Booksellers’ pushcarts

Judy Mappin behind the cash. Image from:

…do the bouquinistes along the Seine offer a lesson for us?

Sometime in 2004, I was talking with Judy Mappin at her Double Hook Book Shop on Greene Avenue in Westmount, and she expressed how very pleased she was because Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque, that was getting ready to launch, had contacted her to obtain copies of all her English-language publications. It was a sizeable order, a sort of godsend to a bookstore owner who had dug deep into her own pockets to keep the DH afloat.

It was only natural that the glamorous national library and archives – Montreal’s GB,  heralded as Quebec’s cultural flagship, integral to the national aspiration of “la survivance” – would turn to Mappin for Canadian English fiction and non-fiction. She uniquely stocked Canadiana from all the large and small English language presses, especially the latter. Her mission was to bring English literary output to a focal point where any reader could wander in off the street and find the Ali Baba of Canadian publications.

For those of you who remember the Iron Cat building on Greene Avenue, half a block up from Ste Catherine, it was ideally located in a hub of pedestrian traffic; you walked up a flight of stairs above Young’s fresh array of flowers, and entered into a foyer with racks of periodicals. Virtually any Canadian journal or periodical worth perusing, editions which you’d likely never come across elsewhere and that you could never afford in total, and many of which weren’t available at the Westmount Public Library, were here in the foyer to be discovered.

Then, after you tore your eyes away from the foyer section (Judy, who was often to be seen behind the counter, never minded clients browsing, in fact she encouraged it), you went through the inner door into a neatly and magnificently tended warren of stacks and shelves.

Usually available were all the books an author had written – unlike the prevalent practice of today’s bookstore chains that stock only the most recent editions and often require a down payment before ordering any book not on the shelves. You proceeded past the first room with the cash register secluded into a convenient corner, and into the main collection. It was hard to proceed down a narrow aisle without squeezing your arms together, so arduously complete were the literary Canadian works compacted into what amounted to be a living room-sized space.

And yet here the DH launched authors, complete with tasty hors d’oeuvres passed from person to person down the crowded aisles, so crowded it was difficult to manoeuvre at times. (A lot of readers introduced themselves to each other in this manner.) It was homey and exciting. In the final years, readings were held in the basement, with hardly more room than for a dozen chairs. I remember being at David Homel’s launching of The Speaking Cure, looking around at the dedicated readers and thinking: we are as if part of a secret society that meets underground.

Judy began the DH with her associates, Joan Blake and Hélène Holden, on Ste.Catherine Street in 1974, and two years later moved to Greene Avenue. It ran for 31 years. In 2001 she was honored with the Canadian Booksellers’ Association Libris Award for Bookseller of the Year. She was a co-founder and director of the Quebec Society for the Promotion of English Language Literature (QSPELL), and served as a judge on literary panels.

It is ironic that Montreal’s Grande Bibliothèque sailed into prominence just as Ms. Mappin sent this august institution her shipload of English Canadiana, and then folded in 2005.

Selling versus marketing books:

I have many times mulled over the prospect of another literary angel reviving the DH idea, of a central place to browse and obtain our home output. What a boon it was to independent small presses: to have this remarkable marketing possibility to float their literary wares. And yet, in spite of the advent of publicly funded literary associations, no person or entity has stepped forward to set this proposition in motion. And behind Judy’s smiling presence at the DH – her and her staff – was the underlying concept that it is hard to browse without purchasing an item or two. I remember always emerging with a book or two, usually works I had never heard of or seen before.

The DH had a buzz that completely escapes the coffee table approach currently featured by the chain stores. The reading public is still there, but book sales have dropped, according to the experiences of Nicholas Hoare and Heather Reisman, “North America’s best bookseller”. (1) Hoare has recently closed his shop on Greene Avenue after much handwringing both by the bookseller and the chagrined English-language reading community.

The easy and cheaper method of ordering on-line is cited by heavyweights in the book- selling business for ending this bygone era of book browsing as an essential component to the pleasure and expediency of forking over money for a book. In fact, online buying is  entirely reassessing the old way of selling books so that there are virtually no surprises left when you walk into a well-orchestrated sphere of limited possibilities in a chain store.

Much of book buying is a bit spurious. You pick up a book, read a few lines, et cetera, and get sucked into the sweep of the unfolding pages. That experience has diminished considerably, and yet it has to be the reason the old standbys like Argo and The Word on Milton Avenue have weathered the storms. They aren’t afraid to be different. They nourish the appetite for intellectual and literary curiosity.

Unfortunate, as well, is the fact that Hoare’s bookshop had a superb CD sideline, and now that too will be lost. This closing also follows on the heels of Multimags folding in Westmount. Where else could you get The Guardian Weekly over the counter? For a while they stocked periodicals like Prairie Fire and Maisonneuve.

However, I was a bit shocked that Hoare’s bookshop would sometimes charge five dollars for a reading. I would rather put the money towards a book. Perhaps this attitude works better in Toronto, where he is apparently concentrating his future business.

What happens now?

The “well-orchestrated sphere of limited possibilities” undoubtedly bears the stamp of the MBA approach to book selling that necessarily endorses the concept that all things sellable are equal. It’s an attitude that plays safe, figuring that the best marketing ploy is to glamorize book selling by featuring the gaudy, eye-catching, prize-winner categories. The mundane is reflected in the topical issues of the day, which, though eminently deserving of attention, invariably revolve around a spew of now all too familiar societal ills and the like which – not to denigrate the need for elucidation – have become the Anacin hammer of yore.

The book-buying experience has become like checking out a second hand car, no frills, just durability, getting the reader from cover to cover with as few interruptions as possible. It’s a wonder in these dismal circumstances that anything better hasn’t been devised, that hasn’t in essence capitalized on Judy Mappin’s experience and has dared to come forward and continue her brilliant customer contact with books as a key marketing factor.

What has changed?

There does seem to be a new niche today that is worthy of note. Public transportation, for both local commuting and long distance travel, is undergoing an overhaul. Vast new public expenditures are presently being devised to encourage commuters to take public transport.

With regard to this development, it stands to reason that poetry and short fiction fit hand in glove with this new trend. Granted, public transit passengers face their daily commute and longer train trips in a variety of ways: texting, eyes glued to digital screens, or staring outside, and rubber necking at the “va et vient” that enlivens even the most repetitious of transport journeys.

The advantage of poetry and short fiction – or long-form fiction that some readers seem to handle very adroitly on busses and trains without ever losing their place, their eyes swaying in the rhythm of the commotion – is that it takes you somewhere. Poetry has nuggets that stick in the craw of your intellectual brainwaves; short narrative pieces introduce you to the unusually maintained point of view of an interesting author. Layers of meaning suddenly emerge while one performs mundane tasks and chores, shoveling the walk of snow, yelling at the dog for yet again having used a ladder to get at suspended garbage.

And the point is?

I am reminded of an apocryphal tale of Chekhov as a young author. His first big publisher sold books at train stations – not a bad idea considering Russian train journeys were often lengthy. Chekhov allegedly dropped this publisher when the latter’s anti-semitic views became all to clear to the burgeoning author.

How could this idea be transposed today? The airport bookstores are usually hopeless. And it is hard to imagine a bookstore at Central Station located under Queen Elizabeth Hotel, although there used to exist a W. H. Smith outlet at Central Station that was marginally interesting as a bookseller.

And it’s hard for a business-minded person to think now of setting up a bookstore in the Station’s mall and competing with all the food marts. Just thinking of Montreal’s business taxes or the titanic weight of bureaucracy is enough to forestall any such venture.

Is there another way to meet the inevitable demand for short and long distance travelers who would be interested in acquiring a book of poetry or short fiction?

Perhaps – if one were to think of coupling two ideas and folding them into a sure-fire winner.

  • Do you remember in the 1970s when Place Ville Marie had mobile flower stalls in the summertime? It was a fabulous success, and if memory serves, went on for a few years. Probably the local flower sellers, complaining of unfair competition, managed to put a stop to the new marketing idea that brought flowers into the hands of the office crowd emerging at the end of a day. Office-workers bought their flowers while proceeding to a social destination, or just as a celebration for themselves, to bring home as a token of life existing beyond the PVM’s glassed-in fish tank.
  • Secondly, who in this day and age hasn’t stopped to admire and often purchase a book from the “bouquinistes” along the banks of the Seine? These types of “roll out your shop” venues flourish in European cities.

Why not here? The advantages would be many. A literary pushcart can ply its trade on a mall floor, and the selection of works can be rotated, so that there are new items for sale regularly.

The overhead would be lower than a full-fledged bookstore. And there wouldn’t likely be unfair trade complaints from independent booksellers as they have mostly been driven out of business. And if there were similar complaints from the chain stores, why then, you’d know you were onto something viable.

Bonjour Heather et Nicholas.


(1) interview with Michael Enright, Sunday Edition (also repeated)

John Fretz is currently taking an introductory pottery course at Concordia as an Independent Student. He is retired from the film business. He has time to mope and mull while hand building with clay.