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. 

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. 

Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt

Literary Tourist in London, England. Day 2

The cold (English cold I should say, not Canadian) fresh air slapped my face as I exited the apartment. I didn’t feel like walking, but nonetheless, nutted-up and strode for 15 minutes over to the Thames, where the Houses of Parliament (Palace of Westminster) fairly sparkled in the morning sunlight.

The Bookseller magazine‘s offices are across the river from it. A 15 minute walk West gets you to the Tate Britain. Twenty minutes on foot in the other direction, along the Thames, and you’re at the Southbank Book Market.

Given that it was late October, there weren’t too many vendors out. I suspect there’s a lot better selection in the summertime.

In case you’re interested M16’s HQ is a short trot up the road from The Bookseller’s offices. And just so you know, the surrounding district is called Lambeth – as in Liza of Lambeth,

Somerset Maugham’s first novel about the travails of a young factory worker who lives near Westminster Bridge, written while Maugham was a medical student. Lambeth is also the place where John Milton lands after cometing his way down from heaven in William Blakes’ Milton: A Poem in Two Books.

I was here to interview The Bookseller’s chief executive and owner, Nigel Roby.

The magazine goes way back, to 1858, when Joseph Whitaker founded it in order to inform London publishers and booksellers about the latest books, launch dates, and various comings and goings in the trade. It has filled this role faithfully ever since – even published during the Blitz – only today, the coverage is global. Listen below as Nigel (Beale) talks with Nigel about the magazine’s past, along with current topics of concern to the industry. Brexit, which came up in virtually every interview I conducted during this visit to London, was certainly one concern. The uncertainty created is agitating everyone in publishing.

As members of the EU, the Brits have for many years had the English-language market on the continent all to themselves. With the ‘leave’ vote, this could change dramatically. A potential battle looms with American publishers. Britain is currently the largest book exporter in the world (Canada is one of the largest importers). Sales are close to $7 Billion a year, half of which comes from the EU. The U.S. is hankering for an invasion.

The British book business employs 30,000 people. If the country pulls out of the EU, and walls go up, literary culture is likely to become more isolated, a shrinking economy would mean less money spent on books, and writers could lose their generous Euro grants. No wonder it comes up in conversation. There’s much at stake.

***

I’d agreed to meet Henry Hitchings downstairs outside the building. There he was, right on time. We hiked briskly back to Airbnb HQ talking all the while about theatre (Henry is the critic for the Evening Standard), Samuel Johnson, and, yes, Brexit. Listen here as we nerd out about the smell of books and stories that can be told around buying them (books not smell), and a book Henry edited called Browse: The World in Bookshops.

Continue reading “Meeting The Bookseller, Browsing Bookshops, Quoting Geoffrey Faber, and Rapping with James Daunt”

Fixed Book Price, Translation, Books and Bookstores in Paris

Literary Tourist in Paris

She told me to get off at the Monge metro station, her office was nearby. I envisioned traipsing around a bunch of back streets squinting at numbers on buildings, and being late for our rendez-vous. But no. I simply crossed the road, looked up at the street sign – and there it was

3 rue Rollin, rockin’ right in front of me. I’d arrived in plenty of time.

Héloïse d’Ormesson is the founder, with her companion Gilles Cohen Solal, of Editions Héloïse d’Ormesson, a small but sturdy publishing house that attentively puts out 20 books a year. It’s now published more than 200. Here’s most of them

They greet you as you enter the office.

Héloïse invited me into her bureau where we talked generally about book publishing in France. Click here if you’d like to listen in:

Specifically, we dove into why so many editors become publishers, the late adoption of illustrated covers in France; are they readers or customers? the lack of good literary agents in France, Fixed Price policy and the importance of booksellers; Heloise’s heart and soul, her famous father Jean, books in the house at an early age, favourite bookstores, the new Jean d’Ormesson Award, every book is unique, hence there’s no set formula for success – and many other things.

Once our interview was finished I strode out onto the rue, but not before Héloïse gave me a charming little Continue reading “Fixed Book Price, Translation, Books and Bookstores in Paris”