Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Victoria shop in the good books

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 17, 2008


Jim Munro’s throne room is an office with a bathroom tucked beside the entrance to the downtown bookstore that carries his name.

Munro’s Books is a Government Street landmark, a stopping place for bibliophiles, bureaucrats and cruise ship daytrippers. The store’s neighbours include the 104-year-old Murchie’s tea shop and the 116-year-old Old Morris Tobacconist. The bookstore is a mere pup, celebrating 45 years of pulp peddling this week.

Books are stacked on shelves lining the walls of the converted bank, a coffered ceiling overhead. The marble atop the checkout desk is an unused remnant from the construction of the Legislature down the street, salvaged from the former home of the architect Francis Rattenbury.

It is a grand space and a wondrous place to browse.

Often, one can find the proprietor staggering among the rows with a stack of books. He is responsible for the transportation section, keeps an eye out on shelves dedicated to crafts and economics.

He owns the magnificent building, which reduces overhead enough to allow for reasonable salaries and profit sharing. Eight of the 30 workers have been on staff for more than two decades.

Back in 1963, Mr. Munro left a steady job at a department store to open his first outlet. His father, a chartered accountant for the same firm, thought him mad.

Munro’s the bookstore, like Munro the owner, is a survivor.

“Eaton’s is gone,” he said with a chortle. “I’m still here.”

The final entry in the store’s annual accounts have been in black ink for all but two of the years he has been in business. Munro’s has endured inflation, recession, and a Canadian dollar with a yo-yo value. A giant Chapters store opened nearby. Amazon and other Internet retailers offered books at discount prices. The charmless lures of a big-box retailer and a cyber seller doomed other booksellers in other cities, but they failed to shut Munro’s doors.

It is a place to indulge the tactile pleasures of a brick-and-mortar bookstore. The typographical promise of a good dustjacket can be savoured. Passages of prose can be scanned. Knowledgable staff offer tips on titles. Amidst the shelves, one might bump into a literary star, or a politician peddling a memoir.

Mr. Munro had romantic notions as a boy, enraptured as he was by tales of the court of Louis XIV. Born and raised in Oakville, Ont., he studied English and history at the University of Western Ontario in London. In the library one day, he gave the eye to a comely co-ed. He was eating Smarties at the same time, dropping one on the floor. Normally, he would have popped it into his mouth, but, not wanting her to think him a grotesque, instead cocked his wrist as to throw the candy in the trash. “I’ll eat it,” she said. They were hushed by the librarian. He called her for a date that night. She did not recognize his name.

Mr. Munro wed Alice Laidlaw, They moved to the West Coast, where they would raise three daughters. At Eaton’s, he had success as assistant manager in household linens. He was promoted to fabrics. It was a life of limited possibilities.

The couple came to Victoria one day, paid admission for their daughters to attend a matinee, and, while the movie played, signed a lease for a nearby retail space on Yates Street across from the public library.

The day before the store opened, he overheard a passerby exclaim, “What? Another bookstore?!”

They sold $125 worth of paperbacks in their first day. The inexpensive books were seen by more established retailers as being barely reputable, more an impulse purchase at a drug store than the offerings of a literary establishment. Mr. Munro profited from the sale of such pleasures as James Bond books. He became desperate to get copies of “The Spy Who Loved Me,” whose protagonist is an attractive, convent-educated, French-Canadian orphan named Vivienne Michel. The author Ian Fleming, outraged by a poor review published in Montreal, refused to have copies shipped to Canada. Mr. Munro smuggled in a supply from an American wholesaler.

The store thrived, though the marriage did not.

Now, he sells his ex-wife’s books. The store has 18 Alice Munro titles in stock. As the store’s Website says: “Yes, that Alice Munro.”

In 1984, he bought the current location for $360,000. Renovations cost another $150,000. They began tearing down the drop ceiling on Aug. 1 and opened the doors to customers three months later. The street was tougher in those days, including a nearby hotel pub so seedy that the armed forces had declared it off-limits to servicemen. Today, the bookstore is bookended at either end of the block by upscale pubs.

In some ways, the bookstore fulfills Mr. Munro’s childhood fantasy. The old bank is his palace of Versailles, the employees his courtiers, the office his throne room. (Unlike the Sun King, however, he has to share his bathroom with customers in need of relief.)

The store will be the site of an invitation-only literary costume party on Saturday. The invitation includes a photograph of employee Doug Koch as Shakespeare and store manager Dave Hill as Ernest Hemingway as photographed by Karsh.

The owner plans on attending as Prospero.

He knows the time for retirement approaches.

“I gotta quit soon. You go downhill,” Mr. Munro said. He turns 79 next month.

“Our revels are now ended,” he recited. He knows his Shakespeare. He recited some more, before coming to a conclusion.

“Shortly shall all my labours end.”

No plans, however, to liberate the wage slaves.

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