Monday, November 12, 2012

To All the Mystery Bookstores I've Loved Before... (Part Une)

One of the unintended side effects of working in a bookstore is the fact I no longer get quite the rush I used to when cruising a strange bookstore. Oh, I still get plenty high, but the high is alway a little tamped down. Too often, despite myself, I'm approaching it as a bookseller; not a book geek. I'm looking at things with a more professional eye, checking out displays and placement and how they deal with deadbeats and squatters and promotional displays and all the rest. What can I say? I'm a professional.

Fortunately, though, there's still plenty of buzz. A new bookstore, whether it deals with old or new, or even another branch of the same chain I work for, is like a step into another world. Because, like snowflakes or fingerprints, no two bookstores are alike. Intentionally or not, and even if it's against corporate policy, each and every bookstore in the world starts to take on its own persona, shaped by its customers, its staff, its community and the whir and buzz of an infinitely variable inventory that shapes and alters a store's DNA.

It's that infinite variety and the innumerable twists and turns that trump familiarity and still get me there. Upon entering any new store, or even one I haven't visited in a while, there's always a certain sense of WHOA!

You make your entrance, a slight pause as you orient yourself, and then the first heady plunge into the heart of the beast. The comfortable blur of familiar titles passes almost unnoticed -- the real rush comes from the unexpected gem: the new title you didn't know about, the shiny new reprint, the awesome deal on the bargain table or the surprise misplaced find that screams out "Buy me! Buy me! Buy me now!!!" 

And Lord knows, I've heeded that call over the years. I've got thousands of books scattered across this continent, in storage, on shelves, in my heart and in my soul. And yes, they're mostly mysteries, because crime and detective fiction is my book drug of choice.

My very first mystery bookstore, way back in the dawn of time, somewhere in the eighties, was Prime Crime in Ottawa. Already obsessed with books and crime fiction, I'd occasionally take the 2-hour bus ride from Montreal, just to visit it. I'd spend the day walking through Ottawa, checking out the used bookstores on Bank Street, checking out the Parliament Buildings and the markets, grabbing a beer and sandwich in a pub, and all that. But I'd always make a pitstop at Prime Crime. It was owned by a guy who liked the same hard-boiled P.I. stuff I did. He turned me on to Peter Corris. We chatted about Michael Collins and Ross Macdonald. There was a framed facsimile of Benny Cooperman's private investigator's license, and how cool was that?

(And yes, I realize how geeky this makes me sound.)

(Later, the store was bought out by Linda and Mary Jane [Maffini], who kept it going right until it closed just a few years ago. I not only became a semi-regular, but I even became, if not exactly a friend, at least a known acquaintance. Frequent a bookstore long enough, and you make friends -- something Amazon will never do)

Around the same time, my sister got married and moved to Toronto, which gave me a really good excuse to visit Sleuth of Baker Street, still one of the world's  all-time great mystery bookstores. Last I heard, Marian and Mr. Singh were still running things, which is great, because their devotion and knowledge of the genre is as vast as their friendliness. The stroll along Bayview Avenue, with its funky shops and restaurants, and a long, drawn-out browsing of Baker Street's shelves, was always one of the highlights of visiting my sister.

And then, on Saturday, August 21, 1986, I spotted a small ad in the book section of The Globe and Mail. A new bookstore had opened in Montreal! A mystery bookstore! An English mystery bookstore!

Somehow, I'd missed it. and it was right next door to L'Annexe, a brasserie/bar I'd spent many a night in just a few years earlier.

Alibi (a good bilingual name for a bookstore in Montreal --let's see the tongue troopers get their panties all twisted about that one!) occupied half the first floor of a beautiful old stone Victorian-era mansion right across from Concordia University in downtown, and boast two connected rooms, the front one (probably once a parlour) offering a great, slightly above street-level  view of Bishop Street. It was cozy and comfy, with a lot of wood on display. They had a small but impressive inventory: a lot of imported and small press paperbacks, and hardcovers. It was cozy, and like all mystery bookstores, the staff knew their stuff. The two owners, Derek and the one not called Derek, were already experienced booksellers, victims of the closing of the Classics bookstore on Ste. Catherine (one of my favourite chain bookstores -- it was where I first discovered books by Howard Engel, Joseph Hansen and Arthur Lyons). They assured me they were in it for the duration, and that the inventory would be gradually expanding. And for a while, it did. 

I attended their grand opening party, enjoyed some wine and cheese (and some more wine) and played along with a little mystery game/contest they played, concocting a motive that evidently they thought was better than the one they were going to use. Or maybe by that time we'd all had enough wine to mistake my R-rated deductions for cogent thought. Anyway, I won the door prize, which was an impressive (and somehow appropriate) Jim Thompson omnibus I still treasure.

Alas, Alibi didn't last. The competition from the chains, the high rent and the shrinking Anglo population (keep telling a community they're not wanted long enough and eventually they take the hint) all conspired against it.

Last I saw of Derek, he was a manager at the big Coles bookstore (a Canadian chain) on the corner of Stanley and Ste. Catherine. I'm not sure if he survived the merger of Coles and W.H. Smith (the Canadian branch of the giant British chain) that begat Chapters (which in turn became Chapters/Indigo when it was snatched up by Indigo, the other big Canadian chain). But I'd like to think that both Derek and not-Derek are out there still, putting books in customers' hands.

So, Alibi's gone, and Prime Crime's gone; Sleuth of Baker Street's moved to a new location (the third since I first started visiting).

I live in southern California now, and I work at the Barnes and Noble in Palmdale, and I still get a rush from visiting bookstores. Mystery bookstores, used bookstores, indie bookstores and even chain bookstores. Hell, I still get a slight rush when I go into work. Seeing a new book on a shelf is still like catching a glimpse of a beautiful woman on a sidewalk for me (if that doesn't sound too creepy). And having a customer return to the store, and having them thank you for the book you recommended the last time they were in is about as good as it gets.

But the rush I got from visiting Prime Crime and Sleuth of Baker Street and Alibi (and Nebula, Montreal's own sci-fi/fantasy/crime fiction/indie/outie/alternative press/comic book emporium which deserves its own Valentine) as a young book geek?

Now, that was truly something special.


Blogger Guillaume said...

Gosh I miss Montreal's bookstores. It is a really rough time for independent ones, whether they sell new books or second-hand ones. So many I used to visit on St-Denis closed. I promised myself I'd go to Champigny for my next trip. I hope they are doing well.

And as a salesman (not of books, but still a salesman, sales is sales as my manager says), I have the same reflexes when I walk by or go in a shop. Even in a restaurant I can tell when the waitress is trying to upsell a starter with the mains.

2:52 PM, November 12, 2012  
Blogger Kevin Burton Smith said...

Oh, yes, the upsell. I worked as a barista when I first moved to the States, and it's actually how I got into Barnes & Noble. not because I could read, or because I knew books or movies or music, but because I could steam milk, and pull an espresso shot...

3:10 PM, November 12, 2012  
Blogger Guillaume said...

I said Champigny when I meant Olivieri. Of course Champigny does not exist, it is now a Renaud-Bray.

11:29 AM, November 15, 2012  

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