A Little Nostalgia about Strip Clubs & Libraries in Montreal

Literary Tourist in Montreal

The first time I hit Montreal as an adult was in 1984. A group of about 25 of us from the Queen’s MPA program in Kingston, Ontario had decided to make the trip up by bus.  It was one frosty fucker that January morning. So cold you could barely take a breath without gagging. Upon arrival the guys all had one thing on their minds: getting to the Super Sex strip club on St. Catherine Street as fast as they possibly could.

I’m not sure where the ladies went, but it wasn’t to a strip club. I should mention that I’m no fan of these places – my guess is that many of the drugged-out, breast-enhanced, frequently exploited dancers, and pathetic, lonely often impotent patrons are frustrated, unhappy people. But put a gang of horny young male students together in front of a parade of experienced strippers who seem genuinely to enjoy their work, add a few quarts of alcohol and, despite the negatives, you have a pretty damn fine time on your hands. In fact I can’t remember ever having laughed harder, for so long, in my life. 

At around 5pm we poured our female-objectifying selves out onto Montreal’s main shopping drag and headed up-wind (it was by now Canada Goose-piercingly cold) to this outstanding little cafeteria-style Italian restaurant (sadly no longer with us), where we reunited with our female classmates who all now appeared intoxicatingly good looking. The pasta was home-made and delicious; the tomato sauce, sublime. We then hauled our bloated bellies over a few frigid blocks to the Forum and watched the Canadiens play the Calgary Flames (I think) while continuing to drink. There was a guy named Beers on the team. We kept yelling ‘more beers on the ice,’ throughout the whole evening. 

The first time I was in Montreal was when I was eleven years old and fresh off the S.S. Maasdam from England. One memory stands out: it was at the train station: my younger brother and I racing along what seemed like an endless row of public telephones, checking for coins in the change slots. What made it so memorable is that we actually pocketed a fair amount of cash. I also remember riding on the raised monorail train that circled the Expo ’67 site. It went clean through Buckminster Fuller’s giant geodesic dome. 

But hell I’m waxing too nostalgic here when I should be talking of the much more interesting topic of books in Montreal.

So let’s turn to the Rare Book Library at McGill University.

About 10 years ago I was distinctly enamored with Stone & Kimball the small Chicago-based literary book publisher. It produced a string of lovely William Morris-inspired books during the 1890s and into the first few years of the last century.  I’d started to collect them. Many could be had for under $50. During a trip to the Boston Antiquarian Bookfair one year I interviewed Tom Boss, a recognized expert on late 19th century small American literary presses. Listen here:

At around the same time I learned that McGill had a Stone and Kimball Collection, so I trekked up from Ottawa and interviewed Librarian (now retired) Richard Virr about it. Listen here:

More recently, I interviewed Chris Lyons, current head of the library, about McGill grad, ‘father of modern medicine’ and famed book collector Sir William Osler who left his significant collection of medical history books to the university. Listen here:

While I was in town I decided to check out the Irving Layton collection at Concordia University as well. I think Layton, despite all of his bluster and bravado, is one of Canada’s best poets, as does McGill Prof. Brian Trehearne who I interviewed about the Nobel nominee, here

As with most Canadian writers of note, first editions of his work can be had for a song.

Speaking of music, you can’t be in Montreal without thinking of Layton’s friend and early disciple Leonard Cohen. Shortly after Cohen’s death we attended a spectacular exhibition celebrating his work, at the Musee d’Art Contemporain. His son Adam later hosted a tribute concert at the Bell Centre that we were also lucky enough to go to. Sting was there, and Elvis Costello. K.D. Laing performed a searing rendition of Hallelujah 

Like most cities in the world, Montreal has seen a drop in its bookstore population during the past several decades. I remember visiting Russell Books way back in the late eighties at its location opposite the Gazette building on the edge of Old Montreal. It consisted of a large dusty room that had a narrow second level wrap around balcony that provided browsers with access to more books. The place was captained by a tall, white-haired, bearded gentleman – at least that’s what I remember. His children re-located the store to Victoria some years ago, where it continues to thrive.

Back in Montreal, today, used bookstores are pretty thin on the ground. There’s Encore Books 

S.W. Welch’s, Wescott Books – which has bumped around a bit during the past few years, and The Word 

near McGill on Milton Street, which has been in business for more than 40 years under the same owner Adrian King-Edwards who I interviewed last year 

In addition, there’s a selection of Renaissance thrift shops throughout the city that are worth browsing too. As for independent shops, there’s “Montreal’s oldest English Language bookstore” Argo Bookshop and Paragraph Books, both of which frequently host author readings.

Various visits to Montreal over the past decade have yielded dozens of Biblio File interviews, notably, ones with St. Armand Papers owner David Carruthers and Vehicule Press publisher Simon Dardick. In our conversation Simon and I run through a list of the books he’s published, including early titles, among them several favourites: one sporting a real honey bottle label on the cover, another an actual packet of seeds. The tradition of intriguing covers continues to this day, thanks to the quality work of award-winning designer David Drummond. Simon has also published a series of ‘Montreal noir‘ novels in his Ricochet reprint series, edited by Brian Busby. I spoke with Brian about them some years ago; listen here:

We also spoke more broadly about Literary Montreal in part two of the same conversation, here.

One year I conducted a Q&A with biographer Charlie Foran on Mordecai Richler for Guerilla magazine. In preparation I visited Richler’s grave (next to his beloved wife Florence’s) on a hill overlooking the city, with Olympic Stadium in the distance, and Wilensky’s a local eatery that Richler favoured. Months earlier I’d conducted this interview with Charlie:

Montreal is home to the second largest Bloomsday celebration in the world – thanks in great part to Dave Schurman and his wife (stay tuned for the  Biblio File podcast episode) – and to many influential contemporary authors, among them Rawi Hage, Madeleine Thien, Kathleen Winter and Heather O’Neill all of whom, save for Winter, I’ve Biblio-Filed at one time or another. English theatre-goers are well served here by The Centaur and The Segal Centre. I attended a good stage adaptation of J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians a few years back, and interviewed its producer Maurice Podbrey, here.

All of this activity has had an impact on me, reader. I fell for the place,

and so decided to move here. 

Blue Met Montreal, Blocked Bridges Ottawa, and Black People talking to White

Literary Tourist in Montreal and Ottawa

I think it’s fair to say that, at least for me, Montreal’s Blue Met Literary Festival saw its heyday in the late noughties. Back then every venue was swarming with well known authors from around the globe, and workshops  on pretty well every ‘writing’ topic you can imagine were crammed with eager ecrevain(e)s. For a stretch of 3-4 years I used to drive up from Ottawa each Spring, book rooms in what was then The Delta Hotel, and get down to the serious, bushy-tailed business of interrogating authors. Notable ‘trophies’ included Derek Walcott

John Burnside, Robin Robertson, Tim Parks, Margaret MacMillan and Andrew O’Hagan. Much of this success was due to Chris DiRaddo

Chris Diraddo with Derek Walcott

who in fact is still today involved with the Festival, organizing and promoting its LGBT program. The Blue Met understandably suffered after its founding director Linda Leith left to form a publishing firm. It has only in the past few years regained its footing. Now it’s a lean, vibrant operation, held annually at Hotel 10

Last year Adam Gopnik and Daniel Mendelsohn were on stage ( and yes, I interviewed both of them off stage for The Biblio File podcast). This year, thanks again in large part to Shelley Pomerance

Shelley Pomerance

I roped Alberto Manguel, Claudia Piñeiro, Reni Eddo-Lodge and Ricardo Cayuolo into talking with me. Alberto’s contribution was especially noteworthy because half way through our convo he breaks into this passionate attack on Canada’s former Attorney General Jody Wilson- Raybould and – in his opinion – her short sighted, naive, if principled stand against Justin Trudeau. Playing the idealist, I felt I had to defend her. The interview went ‘live’ several weeks ago, providing literate voters plenty of time to listen to it in advance of Canada’s federal election scheduled for October, 21, 2019. Here’s your chance:

After my brawl with Alberto, I sped down the all-too-familiar stretch of highway between Montreal and Ottawa to interview science-fiction author and internet activist Cory Doctorow about books and copyright. It’s a complicated topic and Cory talks fast; I kept trying to slow things down and to keep our discussion on books. He’s of the opinion that the big five publishing conglomerates (soon to be four he insists) are not benevolent allies of their authors, nor certainly of their readers. They make up a powerful cartel that needs to be strictly regulated.

Truth be told we actually met the next morning. I was late because every frickin’ bridge that spans the mighty Ottawa save for one, was closed. I’d stayed the night before at my friend Tony Martins’s place in Alymer a small town down the line from Ottawa on the Quebec side.  Back in the day I wrote a fair number of features for Tony’s extraordinary, beautiful (kudos to Paul Cavanaugh) cultural magazine, Guerilla, and we’ve stayed close ever since. One of my favourite assignments was writing a profile of my ‘Rock ‘n Roll‘ barber Patrick Shanks

(you might have noticed that I’ve cropped Remi’s photo and used it on my Twitter profile @nigelbeale). Tony and Paul’s work is exceptional. Guerilla constitutes a valuable, rich record of Ottawa’s cultural scene at the turn of the 21st century. It documents the first decade with style and intelligence. 

Thanks to the bridge blockages I had to wend my way through the Byward Market in order to get to Cory. I was at least half an hour late. We’d agreed to meet at Christ Church on Sparks Street where Sean and Neil Wilson hold many of their very successful Ottawa Writers Festival events each Spring and Fall. I really don’t think Ottawans realize just how lucky they are to have these two heroes championing literature in their city.

Cory was gracious, and soon we were engaged in a high-speed exchange in front of the microphone. After about an hour I noticed that that self-same microphone wasn’t working. We had to start all over again. Cory stayed cool. His plane to Berlin didn’t leave for another couple of hours.  

We completed the interview without any further glitches. Listen here:

I complimented him on his formula-one brain and then hit the highway from hell again, back to Montreal and Reni Eddo-Lodge with whom I subsequently engaged, at normal speed, in an important discussion about systematic racism, defying the title of her book 

Montreal is an edgy, contradictory city. I remember about ten years ago I decided to try to capture some of this by making my way up Rue Ste.-Catherine taking photographs of strip clubs and cathedrals. There were plenty of both.

Contradictory as I say. There’s a tension here, many tensions in fact, that fill the city with life and energy. Always have. You can hear it in Michel Tremblay’s voice. His anger at the church, and the English. Sheila Fischman who has translated more than 200 Quebecois novels into English, recently told me that in her opinion Michel is the greatest writer in Quebec, probably in Canada, and undoubtedly one of the greatest in the world. Listen to my conversation with him here: 

(and stay tuned for my discussion with her). Off mic Michel told me an interesting story. Thirty-odd years ago he decided to sell his archive (or at least part of it) to the Bibliothèque Nationale du Quebec. They insulted him with a paltry offer so he went down that road to Ottawa, and the National Library ironically, and surprisingly ( I say this because in the last 25 years they’ve spent fuck-all on Canadian authors’s archives) came up with acceptable coin and bought his priceless papers.

There’s much more to say about Literary Montreal, and I’ll say it in the next post, so please, stay tuned.