Friday, December 14, 2012

My Log No. 331: Dec 14 2012 I find a great second-hand bookshop, The Word, on Milton street, Montreal, that has already wormed its way into my affections

Bookshop (Photo credit: conxa.roda)
Bookshops have always played an important role in my life, especially second-hand bookshops. This dates from my first sojourn in London, England in 1951, when I quickly became a regular habituee of the bookshops along Charing Cross Road, and later to the year I spent in or near Edinburgh, Scotland, which had the finest second-hand bookshops I have ever come across.

In those days one could buy for almost nothing fine, beautifully printed on rice-paper, and leather bound copies of old classics, many of which I bought at the time, and a few of which I still have on my shelves.  The price was usually around 1/6 in the old English reckoning, which would be equivalent today to about 30 cents or so, I imagine.

The trouble with the Edinburgh bookshops was that they ruined me for all those that followed them, which usually did not have the same quality of books, and certainly none at the same low prices.

In more recent years I have become disillusioned with second-hand bookshops because they have started to charge almost as much for wornout old copies of much–read books as one used to pay for new books --- which themselves have soared in price to hitherto unimaginable levels.

Ottawa, where I lived for more than 30 years, had a lot of second-hand bookshops, but most of them had this double deficiency (from my Edinburgh standards) that they were charging too much, and secondly, that when they put books out on the street as a come-on, the books they put out were always just trash that no one in his right mind would need or buy.

Restored to Montreal after a 37 year absence, I have been looking forward to investigating the Argo on Ste Catherine, which always was my idea of what a bookshop should be like: crowded with books, so many books one had to fight one’s way through them and among them.  I  have always remembered with affection a similar shop, Bonder’s on Bernard street in Outremont, but sadly it has long ago bitten the dust (although Abe Bonder himself just this week celebrated his 90th birthday), as has Archie Handel’s crowded mess of a bookshop at which I used to spent half an hour or an hour every day chewing the fat with the amiable owner when he was on Bleury, and I was on my way uptown to cover the city hotels for The Montreal Star (that was in the late 1950s).

My great good luck has been that I have wound up just around the corner from an admirable second-hand bookshop called The Word, kept by the friendly and knowledgeable maestro Adrian  King-Edwards and his son Brendon (and someone called Donna Jean-Louis, whom I have not yet met, also figures on their calling card, which says, modestly, that they sell “scholarly second-hand books, specializing in literature.”)

I can report that their selection of literature is excellent: I would almost say one could find just about any book one would want there, but they have another feature of their business which has particularly endeared them to me.

Outside their shop they have a shelf on which every day, they place books they are selling for 50 cents, and I can tell you they do not put trash out there, but excellent books, usually in good physical shape, covering a wide range of  subjects.

This has been great for me, because, after having made three moves of residence in the last couple of years, I find I have given away so many books in an effort to lighten the moving load that when I set up my home in a one-bedroomed apartment in Montreal I found I almost had more bookshelves than books. Urgently confronting the need to fill up some of the empty spaces, I have found Adrian’s 50 cent line a ready resource. I haven’t read any of them yet, having been attempting to catch up with a box of books loaned me by a friend, who, unlike me, is a big buyer of new books (that I usually tell myself I can’t afford).

But to give you an idea of the variety and quality of books Adrian puts on his 50 cent line, I have bought novels by Josef  Skvorecky, Yves Beauchemin, Lisa Appignanesi (none of whose works have I ever read before), Margaret Laurence (whom I have read in earlier years, and whom I had the pleasure of interviewing on one occasion when she was speaking at Cambridge University, England), a book on the Shakespearean stage in the sixteenth century, Simon Winchester’s much-praised book on the Krakatoa explosion of 1883, an autobiography by James A.  Michener (a writer who I have always thought had the perfect life in that he would spend two years researching a novel in a different part of the world, two years writing it, and at the end could be assured his book would sell a million copies or thereabouts), a book on the whaling industry of the past (something that, coming from New Zealand, has always interested me), a book by Eric Bentley on the Playwright as Thinker (another subject that interested me especially during those years I wrote a weekly column from London about the English theatre), and even a history of the Trappist monks (a far-out subject for a non-religious guy like me, and one that I think will bear no more than a cursory whip through, if that).

I have of course also bought slightly more expensive works from within the shop, including a copy of P.G. Wodehouse’s masterpiece, The Mating Season, whose opening paragraph is such a glowing example of the use of the English language that I am always uneasy when I find I don’t have a copy at hand, as seems to happen: do I give them away or what?) The only one of The Word bookshop books I have read so far is a three-novel compendium of works by Ian Rankin, whose Inspector Rebus, an Edinburgh man,  is one of the great detectives of modern times, scruffy, emotional, drunken and disreputable, but a guy who always seems to get the job done. I had the pleasure of hearing Rankin speak and be interviewed in Ottawa: an amusing, irresistable fellow.

Well this is The Word bookshop, which has already worked its way into my affections, and is well on the way to filling my empty bookshelves.

All hail to Adrian, and The Word! Here’s to their next 20 years!

PS:  For those of you wondering about the Wodehouse opening paragraph: here it is:

Wodehouse classic prose
“While I would not go so far, perhaps, as to describe the heart as actually leaden, I must confess that on the eve of starting to do my bit of time at Deverill Hall I was definitely short on chirpiness. I shrank from the prospect of being decanted into a household on chummy terms with a thug like my Aunt Agatha weakened as I already was by having had her son Thomas, one of our most prominent fiends in human shape, on my hands for three days.

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  1. I think I've been in that store. The owner was so trusting that when he needed to leave for a minute, he told the customers to keep browsing and that he'd be back soon if we had any questions.
    The reason I was on Milton St was to find the offices of the Inuit Cooperatives Federation. I can't remember if it's still there. You may want to check into it next time you head for The Word.
    ~Dana Magliari

  2. Dear Dana
    Yeah, that's the old-time bookseller ethic, all right. Abe Bonder's son said to me the other day his father would as soon give away books as sell them. Beautiful....

    Thanks for the comment.