Wednesday, March 3, 2010

A playground for dead-tree products

The spectacular interior of Munro's Books in Victoria.

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
March/April, 2010

Skip up the steps from the west sidewalk of Government Street, place a hand on the brass handle, pull open the doors to heaven.

Inside is a shrine of commerce of the most edifying kind.

A bookcase holding the latest trade paperbacks appears straight ahead, the brilliant covers miniature masterpieces of the graphic designer’s art. The case is one among dozens that line all walls and create aisles throughout the store.

Some books are presented spine only, a demure presentation made necessary by the sheer number of volumes at hand.

Every title carries the possibility of a transcendent experience. (OK, a copy of "Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Puzzle Book #3" might challenge so high-falutin’ a concept.) Change your life, have a laugh, time travel, build a shelf, plant a garden. No wonder books are a delight.

My all-time favourite bookstore — and I have visited many over the years — is Munro’s Books, a playground for any who love the printed word on dead-tree products such as this.

A measure of a city is the quality of its retail merchants. Some places become known for certain goods — Milan for high fashion, or Taxco, in Mexico, for silver. Our city still carries a reputation as a far corner of Olde England with tattered Union Jacks, a tiger skin over the fireplace at the Bengal Lounge, cosies over the pots at the tea rooms. That’s all fine, if a little hokey. A better reflection of who we are is that the people of this city support a variety of excellent independent bookstores.

Munro’s downtown is joined by Bolen Books at Hillside Mall and such smaller neighbourhood stores as Tanner’s Books in Sidney, Ivy’s Book Shop on Oak Bay Avenue and the Cadboro Bay Book Campany, not to mention a selection of shops specializing in children’s literature and crime books.

We’re readers and these stores provide our sustenance.

Just stepping into Munro’s makes me feel like one of the faithful on a pilgrimage. Pillars rise almost eight metres to hold up a coffered ceiling designed to resemble that found in the ruins of the Roman library at Ephesus.

Not familiar with ancient architecture? They’ve got books about that.

My route into the store always follows the same path — go to the right of the front desk, past the new releases, to the mid-rear of the store, where magazines were added some years ago. Sitting at my computer, I can map the store as easily as my own home. The children’s section is in a nook in the far corner. Bought my daughter some Harry Potter volumes there. The classics section rests just before the entrance. Humour is against a rear wall (should you need a bathroom reader), as is fantasy.

Literature is along the south wall, though the substantial poetry section has its own place on the north wall, not far from the history section. Music is hidden away near the foyer.

In the centre are tables upon which rest stacks of publishers’ rejects, orphans of a fickle trade. One local political columnist describes this part of the store as the “free book table,” so inexpensive are the volumes whose remaindered status is dictated less by their literary quality than by the cost of warehouse space.

A bookstore is no more than bricks and books without a staff. You never know when the clerk chasing down the latest Dan Brown exercise in typing is a published author of greater talent, if not necessarily popularity and certainly not riches. At Munro’s, Deborah Willis is the author of Vanishing and Other Stories, a first collection that was nominated last year for a Governor General’s award. At Bolen’s, Robert Wiersema, who, as the store’s events coordinator handles author readings and signings, is also the author of the best-selling novel, Before I Wake, as well as The World More Full of Weeping, a novella published last fall.

Harder to find a more erudite crew outside a campus than bookstore workers. My visits to Munro’s have included conversations about music, sports and politics. And when I’m tweaked about the sad state of the newspaper industry, I counter with accounts of the perils of the book trade.

The independent stores have survived the rise of the Internet, the arrival of big-box rivals and the rising Canadian dollar, which made a mockery of the prices printed months earlier on dust jackets. The latest challenge is the advent of portable readers with their Age of the Jetsons’ promise of eliminating physical books.

Munro’s has been in business for 46 years, a longevity owing much to the vision of the eponymous founder. Jim Munro, who is 80, left a steady job at a department store to open a paperback bookstore with his wife, the former Alice Laidlaw. The business has lasted longer than their marriage, though they remain on good terms. Why, you can find more than 20 Alice Munro titles among the stock, including editions in French and German.

The proprietor’s best decision came in 1984 when he bought the neo-classical bank building that is now the store’s home. He has thus avoided the fluctuations of retail rents and the whims of a landlord.

I do not believe I have ever left the store empty-handed, often indulging my weakness for doorstopper-sized works of history. The intent is to be rewarded with a good read and a glass of red wine after a hard day's keyboard labours, though often enough the books wind up in stacks on the floor of the home office. Over time, these teetering stalagmites mock me for my intentions. Oh, “Shock Doctrine,” you were once top of the list, but now you seem so last year. “Stalin's War,” you've been in the pile longer than the siege of Stalingrad. I promise to get to you, “Best American Magazine Writing of the Year, 2009,” as soon as I find out the date of the apocalypse from “Have a Nice Doomsday: Why Millions of Americans are Looking Forward to the End of the World.”

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