Toronto Book Sales & Politics, Conan Doyle & Ghosting

It required some juggling – lining up the cheap train tickets to coincide with the University of Toronto Victoria and St. Mike’s College annual used book sales – but I did it without dropping a ball.  I’d leave Sunday morning, arrive in T.O. mid-afternoon and browse the Vic, conduct my business on Monday,  and Tuesday morning, then hit St. Mike’s in the afternoon before getting back on the train at 5pm. 

I know Victoria College. It houses portraits of two little known 

Canadian literary

icons. Several years ago I attended Toronto Pursuits here, a super stimulating five-day program of ‘great’ reading and discussion that borrows from the Great Books Foundation method of ‘shared inquiry.’ I interviewed long time practitioner Eric Timmreck about it at the time for The Biblio File podcast. Listen here 

Also spoke with Classical Pursuits founder Ann Kirkland about Literary Tourism and tours, here

and buttonholed

Randall Speller to talk about the history of Canadian book design, here: 

You should consider attending Toronto Pursuits this July – beautiful way to while away a business week; and check out the tours Ann has planned for 2020. 

But I digress, wildly. I was here for the book sale (warning, it starts to get upsetting here). I’d scoped out the two floors and spotted two items of interest both priced at $25 – a four volume set in trade paperback of Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time and this:

Image result for Wind in a Rocky Country.

Wind in a Rocky Country by Alden Nowlan. I knew the Nowlan was important- – knew I wanted it. But do you think I’d pull the trigger? Of course not. I was going to play it smart and show up the next day when everything was on sale at half price. Maybe I wanted the charge of playing the odds, the thrill of taking a risk. Who the hell knows. I just knew I wouldn’t make it back until noon the next day because I had an interview lined up at 10am with Bob Rae, former leader of the Ontario NDP, and interim federal Liberal party leader.  

It was October, 2019 and Canadians were in the throes of a vile election campaign. I’d become quite engaged (translation: unleashed a curtain of hot-headed tweets) with events surrounding the SNC Lavalin affair. It had disturbed me that the Prime Minister of Canada had lied about how he and his minions had treated Attorney General/Justice Minister Jody Wilson Raybould (JWR), and that cronyism had taken precedence over the rule of law; that Justin Trudeau had, in fact, bullshitted the public so often with un-kept election promises, that it was hard to believe anything that came out of his mouth.

This is no way to run a country, I thought. So I decided to take matters into my own hands and add ‘political books’ to the Biblio File podcast’s lineup. Then I’d set the world straight by interviewing people with influence, close to the action, while analyzing the political book as a ‘genre,’ of course.

And of course these people would have to have written a book.

Bob Rae had, prior to the 2015 election.

What’s Happened to Politics? calls for greater political literacy and understanding and dialogue, beyond the partisan crap we’re being served up these days. I figured he still had clout in the Liberal party. His book is full of excellent advice. I wondered why Trudeau hadn’t taken it. 

Reporter John Ivison had, all packaged up just in time for the election, with four years worth of meticulously monitored misspeakings and mendacities. Trudeau: The Education of a Prime Minister. A pretty accurate portrayal if you ask me. Not gratuitously negative, as some reviewers have suggested.  It still seems to be selling well too, due no doubt I’m sure to the fact that Trudeau got re-elected. Of those I interviewed, John came first. Listen to our conversation here: 

JWR had just released a book too – also leveraging the heightened attention politics receives during election campaigns – and while it doesn’t deal directly with SNC (it features speeches delivered over the past decade, mostly outlining steps required to open ‘doors’ to self government) trust is an important theme. And I admit, I loved the way she’d told the truth to the nation.

I met with her in Ottawa prior to leaving for Toronto (an ironic twist: just as she launched the book, Global TV reported that her spousal MP travel expenses were ten times that of anyone else in Cabinet. The obvious implication was that she’d abused the privilege. I thought her husband was a lobbyist for some B.C. native groups, and told her so. As you can hear, she vehemently denies this, prompting a Liberal friend of mine to say she lied to me. I just figured they loved each other a lot :-). Listen for yourself here: 

I arrived early for the Rae interview after breakfasting right across the street from the Ontario College of Art & Design

I’d been thinking about approaching them to see if they’d be interested in acquiring my “evolution of Canadian book design” collection. You know, the one that doesn’t contain Wind in a Rocky Country.

I walked down to 250 University where Bob’s office is located. One of its walls is graced by this 20 ft bas-relief sculpture designed by portrait painter Cleeve Horne who attended OCAD in the 1930s! It was installed during the building’s construction for The Bank of Canada in the late ’50s. The relief is supposed to represent a Canadian family and, apparently, was the first public abstract sculpture in Toronto.

I had 30 minutes to kill so I ducked into Starbucks across the street to swat up a bit. Sat in the window, looked up and saw Chester Gryski walking by. He saw me and came in to tell me about the St. Mike’s book sale. I’d just interviewed Chester weeks before about his spectacular collection of Canadian fine press books. Listen here

I assured Chester that I knew about the sale.

Bob Rae and I had a good conversation about the current state of political discourse in Canada and around the world. He suggested that what we were doing – talking about possible solutions and sharing our thoughts with others – with people who can take action – was exactly the result he wanted from his book. So, if you’re reading this, please share our conversation with your elected representatives, and recommend they read Bob’s book! 

Bob also educated me on real world politics. Once you leave the stage, you’re gone – and so is your influence. Which probably explains why his book’s message has gone unheeded by the PMO.

After our talk I headed briskly, nervously, over to Victoria College. I sped in, beetled over to the ephemera table where I’d spotted Windy and started hurriedly thumbing through the pile.

Gone.

Stolen from me.

What a colossal fucking amateur mistake. All my fault, just for wanting to save a measly $12.50. Regrets? Yea, I’ve had a few. Always connected with the books I didn’t buy.

The book was designed and published by Robert Rosewarne and has been described as “among the most beautiful published in Canada in the 20th century.” Goes for $125-$150 online.

Fuck.

The Powells were gone too. I had to settle for this

for my Publishers’ Histories Collection. Little surprise that no-one else had bought it, given that Jack David and I are pretty well the only people in the world interested in these kind of books (and he already has a couple of thousand copies of this one clogging his warehouse).  

Next stop was the Toronto Public Library near Yonge and Bloor. I walked over from the College, doing my best to clear my mind, dull the pain. I spoke with Jessie Amaolo  who had recently assumed responsibility for the Library’s world-renowned Arthur Conan Doyle Collection. It includes first editions and magazines, manuscripts and DVDs, funky porcelain pipes and Sherlock Holmes figurines 

From the TPL it was a short hike up Yonge Street to 

Bar Centrale where I was scheduled to meet with “my publisher” Ken Whyte. Ken is perhaps best known as the former editor of MacLeans magazine – Canada’s Newsweek – and the first editor of the National Post newspaper, personally hired by Conrad Black. He later went on to become an executive with Rogers, and more recently, in 2018, established his own non-fiction book publishing firm, Sutherland House Books. He’s also a well regarded biographer of Randolph Hearst and, most recently, Herbert Hoover – a President I’ve always admired, but who hasn’t received the best P.R. Ken gives him his fair due.

Six or seven months ago, Ken approached me with an offer to publish some e-books of selected Biblio File interview transcripts under very agreeable terms. Here’s one of the books:

You can order yours here.

It was good to meet Ken in the flesh. He was in fine form, no doubt because he was fresh from lunch with ECW publisher Jack David, someone guaranteed to put you in a good mood if you spend any amount of time with him. Try it. Listen here.

At around the same time I was approached by Ken, I receive a glowing email from Ian Brown ‘of the Globe.’ It was quite something. Self effacing, flattering, and intriguing “a possible story,” “a possible venture.” I told him I’d be happy to connect next time I was in town. We did, and I suggested we meet at the Bar Centrale. After finishing with Ken I strolled around the block and came face to face with this

This is where they keep the beer in Toronto – at least in this part of town.  A Taj Mahal that used to be a railroad station. Pretty impressive inside too. A temple of non-temperance. 

I returned to the restaurant to find Ian enjoying a glass of wine at the bar reading the newspaper. We talked for perhaps 45 minutes. He enthused about how he knew Kristin Cochrane, Penguin Random House CEO, and that she and the books editor at the Globe were surely very interested in working with me on the Biblio File podcast. I assured him that this sounded great, but why wasn’t he working with them? With his background in television and radio, he’d be the obvious choice, no? 

Before we left he mentioned he’d recently talked with someone who’d be a great interview – involved with audio books she was, in New York. We parted company. I emailed him the next day thanking him for the drinks, mentioning that I planned to be in New York the next week (stay tuned for the back-story). Could he give me contact info for said audio book woman. 

No response. 

I followed up ten days later. Nothing. 

While the practice is prevalent, I’m told, among teenagers on social media, I   was unfamiliar with it. Until then. Yes. I’d been Ghosted.

We’ll have to wait to see if anything materializes. 

 

Next morning I met Marc Cote, publisher of Cormorant Books, at his home in front of which I was greeted by these beauties. 

He delivers a spellbinding, compendious overview of the Canadian book publishing scene, past and present, and in so doing, levels some seriously controversial allegations at the Canada Council. Listen here:  

After our lengthy, excursive, absorbing conversation I headed for St. Mike’s. It was pretty crowded. Lots of books on offer. Lots of people to climb over. All I came up with however, happily, was this

signed by Graeme Gibson who had died only days earlier. It’s a follow up to The Bedside Book of Birds, which won the Alcuin Award that year (2005) for best design. At the time, I interviewed its designer C.S. Richardson. Listen here:

One more stop, to interview Jennifer Yan about the Osborne Collection of Early Children’s Books at another branch of the TPL on College Street (check out this sweet little beat up horn book)

and it was off to Union Station, and all aboard for Montreal.

Buenos Aires Biblio File Backstory

Literary Tourist in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Buenos Aires was on sale. It was such a great deal, we couldn’t afford not to go. 

So who was I going to interview? I called on my go-to-guy in matters publishing and international, Richard Charkin. Richard has held many important positions during his long, distinguished career in publishing, including, quite recently, President of the International Publishers Association. He was bound to know some interesting book-types in BA. 

I met Richard through an entertaining blog he used to write about 10 years ago. I’ve interviewed him twice since. Once about ‘great’ publishers, here, once about mother elephants and cod

I’ve called upon Richard often for help with The Biblio File podcast. He’s always come through. And he did again, this time with Ana Maria Cabanellas. He also recommended this restaurant, Los Pinos

where the waiters illustrate every day why Argentinians are so good at pouring wine. 

They’d be fired if they did this here.

The trip got off to a good start when I found a huge bottle of Martini Rosso for $15 at the duty-free. After a relatively bump-free flight we settled into an Airbnb in the Palermo district – barrio – of Buenos Aires. Very leafy; filled with coffee shops, bars and tiny fruit and veggie shops (holes in the wall really) in front of which people line up 24-7 it seemed. And no wonder. A big bag of oranges went for peanuts, so we enjoyed fresh juice, squeezed by me, by-hand, every morning. 

I had one interview lined up, and needed more. So I tried a long-shot. I’d interviewed Margaret Atwood at the Kingston Writers Festival several years back about Literary Tourism in Ontario (and Boston). Listen here. Alberto Manguel was also at the event, on the marquis. For sure they knew each-other. And for sure he knew Buenos Aires. One thing led to another, and  thanks to Alberto I landed interviews with famed short story writer Lilliana Heker – Shakespearean in her ability to render veiled critiques of repressive regimes – and detective novelist Guillermo Martinez. Thanks to Alberto I also met the publisher Adriana Hidalgo. She was a little too shy (or smart) to be taped or photographed, but what a lovely woman. And what a lovely children’s catalogue

First thing on the second day’s to-do list was to get bus/subway cards. They were on sale at the tourism office, located next to a busy, pedestrian un-friendly roundabout, between a planetarium and this

I joked with our decidedly friendly tourism ambassador

that it must be difficult to stare at a horse’s ass all day long.

From here we made our way across town to Guillermo Martinez’s place. He’s best known for his 2003 novel, The Oxford Murders. It won the Planeta Prize and was adapted into a film in 2008 starring John Hurt and Elija Wood. Guillermo knew about Oxford because after getting his PhD he worked there for two years on a post-doc at the Mathematical Institute. Listen here to our conversation:

After the interview I headed up to the main drag. On it, along the way to the subway station, I encountered these

The design, or cake or something, must have significance here in Argentina because I saw them all over the place. Still, I held off stuffing any in my mouth, because not ten steps from our apartment building,

there was this ice-cream shop. Plus I was dying to sit in that chair. 

The next day I ventured downtown, past this overworked city employee, to visit Alberto Casares Antiquarian & Modern Books at Suipacha 521. Borges used to browse and buy and hang-out here. Here’s a shelf of his first editions.

Upstairs there was another full shelf, this one containing a complete run of Victoria Ocampo’s Sur (pronounced ‘sore’) magazine. Here’s numero-uno 

Victoria lived in a beautiful villa that you can visit on the outskirts of BA, about 30 Km from downtown. It’s now owned by UNESCO

After Casares I strolled over a few streets to Poema 20. The place smelled strongly of mildew but the books seemed to be in decent enough condition. I spotted a first edition of Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. It was marked “450” which I initially thought represented pesos. The clerk quickly set me straight. I asked if they had any Grete Stern photography books, but we couldn’t find any, so I ventured across the street, to a surprisingly warm reception. 

I was greeted at the door of Libreria Helena de Buenos Aires by Renato Garcia.

As is my wont, I asked him about well-known book designers. We went back into his office and he showed me this book,   

singling out master printer Francisco Colombo (who printed that first issue of Sur seen above), and master typographer Raúl Mario Rosarivo. He also brought out an early edition of Don Segundo Sombre, an important Argentinian novel by Ricardo Güiraldes. The protagonist is a gaucho, just as he is in José Hernández’s famed poem ‘Martín Fierro’. 

Then this dude showed up, intent on obscuring my entire scope of vision, 

He looked like he wouldn’t go down without a scrap, so I withdrew gracefully, thanking Renato for his hospitality. Next stop was Grupo Claridad‘s offices in Belgrano to talk to Ana Maria Cabanellas one of the “50 most influential people in publishing in the Spanish Language.” 

Listen to our conversation about book publishing in Argentina here:

Next morning –  a brilliant, sunny one – we jumped on the bus to El Caminito, a little quartier filled with colourfully painted buildings (okay, shacks ). Before I knew it I was being summonsed 

Who wouldn’t obey? Innocently, I thought she wanted me to participate in some sort of tango demonstration. Suddenly her co-conspirator whipped out the camera…they wanted money of course. It had nothing to do with my looks, or dancing prowess. Crest-fallen, I made my way over to the nearest beer/tavern to take the edge off. Here I was shown how it’s really done. 

Early that afternoon, following some excellent street meat, I taxied over to El Ateneo – the theatre of books –  where I tried unsuccessfully to artfully Instagram this Margaret Atwood book.

After some number of attempts, I gave up in frustration, dousing it (the frustration) with an espresso at the cafe on centre stage. Next it was over to Liliana Heker’s place. She is a very brave woman who, unlike many authors,  stayed in Argentina during the ‘dirty war’ to combat its repressive regime. It was a privilege to interview her. Just listen to the power of her voice. 

Outside her apartment I encountered this pig

I guess this is more of a mural, but Buenos Aires is celebrated for its graffiti. Here, for example is Mafalda, a tribute to the hugely popular comic book character created here in 1964 by Quino. 

The following morning we visited MALBA

Highlight for me was Grete Stern‘s psyched-out photographs, and this  caption line on the wall: “Books of photographs were the maximum expression of Buenos Aires [in the fifties] as the great city of South America.”

Which is not to say that this dude in his underwear wasn’t pretty appealing too

What really struck home with this museum though is how influential modern European art was around the world. Many of the works here were blatant knock-offs, but always with a slight difference – assuming the local character. 

We walked a ways, out of the museum, and over to the cemetery where Eva Peron is buried. Looked all over for her, but could only find Victoria, which really was just fine

Then it was off to Falena Bookstore and Wine Bar near another cemetery, and Kit Maude, who provides a must-listen-to guide for the Literary Tourist intent on visiting Buenos Aires, here:

Toward the end of the afternoon I taxied over to the National Library.

 


to see the exhibition. Unfortunately they wouldn’t let me in. One day strike. Just today. Borges thought it (the building) was a monstrosity. 

Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Syracuse

Literary Tourist on the road in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New York State

If you take the northern route between ground-zero (in this case Montreal) and Minneapolis through Algonquin Park, crossing over at Sault Ste. Marie and then along past Green Bay, there’s pretty well nothing of literary interest to see. Nothing unless you count this

in, yes, rural Wisconsin. One consolation: we came upon a coffee drive-thru that had a pretty good name.

Zinger coffee

As usual, once my wife, Caroline, had thoroughly planned out our dates and destinations, I tapped the Rolodex to solicit suggestions of bookish people on-site who might give-up engaging interviews. This time round I asked John Randle, proprietor of The Whittington Press for his thoughts. I’d interviewed John years ago at his sheep-surrounded studio near the cathedral city of Hereford (with its famed chained-library), not too far from Hay-on-Wye, the Welsh booktown. 

John publishes beautiful fine press books, and Matrix: A Review for Printers & Bibliophiles, a gorgeously printed annual. #31 had just dropped. I dug deep and bought a copy, first to commemorate my visit and our conversation (Listen here):

Second, because it contained an article by David Godine and one on Rocky Stinehour, both of whom I’d interviewed for the Biblio File podcast. The Whittington Press archive also happens to be at the University of Minnesota’s rare book library, along with an important collection of African-American literature and one of the world’s great Sherlock Holmes collections. Curator Tim Johnson is definitely on my interview hit-list. 

John recommended I interview Phil Gallo, a well regarded printer, and visual/concrete poet. Phil and I teed up a meeting at his apartment in St. Paul. We met for a chat early one afternoon several days before Christmas. The first thing I noticed – after Phil poured me a stiff shot of bourbon – was several shelves full of books on typography. A lot of them are type specimen books. 

Phil gallo books

Phil is the proprietor of the Hermetic Press, which kicked off in the mid-1960s. He purposefully doesn’t do much promotion. 

After our conversation I headed over to this little shop 

Against the Current bookstore, St. Paul

It had only recently opened. I didn’t find anything – most of the stock was geared, naturally, toward readers. I did have a good gab with the young owner however, and wished him well. 

Owner, Against the current bookstore, St. Paul

Then it was back to home-base, in Eagan, a bedroom community near Minneapolis. Our dear friends Jeff and Laura Spartz live here. We’ve visited them often over the years, mostly at Christmas time. Jeff runs a food-bank for the local crow population (you can see how successful this is)

Squirrels

Laura knows everything that is humanly possible to know about Jane Austen and the Regency period. The two are the nicest, most welcoming, well-travelled, smartest, politically-engaged people you can imagine –  exactly the kind who give Americans (most of them, anyway) a good name. We’re lucky to be able to call them, and their families, friends. 

Last time we visited, I had the opportunity to Continue reading “Motoring to Minneapolis, Madison, Chicago and Syracuse”

Being the Second part of my Southern Ontario Book Safari

Literary Tourist in Southern Ontario, Canada

I arrived at Rod and Joanne’s place in Welland, Ontario just in time for supper (there’s a name for people who do this: smellfeasts); and a delicious one it was at that.

Rod (Morris) and I worked together very successfully throughout the 1990s and into the 2000s in the feature news distribution and magazine contract publishing business(es). As Sir Stanley Unwin put it in his book, The Truth About Publishing, “Publishing is an unusually difficult occupation. It is at once an art, a craft, and a business, for which a curious and unusual combination of qualifications is desirable.” This holds as true for magazines as it does for books.

Early on I knew that Rod possessed the right qualifications. He is a great magazine publisher, and I’m lucky to call him a friend.

I love Rod as much as anything, for his fluffy french-toast – a substantial helping of which I consumed the next morning. Then it was out the door, into downtown Welland, and over to the home of one of Canada’s most knowledgeable, respected antiquarian book dealers.

I carted in a box of books I’d reserved especially for Steven’s eagle-eye, along with my newly acquired Powell novels, purchased here

Now here’s the thing – because they appear later on in the Dance to the Music of Time series – after it had become popular – my volumes aren’t as scarce as the ones preceding them. Not that they aren’t worth anything; they are: $50 – $75 each. Problem is, Steven and most other dealers, will only give me 20-25% of this amount (in Steve’s case, paid out in cash). In other words, about $15 each – which is roughly what I paid for them in the first place. While there might be a little profit here, it’s hardly worth all the effort.

I resolved to hold on to them – to play custodian for a while – and try my luck elsewhere, perhaps in the States where I’ll benefit from the exchange rate and the fact that they don’t see British editions down there all that often.

With this business out of the way, Steven and I got to rapping about his passion for finding and identifying lost Canadian literature – books that few others know about. It’s a fascinating project. You can learn more about it by listening to our conversation here:

From Steven and Welland I hit Continue reading “Being the Second part of my Southern Ontario Book Safari”

What’s so exciting about London, Stratford, and Hamilton, Ontario?

Literary Tourist tours Ontario, Canada

The adventure began in my book-filled storage cave in Ottawa. This picture was taken after twelve boxes full were removed and crammed into my car. A local bookseller, Bill Cameron, had told me about Attic Books several years ago.

I’d already carted a van-load of books down Highway 401 to London, Ontario, where Attic is located, and gotten what I thought was a reasonable deal for them ( I always go with trade). Owner Marvin Post likes to move books – buys and sells lots of them – turnover is good for business he says. What I love is that he doesn’t just cock his nose, sniff at your offerings and deign only to take a handful. No. Marvin – depending upon what you bring him of course – will take a whole whack: ten boxes worth this time round. Now granted, my books were pretty good, but most booksellers just wont do what Marvin does.

I arrived late. It’d taken two hours just to get from one frikin end of Toronto to the other on the clogged highway. Luckily I’d downloaded a bunch of book-centric podcasts – including some episodes of Eleanor Wachtel’s Writers & Co, (she’s one top-drawer interviewer). Of the many I listened to that afternoon, perhaps the best was with Diana Athill. Absolutely delightful. Listen here. She talks of Andre Deutsch, and of her experience publishing books over many decades. So glad I bought a signed copy of her Life Class a few years ago (from Dan Mozersky) (she died recently at the age of 101)

And the episode on Simone de Beauvior? Riveting

When we’d finally unloaded the car and the books had been priced,

it was closing time, so Marvin and I Continue reading “What’s so exciting about London, Stratford, and Hamilton, Ontario?”