning for the past 15 years.
He happened to stumble upon it when he went to the mall one day and thought it helped a good cause, he says. He also likes cheap books, mostly on non-fiction and military history.
"This is only a fraction of what they used to have," he says, waving his arms at the emptying shelves. The bookstore stopped taking donations a few weeks ago and is now selling everything for 25 cents.
"You would find everything here from modern releases to older, more sought-after books."
One time, he discovered an old military book that mentioned a family member he did not even know existed. That was a real treasure, "a diamond in the rough," he says.
But like most of the long-time customers who religiously show up at the same time every week, he comes for the staff.
"They have always been so nice, so kind, and they don't even get paid," he says. "If you were looking for something they always made note of it."
Today, he has a difficult time leaving. He talks to the ladies in the back for a while, and then gets his camera from the car.
He eats a doughnut, spends time looking at books. Later, he chats some more with Hoffman.
"It is very sad because I got to know these girls over the years," he says.
Moira Nestor also brings gifts, an angel tree ornament – she makes one every year – and the doughnuts.
Nestor and her husband once ran a flea-market stand for 15 years, where they re-sold the books they bought at the store. Now they buy for themselves.
She likes historical novels about ancient Greece and Egypt. Her husband prefers books on sports. At home, their books are already stacked along the walls and packed inside boxes because they have so many, she says.
Once she found a first edition of Hemingway's Old Man and the Sea at the store. It still had its dust jacket and was in mint condition.
"I paid a dollar for it," she says. "That was a find."
She also paid 50 cents for a portfolio on old musical instruments that came from someone's private collection. It dated back to 1892 and "the pictures just jumped from the page, they were just beautiful."
She takes a long time browsing the shelves today. Her husband asks for a box from the volunteers to fill it. She ends up buying a novel about ancient Persia.
"I really don't need any more books," she whispers.
No storybook ending
Jackie White moved from Calgary to Edmonton in January 1986. She was homesick and lonesome and wondered what could get her through the winter.
She also liked hospitals.
Now the president of SHAVA, she has volunteered with the association for 29 years, sometimes working night shifts at the hospital's gift shop, other times spending her mornings sorting through books at the store.
Until the end, she hoped someone would save it.
But that would have meant donating space. The store had been housed in the mall for more than two decades, and never paid rent or utilities. They simply don't earn enough to pay a lease and make donations, she says.
"We have been very, very fortunate in the years that Amacon and all the previous developers have supported us," she says.
White says the store donated almost $50,000 to the hospital this year alone.
Over time, these funds helped purchase everything from electric beds to wheelchairs, walkers and various pieces of medical equipment.
The association also funded a mural painting, the adult day program and equipment for the emergency room.
While it's not the only fundraiser, the store was one of the main sources of income for SHAVA. The hospital gift shop is another source of revenue.
Now it's selling out. Books are going for 25 cents apiece. Furniture will be donated to other associations in the city. After Dec. 4, a junk company will come and take away the rest.
And while the empty shelves are sad to see, the disappointed faces of the volunteers are sometimes worse.
"There is a great sense of ownership with our bookstore and with what we contribute to the hospital and the community," she says.
Someone talked about bringing in champagne but they didn't think the hospital would appreciate them drinking on the job. So Hoffman and the other volunteers settle for coffee and juice.
They are removing stickers from magazine folders, preparing them for sale on a scrap table inside the store.
The women, all retired, all bookworms and all long-time volunteers, have spent years in the back of the store, sorting through books and sharing lunches. They also play bridge on weekends.
"We just enjoy each other," says Hoffman. "And we get to know each other's family. I was here when Barb had her first granddaughter. And her granddaughter is now 12."
Hoffman is the one who knows all the authors of the books, "a walking encyclopedia," the others call her.
Audrey Savage always looked after the children's books, the largest selection inside the store. Barb VanRaalte and Jackie Beck have spent countless hours sorting through donations.
None of the four has any illusion. The bookstore is dead, they are selling everything, and it would take too much time and effort to start again from scratch.
Some of them plan to come in on Saturday to say their last goodbyes. But for now, they try not to dwell on the end of today. So what are they doing?
"Hanging out, hanging out, just enjoying each other's company," says Hoffman.