Charlotte Ashley sits in the backroom of the Trident Café, surrounded by a dozen boxes all full of books. She picks them up one by one, gently, before assigning each a label and price. She picks them up with the precision of someone who has done this for years, from childhood in fact. As a kid, she would tape Dewey Decimal numbers on all of her books, and even on Archie comics. She arranged them all in alphabetical order, too, because she decided they should look like a library.

She bought the 32-year-old Trident Booksellers & Café on Oct. 1 – and is a first-time shop owner. The first couple of months were mostly spent finding her bearings. That, and being gently questioned by long-time customers.

She’s labelling books when a woman walks into the backroom with the familiarity of someone dropping by their parents’ house. Ashley, doesn’t know the woman, and is surprised. She would later learn that this backroom used to be an extra seating area for busy days. Ashley is not bothered, though; she never liked rigid rules and doesn’t mind people coming by unannounced. As they shake hands the woman says, “I’m with the Women For Music Society.”

She starts talking about their upcoming book sale, but quickly notices the confusion on Ashley’s face. “Do you know about this?”

“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

The woman smiles warmly and explains that every year, the Society organises a book sale at the Forum. On the day before the general public sale, they open doors to local bookstores, including the Trident. “Here’s when the sale is happening, and here is our card.”

Every day, someone new would drop by to meet Ashley. Some sat and had a coffee, but most only wanted to introduce themselves to the new owner. Some were college students, others were older, but all had one thing in common: they love the Trident and are scared of losing it. So they had questions, and concerns. Are you going to keep roasting beans in the back? Are you keeping my favourite barista? She reassured them that she has no intention of changing things. She used the word “intention,” because she felt that is what they were trying to gauge.

The regulars were concerned, but kind. None of them came in bad faith; they simply wanted to make sure that the Trident – and its quiet, calm vibe – would live on.

Those opening weeks, Ashley says, felt like “being interviewed to marry somebody.”

When Ashley first heard of the Trident being for sale, back in June, she had no idea how important this place was to the community. She grew up 1,600 kms. away from Halifax, in Deep River, Ontario, a quiet town with a poetic name. So poetic, in fact, that David Lynch mentions it more than once in his films. Not poetic enough, though, for a teenager, and so when she was 16 Ashley left the Ottawa Valley for Toronto, where she lived most of her adult life. There, for 15 happy years, she worked as a bookseller at Toronto’s oldest academic bookstore, the Bob Miller Book Room, in Yorkville. In her spare time, she wrote — fantasy short stories for the most part, having more than 20 stories appear in online science fiction magazines. She dabbled in non-fiction too.

Over the years, though, the bookstore sold fewer and fewer books while rent and expenses rose. The conditions became untenable for the Bob Miller Book Room and in August 2019, it was forced to close. And so Charlotte Ashley had to say goodbye to the workplace she felt happiest.

Soon she started working in the field of investor relations. It was a stereotypical corporate job — good for the pocket, but terrible for the soul. Even now, she shudders when she talks about it. For two years, she worked remotely – and overnight. Weekdays from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. she edited business reports and company statements.

There was no time to rest. As soon as her shift ended her kids would be up, and between breakfast, taking them to school and later picking them up, Ashley barely had a minute to herself. She recalls, at times, surviving on four hours of sleep. The cost of living in Toronto was rising, too, and eventually Ashley thought of family members who had moved to the east coast.

Her grandmother was a native Nova Scotian, and met her husband in Halifax before moving to Toronto. For two full generations, the Ashleys called Ontario home. But a decade ago two of Ashley’s siblings moved back east, charmed by the calm, picturesque city. In April 2021, she followed in her siblings’ footsteps and settled in Halifax.

When in her twenties, Ashley’s grandmother took her on a trip to Halifax, down memory lane. They visiting her grandmother’s childhood home in Dartmouth first, before taking a stroll by the pond. Lastly, they stopped by a Dartmouth cemetery to pay respect to departed family members.

For most of her life, Ashley thought of Halifax as her grandmother’s hometown. Now, it’s her home. And the first thing she did in her new city was join a writing club. A bunch of strangers, who share a love for books and writing, met at a bar. They’ve been friends ever since.

Ashley’s favourite writer is Alexandre Dumas. When she was fourteen, she read The Three Musketeers for the first time and loved it so much she vowed to read every word Dumas had ever written. She thought Dumas must have written a few other books at most. She also decided to own every single one of his books and has more than 75 of them today. Her book collecting dedication was recognized when, in 2009, the Bibliographical Society of Canada awarded her the first prize of Canada’s National Book Collecting Contest.

Charlotte Ashley pictured in The Trident Booksellers & Cafe.
caption Owner Charlotte Ashley came to The Trident for the books, and stayed for the coffee.
Nour Hafid

Her book collection includes the Easton Press edition of The Three Musketeers, with a painting of the author on the cover. The man on the painting, though, is not Alexandre Dumas the author of The Three Musketeers, but Alexandre Dumas his son, who was also a writer.

Ashley was pleased to be the first to notice this mistake; it felt rewarding. In that moment, this book earned a spot in her collection. It’s not as rare as her 1846 edition of The Count of Monte Cristo, and not as quirky as her Polish edition of The Three Musketeers. Still, out of the whole collection, this book is her favourite.

Ashley loves Dumas because of the writing style — overblown romance and protagonists who go on daring adventures. Her own writing is influenced by this style. In her historical fantasy La Héron, published in The Magazine of Science Fiction and Fantasy in 2015, Ashley tells the story of a swordswoman in France who takes part in a dueling tournament where mortals compete against fairy lords.

In 2021, Ashley was working a corporate job from her Halifax home. In theory, all was well. Still, she couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. She had always been a bookseller, and felt like an intrinsic part of her was gone. She wondered, “What am I now?”

In Halifax, like everywhere, there are people who love books. Paul MacKay is one. He manages the University of King’s College Co-op Bookstore, where he works with Molly Rookwood, who happens to be Ashley’s sister-in-law. MacKay and Ashley met at Rookwood’s housewarming party a few years back and have occasionally crossed paths since. When MacKay, a Trident regular for more than 10 years, heard it was for sale, he didn’t have to think twice: Ashley was just the person. So he called her up.

As it turned out, Ashley already knew; MacKay was not the first person to think of her. A friend had broken the news earlier, saying, “Charlotte, this place is your entire personality. You have to buy it!” A little later, two more people — her sister-in-law and a writing club friend — called with the same message.

All four people shared the same sentiment: in Ashley’s life, all roads had led to this exact moment. The Trident, they felt, was the culmination of a path paved with books.
Ashley was charmed by the prospect and began to consider it. When MacKay called she took it as a good omen: three is amusing, four is a sign.

MacKay told her the owners were determined to sell the café to a book lover. “They want to keep the Trident in the family,” he said.

Ashley was touched by the vote of confidence. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll be the family.”
Soon, though, the initial excitement faded and hesitation crawled in. Ashley asked herself if she wasn’t acting hastily. She had never before considered owning a business, and wondered if she was truly the perfect fit everyone thought her to be.

She was ruminating on this, curled up in the corner of her living room couch, when her youngest child came in and sat next to her.

“All you ever wanted to do was have a bookstore,” he said. “Yeah… but you know, it’s a lot of responsibilities.”

Ashley’s child looked at his mother for a second. He’s 11, but in this moment his solemn words transcended his age.

“Mom,” he said, “if you do what you like, you won’t work a day in your life.”

Perhaps it was the sheer sincerity, or the endearing quality of a child saying something wise when we least expect them to. Either way, Ashley was convinced.

It’s been five months since the Trident’s change of ownership. On the day after a snowstorm, in late January, cold crisp air fills Halifax streets and people walk in quick, purposeful steps. On Hollis Street, earthy coffee aroma and faint chatter greet customers at the Trident’s door. In a corner, behind a bookcase of alphabetically sorted books, Ashley sits at a small table.
You would hardly guess she is the owner. Her brown hair is tied by a red bandanna; denim overalls complete the casual look. When a table empties, she sprays aloe vera-scented disinfectant and wipes it clean. When she sits, it’s always in the same spot, secluded enough to provide privacy yet open enough for customers to approach her with ease.

Her calm face is only disrupted by the occasional furrowed brow. The café door is loud, a sound that bounces off the walls every time someone enters or leaves. This doesn’t faze her; her mind is focused on the laptop screen. She stops only briefly to respond to customers thank yous on their way out. The words are not aimed at anyone in particular; both Ashley and her customers are addressing the room. Their “thanks you” and her “see you later” reverberate in the space and slowly merge with the background sound of jazz.

The Trident is fundamentally the same, but a few things have changed. Roughly 4,000 books are lined up on the shelves, but about 5 per cent of them, from the King’s Co-op Bookstore, are now new. Near the entrance, ceramic mugs adorned with the café’s name, bags of fresh coffee beans and custom postcards are stacked on the shelves. Ashley reached out to some local artists and is now selling their work.

Perhaps the biggest change, though, is extending closing time to 9 p.m. Ashley wants the Trident to be the cosy daytime café regulars love, and an after-work hangout spot for writers and artists. Already, she is organizing book launches and arts workshops, like the one happening later today.

Charlotte Ashley pictured in The Trident Booksellers & Cafe.
caption Owner Charlotte Ashley is often working at one of the cafe tables.
Nour Hafid

Paper signs are placed on a few tables to indicate they’ve been reserved. It’s a Saturday afternoon and the Trident is full. Some people are here for the workshop, others sip their tea unaware that an event is starting soon. Ashley handcrafted “Reserved” signs earlier with her barista, and placed them gradually on tables as they emptied. The clock strikes 6; a few people have arrived and sit at the designated tables. Ashley sits in a corner and watches as the two facilitators — both professional artists — welcome the attendees.

Roughly 20 people are here. Most of them are young NSCAD students, but some seniors are here, too. Today’s workshop explores the theme of arts grants in Atlantic Canada. Ashley chose this topic because she thinks many artists don’t value their work enough— and are underpaid. (In 2019, more than half of Canadian artists had yearly incomes of under $40,000 pre-tax, with 13 per cent reporting annual incomes below $9,999.) Ashley is passionate about this. She wants to provide artists with the right tools to monetize their work. Today’s workshop is the first of many to come.

More people start to come in. Slowly, the café is divided into two spaces: a calm one, where sounds are limited to fingers dancing over keyboard keys, and a lively, busier one where artists came prepared with questions about grants.

Charlotte Ashley watches peacefully, from her corner of the room. A few months ago, she wondered who she was. Today, surrounded by books and people who love them as much as she does, she knows the answer.

Editor's Note

This article first appeared in the Halifax Chronicle-Herald on March 7, 2024.

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