Canada Kingston Ontario

Kingston & collecting Elizabethan histories, & Canadian fine press printing

Literary Tourist in Kingston, Ontario and environs

I couldn’t tell at the time. He looked pretty fresh to me. But, as I later learned, the convocation that marked my youngest daughter’s graduation from Queen’s University, was the eighteenth such ceremony that Daniel Woolf had adjudicated over as Principal and Vice Chancellor in just the past week. No wonder he’s clenching his fist.

It was a clear, clean morning, sunny and blue-skyed. So poetically blue in fact that one wanted to call it azure or cerulean. We’d driven down from Montreal the previous day. I love Kingston, both for the memories it conjures of studying ( and carousing) here back in the eighties, and for the fact that I get to visit one of my best friends, Pat Grew.

The building in which the aforementioned ceremony took place was bright and airy. The event moved along at a pleasing clip and it was wonderful to see Dorothy’s smiling face as she turned triumphantly to the audience, scroll proudly in hand. Here she is all successfully graduated with said scroll

The reason that I mention this event and Woolf is not to brag about my daughter (yes it is) but to emphasize the fact that I’m always on the lookout for book collectors to interview. There’s a very special buzz in the air when I talk to them. Just listen for example to cardiologist Bruce Fye as he describes gaining exclusive access as a mere boy to the hallowed second floor of a cherished bookstore in Philadelphia, here

or David McKnight’s passionate resolve, going after Canadian little magazines and presses, here

I’d put out feelers in Kingston the last time I was down and learned from Richard Peterson (the Peterson in Berry & Peterson’s, purveyors of fine used/antiquarian books), that the Principal of Queen’s was a known collector of items Elizabethan. I duly drafted an email, and Daniel and I arranged to meet in late July after his administrative duties at Queen’s had officially concluded.

Back down the 401 I drove, this time just past Kingston, on to the nearby village of Yarker

As we waited for the cleaning lady to finish up, I asked Daniel about his first wife, Jane Arscott. Her name had come up after I’d Googled his. I remembered it from Sutherland elementary school in Saskatoon. I was fresh off the boat from England, complete with school uniform shorts and a ripe English accent. Needless to say I lost both post-haste, not wishing to be at all different from the other kids. One of the first things our grade seven teacher shared with us was the fact that two students, Will and Jane Arscott, had tragically lost their mother that summer in a drowning accident. I never forgot this.

After the vacuum stopped and we’d calmed down about the coincidence, Daniel and I took our seats in his living room and started to talk about his collection. Listen here

After our conversation, and my admiring his telescope,

I left Daniel’s for Robert Wright’s bookshop just up the road in Tamworth. On the way I passed this little photographable bookshop cafe

For some reason it’s always closed when I’m in the vicinity. 

Robert’s always open, to me at least. This time round we got going on acquiring early issues of The Devil’s Artisan. He does a lot of collection appraisals for university libraries in the region – Queen’s, U of T, Trent, so we swapped stories about various librarians – plus he’s President of The Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Canada. He shares an interest in the 1890s with my friend Mark Samuels Lasner. Over the years I’ve bought various Aldous Huxley editions from him.

Recently he’d taken a selection of my books in trade so I had money, of a sort, burning a hole in my pocket. Thanks to Sandra Campbell (who also lives in Kingston) ‘s excellent biography of Canadian editor/publisher Lorne Pierce – listen here to our Biblio File conversation:

I’d become interested in the critic E.K. Brown. I’d read his biography by Laura Smyth Groening and started acquiring early editions of his books (including this lovely revised edition of his most influential, and one of Canada’s most influential, books of criticism, period, On Canadian Poetry).

Brown was fairly prolific – writing the poetry review section for the U of T Quarterly’s Letters in Canada for many years – given that he died tragically young (aged 51). He was an important scholar though, who seems to have been largely forgotten. During his lifetime his work stirred things up throughout North America. Now? Not so much, which is good for me. Prices, and demand for his stuff, are low. Exactly what you want if you’re a collector. Plus there aren’t that many books to collect in total.

Robert just happened to have a book that Brown notated (can’t remember its title, other than the fact that it has the word ‘parrot’ in it), plus a collection of Archibald Lampman poems introduced by Brown, both of which I was able to get with my trade money.

From Robert’s I motored back to Kingston and Berry and Peterson’s where I mused to Richard about having lost the slip of paper that certified an $80 credit I had with him.

He generously agreed to honour it – and here my memory fails me again – I know I found a signed copy of famed Toronto bookseller Dora Hood’s autobiography, The Side Door (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1958). Can’t remember however if I acquired the damned thing or not. Sure hope I did because I’ve now taken the decision to expand my biographies and memoirs of publishers’ collection (now sitting at between 400-500 titles), to include booksellers, editors, designers, book collectors, etc. (see the categories column down the right hand side of for a complete line-up) – the idea being that these books will provide interesting fodder for use when questioning equivalent ‘best practitioners’ in the book world. Proposed new name for the collection: The Biblio File Podcast Reference Library.

After another enjoyable stay with Pat – he cranks up a rousing loud set of 80s music early each morning ( a wonder he’s still married) – I was off – all fired up – to interview Chester Gryski who has a place on nearby Hay Bay.

Chester is a well-known collector of Canadian fine press printing. Over the years I’ve interviewed many of the people whose work he collects. Jan & Crispin Elsted of Barbarian Press, Robert Reid, Will Rueter and Walter Bachinski to name only a few. Chester and I cut a pretty mean swath through his extensive collection. Our conversation offers up a decent panoramic view of the Canadian fine press constellation, past and present. Listen here

The swath however, isn’t all-flattening. We left a fair number of poppies standing, which, happily, leaves the door open for another visit. There’s nothing quite like spending time with a great collection in the presence of the person responsible for having assembled it. So please, stay tuned for Chester and Nigel: The Sequel coming to the Biblio File podcast later on in the Spring of 2020.

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