Nelson BC: Fun, Funky & Quirky

A recent visit to Nelson BC, brought many smiles to our faces as we explored its streets and back alleys.  Nelson might just be Canada’s most bohemian community

It started right from the “get-go” when we checked in at the Adventure Hotel and were dazzled by the psychedelic carpet staircase - inspired by an “acid dream I am sure.” 

The staircase at the Adventure Hotel is like walking on a neon sign. 

After a day of driving (with stops to check out downtown Fernie and thrift stores in Creston), we were anxious to do some flaneuring. We immediately found the two-storey  Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History located in a former Post Office building built in 1902. Once inside, we were quickly immersed in a fantasy world of strange goblins and creatures from the imagination of artist Jude Griebel; this was a good start.  

The fantasy world of Griebel is weird and wacky, the head in the foreground is made of bones. 

Then after checking out Touchstones’ museum, we headed to Nelson’s Main Street (aka Baker Street) for some window licking fun as most of the stores had closed by then. We stumbled upon Relish - what a fun name for a restaurant!  The place had a good buzz, we were thirsty and hungry so in we went. 

Just one of the many fun window reflections along Baker Street.

A cold glass each of Harvest Moon Organic Hemp Ale from the Nelson Brewery Company (NBC) quenched our thirst.  I think NBC should win some type of award for the best beer names – Paddywack, Faceplant, AfterDark and Full Nelson!  My amazing burger with brie and apple still has me salivating.

After a little more street and alley wandering, we called it a day.  

The evening light filters through the tree lined downtown streets to create an eerie canopy. 

Day 2: I thought I was going to die!

Up early, we decided to check out the Oso Negro Café, which research told is the best place in town for breakfast. Expecting a small bohemian café, we were stunned by the amazing urban café atmosphere mixed with an enchanting garden setting.  Service was friendly and efficient so the long line up moved quickly.  The place was full of people of all ages - adults chatting, kids playing and nobody on their phone or computer.  How quirky is that?

The Oso Negro cafe has the most inviting garden I have ever encountered. It is both private and public at the same time. The light is magical. It may well be the best place to sit that I have ever experienced.  They even have a map that tells you what all the plants are. 

It was a beautiful day so I had to check out the local Granite Pointe golf course.  Being a single golfer, it was easy to walk on. What wasn’t so was to walk the golf course (even for a seasoned walker like me).  I had a quick debate with the Pro Shop attendant if the course was walkable and we agreed I could probably do it.  He showed me the hill at hole #10 and said that is the biggest climb. It was a gradual climb so didn’t look too intimidating. 

Walking down the 9th hole I was feeling pretty good about my decision to walk the course.

So off I went, clubs on my back, to enjoy what looked like a walk in the park. The front nine wasn’t bad - the views of the city, lake and mountains were spectacular.  I climbed the 10th but it was harder than I had imagined - going down 11 seemed just as hard as going up.  By the 14th I knew I was in trouble.  I was dragging my butt and wondering if I could finish; this had never happened to me before.  “Am I really getting that old?” I had to ask myself.  I finished - but just barely - as 18 was another climb up a hill to a green guarded by a huge granite rock. If I hit the rock who knows where the ball would go and I certainly wasn’t going to go looking for it.  Fortunately, I hit the green, parred the hole, got into my car and headed straight to the Adventure Hotel for a couple of those NBC beers. 

The hill climbing provided wonderful view of the lake and mountains. 

Dinner was at Itza Pizza across the street from the Adventure Hotel as I didn’t have the energy to wander too far.  The sign said best pizza in town and we also learned that back in 2011, Rick Nelson, Itza’s owner and pizza maker was one of four chefs across Canada to compete in Canadian Pizza Magazine’s (who knew there was a pizza magazine, let alone a Canadian one) best Canadian pizza contest. While Nelson didn’t win, he still makes a great pizza.  We had front row seats to Nelson’s street ballet on Itza’s street patio located on the parking spot in front of the restaurant – very urban.   We enjoyed our Harvest Pizza with pesto, sundried tomato, apples, smoked gruyere, roasted red peppers and pickled capers.

Unfortunately I had no energy left to check out the blues band playing across the street that night at Finley’s Bar and Grill across the street.  

Day 3: Caffeine Heaven

Rested, it was back to Oso Negro Café for a repeat breakfast.  By this time we were thinking this must be the best café in the world.

On the way, we noticed a sleazy looking mannequin standing in the back alley. We had to check it out.  It was in front of a funky looking hair salon, which we didn’t think was open at 8 am, but when I peaked in there were people inside and we were invited in to the “Chop Shop.”  Turns out this 50s themed salon/museum was featured on Slice Network’s “Chop Shop” Show.    

Who could resist checking out a barber pole like this one? Not us!

The Chop Shop the most unique and friendliest barbershop I have ever encountered. 

When we arrived at Oso Negro, we were again in caffeine heaven.  It is the perfect place to start the morning as the garden was bathed in early morning sunshine. We lingered for over an hour, people watching and enjoying our muffins and Oso Negro coffee, which we found out is roasted just a few blocks away.

Another view of Oso Negro garden, sorry I don't think even if I included 10 photos I could capture the wonderful sense of place. 

Another view of Oso Negro garden, sorry I don't think even if I included 10 photos I could capture the wonderful sense of place. 

While Brenda went off to do more thrifting, I went to take photos of the buildings, streets, alleys and shops.  As I was wandering, I discovered the west end of Baker Street was closed for a flower street market.  The street was full of characters from the lady trying to sell worm farms to another lady giving her little dog a drink of water out of a baby bottle. I did say Nelson was fun, funky and quirky, didn’t I? 

There are many wonderful turn of the century buildings like this courthouse in downtown Nelson

Electric Circus books and records had this amazing collection of Beat books. It was a wonderful place to explore.

This flower shop in an alley has a wonderful European ambience. 

Found this wall of seeds in a quirky grocery/garden shop. 

The Baker Street Plant Market attracted an eclectic crowd to downtown.

Then it was off to check out Cottonwood Falls and adjacent Railtown district at the west end of Baker Street. The falls, a hidden gem, though small it packs a big punch -as the water crashing over the black rocks creates a mist that, combined with the sunlight, is ethereal.

Cottonwood Falls is tucked away in a small industrial park on the west end of downtown. 

We next met up with Alex, who toured us through the Nelson Brewery Company building, with all its shiny hardware and hoses creating what looks like a madman’s laboratory – there is even a door that says, “laboratory!” NBC is brewed in funky- looking old building that has been a brewery for over 100 years, so this isn’t some new kid on the craft brewery block, rather something that has evolved over the past century.

As all NBC beers are organic, you have to drink them reasonably quickly (they have a best before date), which I see as a bonus. If you want a tour, fill out the form on the website and they will get back to you quickly.

NBC's brewery is like a mad scientists lab.

Dinner was the Smokehouse BBQ, which is as authentic as you can get thousands of kilometers from southern USA with its plywood and corrugated steel interior. Order from the kitchen window and your meal is brought to you in a cardboard take-away box even if you are eating in.  We grabbed a window seat and chowed down on a finger licking good meal of ribs and pulled pork that was as good as anything we had in Austin Texas (unfortunately, it’s not licensed to serve alcohol).

El Taco is a very popular spot for locals. Did you know that on a per capital basis Nelson has more restaurants than New York City?

While there, we were treated to a steady stream of people picking up their Smokehouse BBQ orders as well as people heading to El Taco restaurant across the street.  As we left, we asked a young Nelsonian enjoying his pizza from Thor’s Pizzeria next to the Smokehouse what he knew about El Taco and he said it is very good and very popular with the locals.  He also added Thor’s has the best pizza in town.

Then it was off for an evening walk along the waterfront pathway. While the pathway along the West Arm of Kootenay Lake is lovely, the place was surprisingly deserted, even on a warm mid-May evening.

The waterfront pathway is a lovely walk along the lake which even has a beach at the bridge. We expected to find lots of people walking and cycling along the pathway, but it was deserted.   

One of the many lovely reflections of the boats in the water along the pathway. 

Last Word

We had a great time in Nelson; our only regrets are we didn’t have enough time to check out all of the great dining spots and that we didn’t do the Pulpit Rock trail which locals highly recommended for its great views. 

A big surprise was that while Nelson has a reputation of being a great art town, there aren’t  many art galleries and lots of the art (galleries, public art and street art) we saw was not as professional and contemporary as we expected. 

Street Art mixes with graffiti on this garage door. 

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that given Nelson’s reputation as the marijuana growing capital of Canada, we didn’t see or smell any evidence of it wherever we travelled in the city.


While we didn't see or smell the use of marijuana, there is a store on Baker Street next to the CIBC building where you can buy it, like you are buying an ice cream cone or perhaps some gelato. There were at least 50 flavours.  

Half Price Books: Disneyland For Bibliophiles!

I love browsing used bookstores - you never know when you will find a hidden gem you didn’t know you needed.  Brenda loves to browse thrift stores and can do so for hours, but a typical thrift store book section for me is at best a 5-minute exercise. 

I knew I was in some place special when I saw this note on a bottom shelf almost as soon as I walked into HPB.

When researching Austin, we knew it had lots of thrift stores, what we didn’t know is it has the mother lode of bookstores. We only found that out when we parked our car2go at the Goodwill on North Lamar and I noticed next door was a big box store called “Half Price Books.”  It didn’t look anything special, just your typical suburban big box store with what I expected would be full of the typical publisher’s remainder books.

Backstory: Remainders are books that no longer sell in sufficient volume for a publisher to continue promoting economically. Therefore, the publisher sells whatever inventory they have on-hand to book remainders distributors and book wholesalers at deep discounts who then sell them to the public for as much as 90% off the publisher's suggested retail price. These books may still have a lot of life left and can be very profitable for Internet booksellers and brick and mortar retail stores. If chosen wisely, you can have a nearly inexhaustible supply of near perfect books acquired at bargain basement prices.

This was the smiling face that greeted me as I walked into the North Lamar HPB.

Boy was I wrong….

So I headed into Goodwill with Brenda and thought I’d check Half Price Books out once I had done my thrift store browsing.  Sure enough after about 15 minutes I said to B, “I’m heading over to the bookstore, see you in about 10 minutes.”

I first checked out the book bins outside and the prices were good and the selection was surprisingly interesting. Once inside, I had to give my head a shake, as the store was Disneyland for any book lover.  For those of you who live in Calgary, it is like Fair's Fair Books in Inglewood times 10 - maybe more.  And it works a bit like Fair's Fair with people selling them books for cash - there is no store credit option.

As you can see HPB is very serious about buying books and music.

Feeling the Love

I wandered in a daze for bit, trying to take it all in. Finally I asked, “Can I take pictures” as this was definitely blog worthy.  It took awhile, but I got permission and everyone was very helpful when I asked about books on urban planning, biographies, music and golf. 

When I went into the Rare Book section (the size of most used bookstores) I was greeted with “how may I help you” and she really meant it as she tried to find something that might interest me. I couldn’t believe the enthusiasm of the staff, everyone really loved their job.

However, I walked away empty handed, but full of lasting impressions. So much so, when I figured out Austin’s south side the Goodwill and HPB are across the street from each other I said, “We gotta go there before we leave.”

Two days later we were there for door opening.  And it was the same thing the staff were welcoming, knowledgeable and attentive.  This time I hit the mother lode for my book collection.  In the clearance section I found a first edition Ansel Adams biography by Mary Street Alinder. Guess how much? rallod eno (read backwards). But that is not all, it is signed by the author. 

This is the Clearance section in the South Lamar HPB where I found my steal of a deal. Thanks HPB. 

HPB 101

I decided to get in touch with HPB marketing, communications and public relations team to find out more about the history.  I provided them with a list of questions and within 24 hours Zachary Nash, Community Outreach Specialist Half Price Books North Lamar emailed me back with answers to all of my questions.  How impressive is that?

Everyday Tourist: Where is your biggest store?

Zachary: Our largest store by far is the flagship location on Northwest Highway in Dallas. It is 54,000 square feet and is also the location of HPB’s corporate offices.

As you can see, HPB is more like a library than a bookstore.  The shelves are all perfectly organized and books are clean and prices clearly marked. 

Everyday Tourist: How big is Austin’s North Lamar store?

Zachary: The North Lamar location is the second largest in the entire company, with about 20,000 square feet of bookstore goodness. It also sport the company’s only Rare Books Room, a special annex that houses rare, collectable, signed, first edition, and out of print books, records, and ephemera.

Also, North Lamar features a sizeable community space where we host various events, including author signings, independent publishing seminars, pet adoptions, figure drawing workshops, and virtually anything else for which our community might find reasonable use.

Just one of the many collector book displays. 

A rare book indeed.

Everyday Tourist: Where is your smallest store?

Zachary: Our store with the least square footage is a petite shop of 5,600 square feet located in the lovely town of Apple Valley, Minnesota.

The Children's section is bright and cheerful.

Everyday Tourist: What is the most valuable book the North Lamar store has ever sold?

To my memory, the highest priced, most exciting item we sold was a 1659 first edition of A True and Faithful Relation of What Passed for Many Years Between Dr. John Dee and Some Spirits. Dee was a mathematician, alchemist, occult philosopher/sorcerer, and advisor to Queen Elizabeth I.

The tome is a manuscript unearthed from his home and published by Meric Casaubon, whose apparent motives were to criticize and slander Dee. However, the book was a huge success and cemented Dee’s reputation as a legendary mystic.

We wound up selling it about a year ago to the owners of a private museum in England who intend to restore it to its original splendor using the book’s original plates.   

Yes there are good deals to be had.

Everyday Tourist: What is the strangest request you have received or questions asked? A funny story?

Zachary: We get some colorful characters at our location. Something about bookstores draws in personalities you might not encounter elsewhere in the world. I’ve seen people come here on dates, for meetings, or even just to kill an afternoon.

And we have regulars whose tastes we’ve gotten to know through their years of patronage, so like a good bartender who has your drink ready as soon as you walk in, we can often show off cool new merchandise tailored to their interests we know they’ll appreciate.

A strange request came about when I was recently stationed at our information counter. A woman approached me to ask if we had any books that would help her trap a ghost in a crystal. I wanted to help, because there’s obviously a fascinating story there and my curiosity was definitely piqued. I asked her if she knew what that technique was called, because that information might help me locate something for her.

She smiled and said, “I don’t know what it’s called, I just need to know how to do it.” At this point our employee who runs the Metaphysics section stepped in to help her sort out the request and I didn’t hear any more about it, but I like to think she was able to find a crystal big enough to suit her needs.

It really doesn’t take much effort on our part to keep Austin weird ‘round these parts.

Imagine selling books by the yard. That Pat is a genius.  

Everyday Tourist: Approximately how many books do you have in inventory at any given time for all of your stores? Records? Comics?

Zachary: Our inventory fluctuates in amount pretty frequently, but it’s usually over 200,000 items. Since we buy the majority of our stock directly from the public, our merchandise changes daily.

I do know that last year HPB donated over a million books to schools, charities, and non-profits, and our inventory did not suffer, so we’ve got plenty of goods to go around.

And I know serious record and comic collectors who shop our stores on the regular because it’s almost guaranteed they’ll find an elusive gem in our stacks. I think one of the best things about our merchandise is that we carry materials that simply do not exist anymore. In addition to the more traditional printed and recorded materials available, we also stock VHS tapes, 8-track and standard cassettes, and laserdiscs.

Some things go out of print almost immediately, and you have virtually no chance of finding them again at other stores. But you can find them at Half Price Books. And we can search our entire chain-wide inventory and ship books from any location, so for instance, if you’re a diehard Golden Girls fan, we can track down Rue McClanahan’s My First Five Husbands…And the Ones Who Got Away for you. I just checked, and as I write this there are at least eleven copies available. Incredible.

Another example of one of the shelves to give you an appreciation of the quality and diversity of the books available. 

Everyday Tourist: What book do you currently have the most copies of?

Zachary: I really don’t know! We have lots of books and the amounts of individual titles fluctuates as they sell. I do know that some current hot sellers are The Girl on the Train, the Martian and To Kill a Mockingbird.

Everyday Tourist: Any other fun fact, figures etc. would be great.

Zachary: Ken Gjemre and Pat Anderson cofounded our company in 1972 in a renovated Laundromat stocked with books from their personal libraries in Dallas, TX.

I’ve heard that Pat was a brilliant woman who used pencils all the way down to nubs, with fully intact erasers because there was never need to correct her work. They have some of her pencils at the corporate offices.

The company is still family-owned, with Pat’s daughter Sharon steering the ship.  She goes by her nickname, Boots.

I’ve heard that Michael Jackson once arranged a shopping spree at Austin’s Northwest Highway store sometime in the 1990s, arrived after hours in sunglasses and spent thousands of dollars on art books (rumour, but from a good source).    

Oh, and some of our employees are gifted authors. Kate DiCamillo, who wrote Because of Winn-Dixie is a former HPB employee. My coworker Dale Bridges published an excellent collection of short stories called Justice, Inc., which has been a best seller out of our Local Authors consignment section.

Everyday Tourist: How big is HPB’s inventory?

Zachary: Chain wide we have more than 20 million items. We’d estimate at any given time we have about 14,000,000 books, 775,000 comics and 470,000 records, the remainder being cards, dolls and other collector items. 

HPB should also be called Half Price Music.

While there are lots of chairs around some people just make themselves at home and sit on the floor. 

Last Word

When researching other cities to visit in the USA, I will be sure to check the HPB site to see if they have a store in that city, or if on road trip I will see what HPB are on the way. I am not sure I can call a 20,000 square foot store a hidden gem, but HPB seems like a hidden gem to me. 

I am not usually a big fan of chain store, but in the case of HPB I will make an exception. In both of the stores I visited, they seemed more like independent local stores than impersonal, cookie-cutter, big box stores. 

I should also give thanks to car2go as without a car I doubt we would have ventured as far out of the City Centre as need to get to Half Price Books.  Full Disclosure: car2go gave us free minutes to use while in Austin in return for tweeting about our adventures. 

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