Yesterday, I walked into a wonderland of knowledge and imagination at 137 Gore Street, The Skeleton Key Used Bookstore, Collectibles, and Toys. Shelves upon shelves of colourful paperbacks and hardcover books. Unique vintage collectibles in every corner. Lanterns of every shape and size to read cozily by. Charming antique tea cups delicately displayed. Every item had a story.
As a History major – and lover – I was captivated.
Donna and Bob Berry, in partnership with Bill Gay, have created a unique space to sell used books, toys, collectibles, and comics, as a retirement project.
Bill, originally from Hawk-Junction, had retired from the Steel Plant and has been collecting vintage items and antiques for over 20 years.
Bob, originally from Woodstock, and Donna, a Saultite, met at Sault College, got married, and moved to London. Donna was in daycare and Bob was a Child and Youth Counsellor. The couple always knew that they wanted to have a small used bookstore as their retirement project, so they starting collecting books from garage sales, book sales, and auctions for the last nine years to turn that dream into a reality, while still working their regular jobs.
For two years, the Berrys had a stall at the Mill Market on Sundays, where they displayed and sold their growing collection of used books. This is where they met Bill, who also had a vendor’s stall on Sundays for his business, Toys, Comics, and Collectibles.
Their similar interests and mutual need for more space to display all they had to offer brought them together in a perfect partnership.
Bob said, “We really liked the Mill Market – but we didn’t have anything more than a stall space, and we could have taken up four or five stalls.”
A year and a half ago, they moved into the space on Gore Street, and so the Skeleton Key Used Bookstore and Collectibles was born – interconnecting three like-minded people in their mission to keep vintage books and products accessible and affordable.
Donna explained, “The name – the Skeleton Key, a vintage concept – was something that we took time to come up with. A skeleton key opens all doors, and that’s what we are doing too. We are opening doors as far as minds, exploring different authors and genres, however, it also refers to an open-door policy. You come in, you don’t have to feel like you need to spend money. You can come in. you have the key. We have worked hard to make this a safe space, and stay in the know with what is happening in the Sault and worldwide. We are community-minded. People are welcomed.”
Despite their community mindedness and desire to create a safe space for people from all walks of life, the store has been robbed three times – once armed, where Bill was sprayed with bear mace.
But the retirees are nothing but smiles. In fact, all three confidently agreed that these situations have never been a deterrent – they have never talked about leaving.
“In a round-about way, it’s been good for our business because more and more people are sharing the post (about the robber) and therefore more and more people know we are here. We have gotten a lot of community support, and people will message or come in and say ‘please don’t go! Please stay, we need you here,’” said Donna.
And it’s no wonder why. Bookstores have been closing over the years, but a value and appreciation for hardcopy books is coming back strong. The Skeleton Key satisfies this need by selling books at $3.00 a piece, an astoundingly affordable price, with the exception of certain vintage books and a small percentage of other books.
They accomplish this by focusing on breaking even – viewing the store as a project, a way to keep busy – and essentially working for free.
Bill has also dedicated a lot of time and years of practice into fair pricing and negotiating. “After a while, it comes naturally,” he declared.
Being there for one hour, I could attest to their devotion to the Sault community. Aside from being in the know on local issues, supportive of community charities and events, and proud to display and sell materials supporting local, Indigenous, and LGBTQ artists, writers, and initiatives, all three owners knew every customer who came in by name, what they like, and what they are looking for.
“It’s a good way to fill the days,” said Bob, “you never know who’s going to come through the doors. We meet all sorts of interesting people that I’ve really enjoyed.”
Bill shared this sentiment, excitedly telling me, “When someone comes through the door, rich or poor, young or old, I’m happy to see them. Even if they don’t buy something, at least they know we are here. People bring stuff in and I buy stuff off of them and it’s always an exciting challenge to see what they have.”
Bill has passed this passion on to his son. “My oldest boy is pretty good at pricing. I always give him a call when I’ not sure. He owns his own pawn shop down south. Next month it’ll be ten years,” he told me proudly.
Donna relishes in the family dynamic of running a bookstore, something that fulfills elements of her career in daycare even in retirement. “I like to see the families come in and get recommendations. I love helping mothers find something for their daughters, or helping young people get into the classics,” she continued, “a lot of big book stores don’t have the time or interest to do that, but this our passion. We really relate to the books because a lot of them are from our personal collections.”
Despite this being a retirement project, these three have plans to make their operations bigger and better.
With a houseful of antiques and collectibles, and the shop stocked from wall to wall, Bill could really use some more space to sell his treasured trinkets. Especially considering the fact that he goes to Belleville once a month to attend a vintage auction and comes back with a van full of finds every time!
And Donna and Bob would not complain about more space for their 65,000+ books.
They have an agreement to expand their operations to the other side of the building that is currently being renovated by the owner. They would love to have the space by May 1st to get more people coming through the doors who are enjoying the summer weather.
“I grew up in the Sault, so I know Gore street used to be a very vibrant place, and I think it has the potential to be like that,” Donna explained of their hopes for the future.
They would love to see more businesses come to Gore and stay.
You can visit Donna, Bob, and Bill at the Skeleton Key from Monday to Saturday 11am-5pm. They encourage you to donate gently used books. Any book they do not sell, they donate. Nothing gets thrown away. If you have any trinkets or antiques, Bill is happy to take a look and tell you what it is worth.
You can also check out them out on Facebook here.