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. 

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 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. 

Interview with Betsy Sherman on Herman Melville’s Arrowhead

Literary Tourist in The Berkshires 

Herman Melville lived at Arrowhead (so named because of arrowheads found nearby in the soil during planting season) from 1850–1863, during which time he wrote some of his best known works: Moby-Dick, The Confidence-Man, and The Piazza Tales, a short story collection named after his porch, of which he wrote:

Now, for a house, so situated in such a country, to have no piazza for the convenience of those who might desire to feast upon the view, and take their time and ease about it, seemed as much of an omission as if a picture-gallery should have no bench; for what but picture-galleries are the marble halls of these same limestone hills?—galleries hung, month after month anew, with pictures ever fading into pictures ever fresh.

Built in the 1780s as a farmhouse, it was located adjacent to property owned by Melville’s uncle Thomas, who Melville visited in his youth. He purchased the property in 1850 with borrowed money and spent the next twelve years farming and writing. Money problems forced him to sell the property to his brother, and return to New York City in 1863 whereupon he eventually found work as a customs inspector.

The house remained in private hands until 1975, when the Berkshire County Historical Society acquired it and some of the original 160-acre property. The Society restored most of the house to Melville’s period and operates it as a house museum; it’s open to the public ‘during warmer months.’

I visited Arrowhead to learn more about why it should be on the Literary Tourists’s bucket-list.  Listen here to my conversation with Executive Director Betsy Sherman

Salem Massachusetts Before and After

Literary Tourist in Salem

This is a before and after story. Before: We’d first visited Salem some years ago primarily to check out The House of Seven Gables. It’s New England’s oldest wooden mansion, and inspired

.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1851 novel of the same name. Hawthorne’s cousin, Susanna Ingersol, had inherited the property from her wealthy sea captain father in 1804, the year Hawthorne was born. Later on, Nathaniel used to visit the house frequently between 1845-1849 when he was a surveyor at the nearby Custom House. During this time he wrote his first critically acclaimed and best known work, The Scarlet letter.

We learned all of this, and a lot more, from our tour guide. She was terrific, and made all the difference. I’m kind of ambivalent when it comes to writers’ houses. Many of them can seem fake and contrived. Tourist traps. If, however, the guide is informative, animated, and funny, the experience can be really enjoyable. This, as I say, was the case with ours.

Gift shops are always fun. And this place has a dandy. It sells lots of funky literary stuff, including this tea pot

Salem is also home to an evocative cemetery

where Nathaniel’s ancestor John Hathorne is buried. And yes, Nate changed the spelling of his name to avoid any connection with the old judge, the only one involved in the Salem witch trials who never repented of his actions; plus there are some truly beautiful old ships docked here,

beside which you can

Anyhow, getting back to before: when we were first in Salem I took great pleasure in browsing through the Derby Square Bookstore.

It’s one of the most overstuffed floor-to-ceiling shops I’ve ever visited. Not that the stock was all that interesting. It wasn’t. And even if it was, there’s little chance of being able to pull much out, without taking down the entire stack.

Hard even to see who you were paying your money to.

For presentation alone however: Most memorable!

Now, however, after, when we visited last month, the store is much changed.

Bookshop, Salem

I was pleased to see that the building was still occupied by a bookshop, but it’s nowhere near as remarkable.

***

While my companions followed the scarlet brick road (okay line) around town – no double inspired by Hester Prynne’s walk of shame – I decided to do some writing/surfing at this fine local, dog-friendly,

dog motiffed

coffeehouse. The service was spirited

as was the coffee. Lots of electrical outlets, wooden floors, good music, artisan beer – the perfect writers’ hangout. As for the name,

Gulu, Gulu, romantically, “Marie Feldmannova and her husband, Steve Feldmann, named their quirky place for the cafe in Prague where they met.”

For advice on what to do and when to do it – Halloween and witches cast a spell over the place in October – check out Salem Tourism’s website here.

Audio: Top 10 Literary things for you to do in Houston

Attention Literary Tourists! I met with Kristi Beer from Inprint Houston, a non-profit organization dedicated to inspiring readers and writers in Houston, Texas. Founded in 1983, Inprint fulfills its mission through the nationally renowned Margarett Root Brown Reading Series, the Cool Brains! Reading Series for Young People, and literary and educational activities in the community that demonstrate the value and impact of creative writing, and support of the University of Houston Creative Writing Program. All of this constitutes an important contribution to Houston’s rich and diverse cultural life.

Who better then to question about how the Literary Tourist might best spend his or her time in Houston than someone at the center of this vibrant organization. Listen here to our conversation

Know Before You Go

Visit Houston has a great website filled with useful information about accommodation and cultural activities taking place in the city. You’ll also find special ticket rates and admission offers to Houston’s most sought after museums, theaters and art galleries.

[Please note that this interview was conducted several years ago, so check the Inprint website for information on current and upcoming events etc.]