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 still seems to be selling well. Of those I interviewed, John came first. Listen to our conversation here: 

JWR had just released a book – also leveraging the 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 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 travel expenses as an MP 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 their librarians 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 Cleeve Horne (who attended OCAD in the 1930s!), a well known portrait painter. 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 has 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.

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, Continue reading “Kingston & collecting Elizabethan histories, & Canadian fine press printing”

Albany for the Writers, Cooperstown for the Books

Literary Tourist in upstate New York

I ‘d been browsing Francine Prose’s book Reading Like a Writer with some pleasure, and noticed, after conducting one of my regular panoramic literary event scans covering a circular territory – centre in Montreal, circumference a 3 1/2 hour drive away – that she was scheduled to speak in a few days time right out on the edge of the circle, at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, NY. 

The Skidmore readings are connected to the New York State Writers Institute, at SUNY in nearby Albany. Together they draw some impressive talent, so I’m very attentive to what goes down there. In fact, today, Salman Rushdie happens to be on deck. 

Time was limited. I put in a couple of calls, but predictably wasn’t able to tee up a Biblio File interview with Francine. Still, I was interested enough to jump in the car and drive down. I’d overnight near the college and drive to a bookstore in Cooperstown the next morning, July 4th. I’d dropped in on it years ago, but the visit was rushed, and I’ve harboured a desire to return ever since. 

On the way down to Skidmore I listened to a podcast called Think Again. The guest was Martin Amis. There was some interesting talk about Joyce – 25% of Ulysses is brilliant, says Amis, the rest, not so much. He’s read about a third of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest ( I flamed out at a quarter) and is respectful, suggesting that while DFW’s essays are good (agreed), especially the ones on tennis, his fiction tends to burns up the reader’s good will very quickly. Too quickly, unless of course you’re young and love the challenge of reading boring-as-a-pound-of-suet text. When the podcast host, Jason Gots, offers up that he’s “enraptured” by Wallace’s digressions, I have trouble suspending my disbelief. When Part ll of the podcast comes on and the discussion turns to AI, it was all I could do not to change the channel. I never turn Amis off, but this was over the top. 

Another thing that bothered me was Jason’s sudden outbursts of maniacal, paradoxical laughter. Amis does his best to talk through it, I opted to listen to the country & western station. 

I should perhaps come clean here. Prior to driving down to Albany I’d been organizing a trip to New York, lining up various stars to interview. I was keen to talk to Amis. Have been since I read London Fields. Who wouldn’t want to meet the man responsible for siring Nicola Six. So I fired off an email to his agent Andrew Wylie. “No,” was his firm response.  Not a hard, final no, just no this time round. The prospects might brighten closer to the time his next big ‘baggy’ novel hits the shelves. 

So this “no” was ringing in my ears, at the same time I sat jealously listening to the jarring hyena laughter and inane discussion of the possibility that AI machines might one day replace novelists.

After arriving at Skidmore I walked the campus a bit

found the classroom, and took a seat close to the stage. I wasn’t in the most sanguine mood. The talks weren’t terribly enlightening. Both participants made a point of repeatedly referring to “their students,” in much the same way a mid-level bureaucrat is wont to talk about his “staff.” Once the floor opened up for questions I asked Francine what differentiated her book from How to Read a Book, written by a ‘dead white male’ more than fifty years ago. Few seemed to have heard of Mortimer Adler. Basically he advocated close reading, which is pretty well what Francine does in her book, along with providing some engaging exegesis. 

More women, was the obvious answer. That’s pretty well it. I should add that although my question was presented provocatively, the intent was to facilitate Francine making this point. 

As the tents were folding, a robust, busty young tatooed student glided past me and said “I’m looking forward to the day when you’re a dead white male,” missing entirely the good-natured purpose behind my question. 

***

A couple of items of note about nearby Albany: McGeary’s Irish pub in Clinton Square has an excellent happy hour during which good, large, stiff, cheap drinks are poured. Plus Herman Melville’s childhood home – the plain pink edifice – can be found right next door.

Image result for herman melville's house in albany"

Speaking of buildings,  check these out:

They’re right downtown, part of a complex of state government offices called The Empire State Plaza. It was built between 1965 and 1976 at an estimated cost of $2 billion. There’s a major public collection of 1960s and 1970s monumental abstract artworks on permanent display throughout the site, plus there’s a performing arts center. The supervising architect was Wallace Harrison.

And final note: a year or two ago we were in town and I decided to check out the books section at a local thrift store. Damned if I didn’t find a 7th printing of the British Faber paperback edition of Anna Burns’s Booker-Award winning novel Milkman on the shelf!

Image result for milkman anna burns"

 

The reason for my overreaction was, first that it was the British edition (it’s published by Graywolf in the States – which means that someone had to have lugged the thing over the Atlantic) and second that not two months prior I’d talked about it during a Biblio File interview conducted in London with Faber CEO Stephen Page, listen here

Next morning I headed off to Cooperstown, NY, home to The Baseball Hall of Fame. It was a beautiful sunny day, which brightened the already colourful surroundings. 

But I wasn’t here for the Hall, or for my name to be engraved for free on a baseball bat

or for the baseball gear. Not even the dogs, although I did dunk a couple for lunch. 

No, I was here for the books, and Willis Monie Books had loads of them to offer at sparkling good prices. How good? Well check out the pile I bought ( mostly publishers’ histories). I think Willis was pleased. 

This hog print also spoke loudly to me

as did a number of dust jackets from the forties and fifties on books all priced below $10, including a striking one by Milton Glaser, and this beauty published by the aforementioned Faber & Faber. Had to buy it. 

After wobbling out of the store with my pile, I was greeted by this

actually, my first encounter with it was earlier in the morning after a breakfast I’d enjoyed at a diner across the street. At the time, I’d decided to squeeze out all the good I could from a bad situation by leaving the car parked where it was for the day. Still, I couldn’t believe that the town would stoop to ticketing me on the 4th of July. How damned unpatriotic.  

A SHARP Conference in Amherst, MA.

Literary Tourist in Massachusetts

So I’d heard of SHARP, The Society for the History of Authorship, Reading and Publishing. I knew there was study of the history of the book involved, and I thought (erroneously as it turns out) that there also was some kind of official connection with the Fisher Library in Toronto.  But it wasn’t until I took the time to visit the website that I realized how similar SHARP’s objectives were to my own. Reading this: “Research addresses the composition, mediation, reception, survival, and transformation of written communication in material forms…” I was struck by how aptly it describes the parameters of my Biblio File podcast project, where the goal is to document the book at the turn of the 21st century, to develop a panoramic portrait by interviewing ‘best practitioners’ in and around the book trade – those involved with the book’s “composition, mediation, reception and survival.”  But I’m also interested in the past, which means interviewing not only people currently on the job, but also academics, biographers, and authors familiar with people from the past. This in part explains why I collect publishers’ histories and memoirs, and more broadly, books by and about people connected with books. In fact, some of my favourite interviews have focused on practitioners from the past. For example, James Laughlin 

Jack McClelland

and Blanche Knopf

Given that many members of SHARP epitomize the kind of ‘expert’ I’m looking to interview, I figured I should try to get to know some of them.

As it happened, SHARP’s 2019 annual conference was to be held in Amherst, MA. I could easily drive down there. So I contacted the organizers, Jim Wald and Jim Kelley, and convinced them to provide me with a press pass.

The drive was uneventful, save for a humongous downpour shortly before I arrived at my Airbnb in South Hadley about 20 minutes from the conference venue. It was unusually hot. After the deluge the streets were literally steaming.

Turns out I’d been in the hood earlier in the year to interview respected antiquarian book/author archives dealer Ken Lopez, in Hadley. Listen here to an enlightening conversation on how Ken went about developing two seminal book collections:

On the same trip I buttonholed Barry Moser in nearby Hatfield to talk about his storied career in the book arts ( and yes, he’s as fun to talk to as he is to look at!). Listen here:

Copped this photo of Dante hanging on one of Barry’s walls. If you haven’t seen his illustrations to Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of The Inferno, do yourself a favour. They’re frighteningly good.

You should also know about Barry’s own press, Pennyroyal and all of the beautiful books produced under its imprint, many of which we talked about.

Next morning the drive up to UMass was punctuated by this wildlife encounter

The second encounter of the day was with one of the used booksellers working the conference. His prices were really good. $10 for a copy of Sandra Campbell’s excellent Both Hands: A Life of Lorne Pierce of Ryerson Press for example. I interviewed Sandra at her home in Kingston, Ontario last year about Pierce, one of Canada’s greatest publisher/editors. Listen here:

ter

There was also a copy of Ruth Panofsky’s history of MacMillan Canada for sale. I’d interviewed Ruth years ago about this when the book was still in gestation. She was kind enough to reference our conversation in her acknowledgments. I already had a copy but it was buried in storage, so I decided to spring for this one, and get her to sign it (she happened to be at the conference).

The first morning session I attended included talks on three separate topics: Coloring the Alice ( in Wonderland) Books, Japanese books illustrating the American Civil War – produced contemporaneously, and the cost to John Murray of publishing photography books on Africa in the 19th century. Yup, about as esoteric a grouping as you could hope to find, and to this book-lover, all equally fascinating. Talk of Japan brought up memories of my trip to Tokyo last year and a conversation about ukiyo-e woodblock printing with skilled practitioner and ex-pat Canadian, Dave Bull. Listen here:

After coffee break I sat in on a session entitled The American History Textbook Project: Teaching an Evolving National & Cultural Identity with Book History. Sounds like a bona fide snoozer doesn’t it. Well it definitely wasn’t. There are considerable rewards now being reaped thanks to the accumulation and comparison of history text books, year to year, region to region. No wonder different states have such different beliefs and ‘personalities.’ For more on this intriguing project, click here.

The presenters were students of Jonathan Rose. He was in the session. Afterwards I cornered him and arranged an interview. Jonathan is known for much more than just this project. He in fact was instrumental in setting up SHARP back in the early nineties. Listen here as he tells the story:

Years ago I’d visited Jonathan at his home in Pennsylvania somewhere to talk about the history of Dent, the British publishing house, and its Everyman’s Library. I’d sought him after discovering this

and seeing that he was its editor. This book, along with companion volumes on American publishing houses became collecting bibles for me. At the end of each publishing house entry there’s a short bibliography listing sources. Pasteing them together provided me with my early publishers’ histories/memoirs hit list. Today many of the listed titles sit on my shelves. Naturally, as you can see, I got Jonathan to sign my copy.

After a plate of sprouts and over-sized, possibly genetically modified lima beans, I headed over to the Annual General Meeting. The amphitheatre was full. Various Society officers were paraded up on the stage, names were put to faces and awards handed out, including the 2019 DeLong Book History Prize.

“I saw literary scholars, historians, librarians and publishing professionals mixing amicably and conversing creatively,” said Jonathan after the first SHARP meeting in 1993. “That’s when I knew that [the society] was going to work”. While I didn’t run into any publishing executives, I did see a lot of young, enthusiastic academics and librarians crowding the hallways. The sheer number of interesting sessions on offer spoke to the breadth of their interests and curiosities.

For instance, I had a hell of a time choosing between Sites of Dissemination: Scribner’s Bookstore, Cultures of Publishing: Nineteenth-Century Publishers’ Series, and Agents and Agency: Sybil Hutchinson Literary Agent to James Reaney. The last was delivered by Ruth Panofsky, so I went with it. Wanted to connect with her, and get my book signed. Ruth is doing important work bringing attention to under-appreciated women in Canada’s 20th century book publishing world. 

After her talk, in the Q & A session, an academic, Julie Rak, whose work I’ve encountered before – a toxic cesspit of a book review in which she trashed Nick Mount’s excellent book on the CanLit boom, Arrival, for not devoting enough pages to women, or black or indigenous writers when the fact is “history” shows that, for good or bad, their voices just weren’t present – Nick was simply telling it the way it was – anyway, she asks this question about the Canadian publisher Jack McClelland, calling him a ‘real asshole’, and requests that Ruth give her “the dirt” on him. 

I decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and shut up, but I was some tempted to blast her – only thing is, if I had’ve done so, I’m sure it would have stirred up more dust than was worth wiping out of my eyes.  Sure, at times, Jack was probably an asshole. But he went out of his way to champion female writers, and worked tirelessly to promote Canadian authors. He’s a hero and should be celebrated as one. Was he a Harvey Weinstein? I very much doubt it. Pretty well all the women who worked with him, loved, or at least admired him.  

It’s one thing to pay attention to those whose stories haven’t been told, quite another to smear the reputations of those who should be revered. The whole affair put me off my soup, so I went for the salad instead at that evening’s dinner. Having shredded my tongue, I wasn’t terribly inclined to socialize, so I headed for the door early.

Next morning I attended an interesting session on Books, Indigeneity & Settler Colonialism. It brought home the importance of access to books and archives, and how they can be used as proof to settle disputes from the past.  Regrettably I missed Jonathan’s afternoon talk on Playboy magazine’s female readership (it was huge),  but just the topic reinforced my opinion of how agile his mind is, especially when assessing and exploring the capacity of the printed record to teach us about history. There’s little doubt in my mind why SHARP is thriving: with people like Jonathan actively organizing, and preparing talks, it’s sure to continue to attract curious young scholars. Sure, I think the organization could use more collectors and book trade people – it’s a bit academic-heavy, but I guess this is to be expected, along with the accompanying activism and social justice agendas. You’ll find this everywhere though, and, within reason, all for the good. 

All told it was a really intellectually stimulating couple of days spent in the company of people in front of whom you didn’t have to be embarrassed when admitting your book geekiness. Next conference is in Amsterdam in June, 2020. For more info, click here

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to visit Amherst Books (my friend, the poet Matthew Zapruder recommended it). But I did get to see this fine example of hard core Massachusetts graffiti, right next door

On my way out I visited Gray Matter Books in Hadley,

where I was pleasantly surprised to find these to add to my collection.

Great way to end off the trip.

Three literary hot spots in Amherst if you happen to be there: The Emily Dickinson Museum which, speaking from experience, offers excellent tours, the Yiddish Book Center, and The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art. Click here for tourist information.

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.