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.

Margaret Atwood, Literary Tourist in Kingston

Literary Tourist in Kingston, Ontario

A Biblio File podcast interview, in which: I talk, in rather rushed fashion, to great Canadian author and “bad” feminist Margaret Atwood about literary tourism: ‘place’ and her novel MaddAddam, Harvard and The Handmaid’s Tale, and the Kingston Penitentiary and Alias Grace, also about: the real and the imaginary, the unreliability of eye witnesses, following the research, Samuel Johnson, Ernest Hemingway, food and underclothing, bodies, space and smell, plus the importance of plumbing – all of which took place at the Kingston Writers Festival 

several years ago, a wonderful literary celebration that occurs every September in the city of wind turbines 

…of my (and now my youngest daughter’s) alma mater, Queen’s University 

with its Jordon Special Collections Library, full of Lorne Pierce’s Canadiana,

…of Berry and Peterson’s bookshop, where I regularly visit John and Richard to get the latest and hottest antiquarian book gossip

and learn stuff about books etc., like for example that important early editions of Canadian Forum magazine are worth diddly-squat.

…of Morrison’s where I used to go 30-odd years ago for hungover breakfasts (now I hear from famed Canadian book designer Laurie Lewis [ listen to our conversation about her time at the University of Toronto Press with Allan Fleming here]

that it’s not the ‘go to’ place anymore, Peter’s on Princess is, but still this is a pretty damned good photo so I’m leaving it in anyway)

…of the Belvedere Hotel

where I once met my hero, Nobel Prize winner J.M. Coetzee who signed about 25 of my/his first editions and after my yammering on for about 10 of the signatures I suddenly shut up, realizing that I don’t know J.M from Adam, and what the fuck am I trying to do here anyway? Convince myself that there is some sort of relationship when in fact there’s nothing? And why am I so obsessed with signed firsts editions anyway…

…of Chez Piggy where I’ve spent some stellar evenings shooting the breeze with friends about airy concepts out on the back patio, and

…of Pat Grew my best friend, and the best math teacher in the world. Okay don’t take my word for it.

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?”