Don Stewart is the neat, smooth proprietor of a rather unkempt and chaotic bookstore, where leisurely browsing is addictive and almost mandatory.
Don Stewart, the owner of MacLeod’s Books in downtown Vancouver, takes coffee most mornings at the Caffè Buongiorno on the northwest corner of Pender and Richards streets. He always sits at the same table, facing the door. This way he can keep an eye on the entrance to his place of business across the way. Sometimes he will jump to his feet and tear across Richards if he sees someone entering the shop who’s best dealt with by him and not his staff: a wealthy out-of-town collector, say, or a talking-to-himself addict with trouble written all over his face. Or some lively but bedraggled political pamphleteer. Or any of the famous authors to be found there when they happen to be in town: the travel writer Paul Theroux, for example, or Barbara Kingsolver, the novelist and essayist, or Simon Winchester, the author of The Professor and the Madman.
It won’t suffice to say that Stewart is the proprietor of the largest, most diverse and generally most important bookshop in the city (for that would be faint praise when, in Vancouver just as everywhere else, the once-vibrant bookstore scene has thinned out, withered and turned brown). Rather, he is the keeper of, well, an institution—a rather unkempt and chaotic one in a century-old building whose windows lure in book lovers with clever book displays and posters for all sorts of local cultural events.
Inside sits most of his inventory of perhaps a quarter of a million used and antiquarian books (more than 100,000 titles), and some new ones as well. Books are crammed into every niche, alcove and corner of the building’s ground floor. In the narrow aisles between shelves, piles of them teeter ominously. Overly sensitive browsers might well give in to their claustrophobia or ataxophobia. The basement is even more hazardous. Things are no tidier at the small satellite shop a few doors to the east on the south side of Pender (“by appointment only”) where most of the more expensive items are kept. At any one time, Stewart also has one or two warehouse spaces jammed to the gunnels with books that have yet to enter the system (and maybe never will). The stuff just keeps arriving.
The shop is made even more kaleidoscopic by the way Stewart insists on revamping the floor plan, punishing entire subject headings by banishing them to the cellar, rewarding others by giving them prominence near the door. Recently, books about Vancouver have been shelved near the entrance, where mysteries used to be, and literary fiction has been pardoned and now snakes back and forth, in rows, on the west side of the room, while just a few horrible old poetry books lie on the ground floor (in a dark corner or alcove closest to the former Niagara Hotel), where they form a kind of arrow, pointing to the hundreds and hundreds of good poetry books in the cellar. Once when I stopped in to browse but found Stewart out on a book call, it took me an hour, I think, to discover what he’d done with the section marked CHINA. The clientele is as jumbled as the goods they browse through. People seeking a half-remembered favourite book from childhood jostle with students behind on their essays and—most numerous of all—ordinary citizens who read for pleasure but don’t want to pay new-book prices.
If the shop is charmingly and sometimes maddeningly untidy, Don Stewart himself is the opposite. He is a tall, slender, broad-shouldered intellectual, grey at the temples. He typically wears sharply pressed short-sleeved cotton sport shirts. He doesn’t smile carelessly yet is capable of enormous charm. Such charm is an attribute in a profession in which one might be called on, in the course of a single day, to soothe a visiting psychopath, converse with the landlord, deflect creditors, conduct a few delicate business negotiations, and worm one’s oleaginous way into one of those Shaughnessy mansions hidden behind tall hedges that one drives past en route to Vancouver International Airport. Not to mention the bread-and-butter matter of dealing with customers looking for the common and mundane. He is also extremely articulate, speaking in what sounds more like transcribed prose than casual conversation. In short, he is neat and smooth as he sits behind eye-high piles of books and paperwork in a place whose exact state of bedlam takes on a slightly different configuration each day.
Shops such as MacLeod’s (there are no other ones like it nearer than Russell Books in Victoria or Powell’s Books in Portland) are complex social organisms. People who deal seriously in out-of-print books aren’t like those who buy and sell second-hand appliances. Their shops—the most rewarding ones, anyway—are clearinghouses of information, knowledge, culture and art, in addition of course to being where people go merely to pick up something to read for less than they would pay at Indigo and more quickly than they could on amazon.com. The places are also deliciously odd little independent businesses that often operate far outside accepted commercial logic.
I often join Stewart at the Caffè Buongiorno and hear some stories about what takes place on the other side of the desk. One morning he told me an extraordinarily complex not to say convoluted story of a self-storage locker full of antiquarian and “good” modern books in North Vancouver, and the small-time fence and grifter who has been trying to get control of them and indeed has managed to siphon off quite a few. Another day he told me of a friend of his named Tony Grinkus, who was the model for Peter Kien, the crazy scholar/hermit in Elias Canetti’s novel Auto-da-Fé (1935), or at least, as I said to myself, could have been. Grinkus always said that Don would “get” his books when he died. Don naturally thought this meant that his shop would buy them from the estate. In fact, Don as an individual has inherited them under the terms of the fellow’s will, along with his literary and personal papers. So far there are seven hundred cartons, each one numbered according to some master key, which no one has been able to find in the deceased’s house. The fellow was trained in classics, and there is a great deal of Greek and Latin. Also, some seventeenth-century books that Don said are in “country-house condition”—clean and crisp, as though they have been in the same spot for generations. Among the papers are huge files and, Don estimates, a thousand books about the Kennedy assassination.
Don’s grandfather, also named Don, emigrated from Scotland. He lived in Vancouver and ran an insurance business at Hastings and Richards, virtually within sight of the present MacLeod’s Books. His son, the second Don, was a gunner in the Second World War who later joined his father’s firm. His wife Joyce, who served in the RCAF, is a Christian socialist, the daughter of one of the CCF’s first organizers in B.C. After the war, the couple moved to pre-boom Calgary, which had a population of only a hundred thousand or so. There the third Don—Donald Charles David Stewart (he has three names, like a nineteenth-century Frenchman)—was born in 1951. He has a much younger brother who is a furniture refinisher and an elder sister who raises cattle on the B.C.-Alberta border. When he was growing up, his mother ran a shelter “for new immigrants—exiles. One of our family friends was a draft dodger from the Algerian war, and there were some Spanish Republican refugees and later a lot of Hungarians who came in 1956.” Such people made for “a different cultural picture” than his schoolmates possessed.
In other ways, too, he felt himself conspicuous in Calgary as it was back then. His parents were bookish and used to take him along to second-hand bookstores when he was a young boy, for he had learned to read quite early. He would search these shops for comic books. Soon he progressed to Classics Illustrated and finally to adult literature. The family and its interests were where he found comfort. The outside world, not so much.
When Stewart was in grade II, an especially creative social studies teacher acquired a copy of a test designed by the U.S. State Department a generation earlier to determine people’s political orientation, and had the students fill it out. “Everybody else in the class came out as a conservative,” he says, “and I came out as a raving communist—according to the test.” At the University of Calgary he took political science and economics but knew he “was in trouble twelve days into economics, because we were supposed to talk about the different factors that made up study of the economy, and labour was not one of them.” He was working on the campus newspaper, the Gauntlet, when the War Measures Act was invoked in October 1970. “The first thing I did was to go to the library and read the legislation and make notes on it so I could write an article.” The other student journalists, he says, found little relevance in events taking place in Quebec. Such views, however, were evidently not unanimous throughout the UC community because “a whole group of us at the lunch hour that first day tried to organize. We were speaking in the rotunda of the student union building. There were fistfights.”
As he became more politically aware, he stopped attending classes. One dean, himself a well-disguised former radical, didn’t want the institution to lose such a bright student. But Stewart dropped out and spent a year reading books, supporting himself with a menial back-office job in an oil company. “I used to smoke dope down in the basement with the janitor,” he recalls. “We were the only alternative people in the ten-storey building.” When the United States invaded Cambodia, he remembers, there were only three demonstrators outside the U.S. consulate in Calgary—Stewart and two other fellows, watched over by eight police officers.
Disillusioned and needing a break, he hitchhiked to Vancouver. In a hostel he met two young women from Boston who invited him to San Francisco. By the time he got back to Calgary in the autumn of 1971 his job at the oil company had evaporated. He got wind of an opening at a second-hand bookstore “run by an old cigar-smoking Englishman with no education to speak of.” It was the sort of establishment that sold used Harlequin romances for ten cents each or twelve for a dollar. But it also sometimes took in decent hardcover books that it didn’t quite know what to do with. Stewart began buying some of the most promising ones himself, though he was living in a communal house and saving his money for a trip to Latin America, determined to see the reforms that Salvador Allende was making in Chile.
“Travelling with different people at different times,” he moved around Mexico, learning enough Spanish to get by. There one day, in the jungles of southern Mexico, an idea came to him. “When I returned I wanted to be politically active and not beholden to any job. I would go to Vancouver and open a used book store and that would be my life.” That was in August or September of 1972. He was twenty-one. He continued south, down the Pacific Coast of South America, reaching his goal of Chile and finding surprisingly good resalable books in Valparaiso, Santiago and other cities, and sending them home by mail. He was gone nine months in all and spent only $2,000.
Once upon a time, downtown Vancouver was rich in second-hand and other independent bookshops, including, for example, Ahrens’ Books at Hornby and Davie, run by the socialist John Ahrens, and Bond’s Books on Dunsmuir, not far away, run by Ed Bowes. A number of newer ones have sprung up in recent years, such as Criterion Books, almost directly opposite MacLeod’s; it is a splendidly general shop but particularly rich in literature. Most of the others, however, are scattered all about the West Side and East Vancouver. By contrast, MacLeod’s, under a succession of owners, has been on West Pender (or within coughing distance of it) since the long-ago time when that street was at the centre of a bookselling community as varied as it was vigorous.
To illustrate the area’s lost heterogeneity, consider the 1970s, when it was home to both White Dwarf Books, which dealt in science fiction, and the Anglican Bookroom. Not to mention Richard Pender Books, next door to the present MacLeod’s; Terry Rutherford Books at Pender and Homer, specializing in mystery and detective fiction; a used-books-and-furniture store at Homer and Nelson; and the original Spartacus Books, the left-wing bookshop and meeting place on Hastings. Jim McIntosh’s Colophon Books, an antiquarian shop, was a few steps north, on Cordova, atop a former nightclub named Pharaoh’s. One could go on.
The point is that in Vancouver as all across North America there has been a huge net reduction in independent and speciality bookstores. Or at least, in those visible from the street. You would never get an antiquarian bookseller to admit that business is booming, for as a group they are notorious for their poor-mouthing. But the truth is that bookselling, after pornography and banking, is the sector that has benefitted most from the digital revolution, despite—and because of—the fact that its old business model is being supplanted by a new one.
A major turning point came when entrepreneurs in Victoria, of all places, created ABE, the Advanced Book Exchange, which is now called AbeBooks and is owned by Amazon. As members of AbeBooks, many thousands of dealers round the world (including, for a time, Stewart) display their goods in a common searchable database, where they try to undercut one another’s prices. As a result, the sale of out-of-print books has increased dramatically, as buying online is convenient and economical, if also infuriating. The online sector of the trade is now polluted, overrun and practically ruined by self-ordained dealers: part-time amateurs lacking even the most basic understanding of bibliographical description and generally without a clue about a book’s content. Smart customers never pay more than a few dollars for a book if they don’t know what it will actually turn out to be when delivered.
With this shift in the marketplace, many or most trained dealers, already hobbled by rising rents, began working from their homes or small offices, “quoting” books to people from their computer screen, admitting a few individual customers now and then but only grouchily and by prior arrangement. Stephen Lunsford Books, located in an office high up in the Dominion Building on Hastings, is an excellent example. A large, well-stocked “open” store such as MacLeod’s, where leisurely browsing is addictive and almost mandatory, with a knowledgeable staff hovering in the shadows, is fast becoming a rarity, something to be cherished.
The old Vancouver with its numerous antiquarian bookshops was also of course a city with highly individualistic booksellers running them. One of these was Don MacLeod, who had grown up in the antique business. In 1964 he opened MacLeod’s Books on the southeast corner of Pender and Homer. I remember the inventory as being steadfastly miscellaneous and the atmosphere as one that writers such as Al Purdy found welcoming. MacLeod, a gregarious fellow, urged such chronic visitors to write greetings or lines of poetry on one of the walls. In time, he sold the business to Van Andruss, who ran it for a few years before deciding he wanted to go to Paris and write a novel (but instead founded a utopian community near Lillooet, B.C., and became an important environmental activist). Stewart bought the shop from Andruss and took over behind the counter on May 4, 1973.
“It was obvious that I was inheriting a very interesting customer base,” Stewart says. “The art school was just a block away. Artists, many of whom are very well known now, would drop by. There were also these roving poets and writers who would come through.” They still do—ones as different as George Elliott Clarke and Umberto Eco commingling with all manner of B.C. writers such as Timothy Taylor, Joy Kogawa, Michael Turner and Douglas Coupland. Ownership of MacLeod’s also gave Stewart membership in a highly charged collegial circle. “The bookselling trade was very much politically fraught,” he says.
And quite boozy as well. Stewart liked to hang out at the Marble Arch beer parlour, and “a lot of drinking in those days took place at the Alcazar” on Dunsmuir and the Niagara on Hastings, though there was a competing Bierklatch at the Cecil Hotel on Granville. Writers, political types and booksellers had their own little cliques. Among the dealers, the one with the most seniority was Stephen McIntyre, who Stewart always considered “one of the best booksellers in Vancouver, but he was tragically self-limited by alcohol” (in a typical working day, McIntyre would consume a case of beer, a twenty-sixer of liquor and four packs of cigarettes). To take one example, McIntyre spent years assembling a fine collection of Henry Miller only to sell it for a song to a grad student while drunk. Going from a wheelbarrow full of books to a series of fully stocked stores to, finally, a tiny office across from MacLeod’s, McIntyre was an accomplished book dealer who managed to support himself, in some fashion at least and through numerous marriages, from the 1930s to the early 1980s: a remarkable achievement.
If McIntyre was the fading star of the local book trade, the rising one was William Hoffer, a prominent ranter, raver and feudist who despised the field of Canadian literature in which he specialized. The son of Dr. Abram Hoffer, a pioneer of the alternative health movement, early LSD experimenter and founder of the Journal of Schizophrenia (later renamed the Journal of Orthomolecular Medicine), Bill Hoffer was a former postal worker who fought loud crusades against the very existence of the CBC and the Canada Council for the Arts. Each of the catalogues he issued was a little encyclopedia of insults hurled at particular writers and writers in general. Stewart, though a straight arrow in his interpersonal and commercial relations, became a somewhat wary protégé. He is among those—those in the best position to judge—who say that Hoffer was a brilliant bookseller. Certainly Hoffer (who kept trying to pry out the wall in the Pender Street shop that all the poets had scribbled on) taught him much about the business end of bookselling, while, some have suggested, encouraging him to shift his own primary interest away from literature and toward history.
Stewart doesn’t deny that Hoffer was difficult but tries to provide context. Hoffer’s doctors, he says, “thought that most of his crazy behaviour came from ill treatment of his diabetes. He drank like a fish, ate everything that was wrong, self-medicated all the time and pushed himself mercilessly in his work. I would be with him on a [book-] scouting trip and he would be almost catatonic because he would start to suffer insulin shock.” In time, as might have been foreseen given his personality, Hoffer broke with Stewart, as he did with most of his other friends. As though hearing the pounding hooves of the digital age that would rob him of the pleasure of denigrating customers in person, he closed his open store in Gastown (one of the previous ones had been upstairs above a sex shop on Granville Street) and moved to Russia, which, he said, he found a more congenial society. In a few years he was diagnosed with cancer and returned to B.C., where he died in 1997. He was fifty-three.
Two of the dependable staples of Stewart’s conversation are the decline of literacy and the death of book culture generally. But he is a most practical and disciplined individual. In 2004 he pulled MacLeod’s Books out of the ABE deal, claiming it was becoming too expensive, in both money and time. Then he did what Hoffer, a person utterly impervious to compromise, never would have done. At no sacrifice to his regular collectors or the big walk-in trade, he began quoting special books to specific individuals and institutional buyers by computer. For this he employs a knowledgeable jitney named Phyllis, who works out of the tiny but dark and no less cluttered high-end satellite store across the street.
As in any large, open bookshop, most of the day at the MacLeod’s mothership store is taken up with buying and selling generally rather ordinary stuff drawn from every conceivable subject category. It’s not unusual to find the place full of lunch-hour browsers, asking questions. The exact composition of the staff changes fairly often but is sure to include Kim Koch, calm and soft-spoken, a violinist, who also repairs damaged books; Rod Clarke, who came to MacLeod’s after Granville Books on the Granville Mall went out of business; or, a more recent addition, Don Young, who started out as a customer (he collects the works of Timothy Findley) and finally went to work there. On such a hypothetical typical day, one could well find the other Don fighting with Visa by phone while coping with a new lot of, say, thousands of art books and exhibition catalogues in great scattered piles. Quite often, though—oftener than you might suppose—he has the chance to handle some really remarkable things.
At this writing (it may not be true by the time you read this) he is sitting on a letter, signed and with the royal seal affixed, sent by Charles I, then in Oxford, to the Scottish parliament, appealing to its members to avoid the blandishments of Westminster. At present there is also a passport signed by Queen Anne to allow one of her servants, a Huguenot, to return to France to die; a letter signed by Queen Isabella of Spain was recently sold. Over the years Stewart has casually shown me such other goodies as a promotional brochure aimed at prospective passengers on RMS Titanic, featuring a large fold-out floor plan so that travellers could choose the cabins they preferred. Another time he had a fascinating exchange of correspondence to, from and about Mark Twain (who mentioned in one letter that he was considering getting one of those newfangled telephones). He buys at auctions and estate sales, from fellow dealers and from the strange little subculture of professional book scouts, who are regulars at garage sales and places like the Salvation Army, looking for whatever they can resell to dealers at a small profit. One day Stewart regaled me with the research he was doing into some newly discovered unpublished photos of Bill Miner, the train robber, for he is a scholar trapped in the role of bookseller. This claim is made for many antiquarian book dealers, but for him it’s actually true. Such is his temperament.
A surprising amount of his finest material, particularly the non-Canadian kind, walks into the store on two feet. Vancouver likes to brag about how diverse and multicultural it is; such boasting is a socially acceptable way of confining others within neat categories. But the city doesn’t often care to acknowledge its role as the home of expats, exiles and refugees: the sort of people who have brought interesting books and documents with them. MacLeod’s Books has long benefitted from, for example, the Japanese occupation of Shanghai in the 1930s and the Communist victory in the Chinese civil war the following decade.
For the most part, the gems Stewart acquires in these ways are most interesting as tactile bits of history rather than instruments of research and learning. They are thus in contrast with the personal collections that he himself has spent decades patiently building—and absorbing. These all but overwhelm the small, neat house that he and Ann Webborn, a visual artist and occupational therapist and his spouse of twenty-one years, share in the Kensington-Cedar Cottage area of East Vancouver.
There he keeps three thousand publications on “nineteenth- and twentieth-century anarchism, particularly American anarchism, but also French, Spanish, Italian and Mexican. Mostly period pamphlets and magazines, but sometimes modern academic books relevant to the subject.” This isn’t an accumulation but rather a collection, in which the content of each item, and the details of its publication, relate to that of all the others. The result is a whole that is far greater than the sum of its parts, however remarkable some of the individual items may be. To take an example, he has unpublished letters by the Russian prince Peter Kropotkin, the person who made anarchism into a philosophy rather than a set of ideas and notions. And there is an entire sub-collection of printed material by William Godwin, the putative father of English anarchism, and another of Godwin’s scapegrace son-in-law, the freedom-shouting poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. “Why does one gather this material? Because when you see it all together, you can get a greater understanding of what makes up a movement, of all the people who were involved in it, all their contributions . . .”
At present he also has an extensive George Orwell collection and a smaller one of B. Traven, the German anarchist who ended up in Mexico and wrote The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. “At one time,” he says, sadly, “I had a very large Spanish Civil War collection, but I have only parts now, the parts that have to do with the art and literature and with the International Brigades and the anarchists.” Similarly, he once had an immense collection of material concerning the Industrial Workers of the World, or Wobblies, the anarcho-syndicalist organization that called itself the One Big Union and promoted workplace democracy. But most of it went to the rare books library at the University of Michigan. Now another institution is nibbling at Stewart’s collection of Louis Riel/Métis/North-West Rebellion material, which has its origins in the fact that Stewart’s parents took him to Duck Lake and Batoche when he was a child and he met one of the last survivors of the fighting, then in his nineties. At other periods he has built up collections—for one constructs them as an architect might—of E. Pauline Johnson, the Mexican muralists and Latin American literature in translation. These are personal projects, reflecting deep private interests and suitable for retirement purposes.
Stewart began expanding MacLeod’s Books within two years of taking it over, even while struggling to pay rent of only $375 a month. By 1981 he was ready to execute a big leap, leasing far larger premises at Hastings and Cambie streets. On one side of his shop stood the old Province building, on the other the local headquarters of a cult-like left-wing organization that revered Enver Hoxha (1908−85), the Marxist-Leninist leader of Albania. In June 1982 an American military veteran, believing the group and its store were a front for Soviet communists, went a trifle odd and attempted to torch the building. It failed to ignite. A few nights later he tried again and was successful. The flames were carried to MacLeod’s next door and ran across the false ceiling. Stewart was in Harrison Hot Springs and returned to find his shop and its contents a total loss. “I lost thirteen years’ work,” he says.
When it was safe to do so, he was lowered by rope into the section of the ruins where his stash of money and many of his rarities had been. All that remained was a letter from Peter Verigin, the Doukhobor leader, and a William Morris cane chair. All the other good stuff was gone—his entire reference library, an extensive collection of early West Indian literature “all fine in dust jacket,” even the diary of his Latin American travels. Months passed before an insurance settlement came through. Until then, Hoffer and his colleagues were “tireless in organizing help from other book dealers. Many forwarded things they didn’t need.” A benefit was organized by local poets and held at the Western Front artist-run centre. By September, MacLeod’s was back in business at today’s address. By now, it’s difficult to imagine it being anywhere but at 455 West Pender Street, though Stewart, like virtually all other antiquarian booksellers I’ve ever known, does not own the building he is in and is constantly at risk of relocating. Until that day arrives, he dances with successive landlords and puts up with ancient plumbing, periodic renovations and all the rest. Carpe diem.
“I once had the pleasure,” Stewart says, “of providing a set of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past to Katharine Hepburn.” Like many other antiquarian dealers in Vancouver, Toronto and elsewhere, he occasionally supplies prop books for film and TV productions. Once or twice he has even rented out the shop for location shoots. The disruption this entails is much greater than the reward. Still, it’s worth mentioning as an illustration of just how complex an economic organism a place such as MacLeod’s is, though you get a clearer understanding by looking at a couple of sample deals, one successful, the other not.
Vancouver has had quite a few book collectors on the heroic scale—people such as Dr. Wallace Chung whose extraordinary donations are the backbone of the wonderful if little-known library at the Vancouver Maritime Museum. Another of the great figures was Dr. Edward Margetts, an eminence in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of British Columbia.
“He was one of my long-time customers, a fascinating man,” Stewart says. “We used to sit in his study drinking G&T and talking about books. He was trained in Montreal and went to Kenya in the early 1950s, during the Mau Mau period, becoming one of the pioneers of psychiatry in East Africa. This sparked his interest in putting together over the years a large collection about Africa and its history.” That description, however, barely scratches the surface.
“His main focus was gathering information about how mental illness had been treated in all cultures, in all periods. His view was worldwide. He was one of the great experts on trepanning [drilling holes in the skull, an obsolete medical treatment], and he had gathered primitive potions and amulets as well. He was also very interested in every kind of deviancy imaginable. His house was arranged in such a way that you would find, for example, a shelf or several shelves on religious extremism. Nearby would be a shelf on alcoholism, another on shell shock in the First World War, yet another on drug-related matters.” He was interested in books on the occult, and in censored books, particularly those that had been censored for sexual content. “Because he read in German and French as well as English, he was able to assemble quite a range of material,” says Stewart, who sold him many unusual books over the years and—as is common in dealer-collector relationships—sometimes sold things on his behalf, or attempted to, on a commission basis. (“I tried to sell his microscopy collection at one point. We got close, but the customer, who was in Australia, shied away at the last moment.”)
By the time of Margetts’s death in 2004, age eighty-four, his collections had been whittled down to a mere ten thousand books, all of them described on file cards and with his pencilled notes on the flyleaves. One day Stewart got a phone call from a real estate agent to say that Margetts’s daughter was putting the house on the market and had found a MacLeod’s Books business card and wondered whether . . . “That was the most I had ever paid for a collection of books, something over seventy-five thousand dollars. I came up with a down payment of about thirty thousand. I had some money put away and I managed to borrow more against some paintings I had. Then I made payments twice a month.”
A somewhat similar story but with a less happy ending had its origins in a Stewart acquaintance who had been a career CIA officer in Saigon during what the Vietnamese call the American War. He likely had served in Africa as well, for after leaving the agency he became a book dealer specializing in rare Africana. In time, having retired from his first career, he retired from the second as well, and asked Stewart whether he would like to acquire his inventory. Stewart regrets having agreed. The books were located in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, 150 cartons of them. Stewart bought them but even now, years later, hasn’t found a simple way of getting them over the border. Bureaucratic problems with Customs.
When he told me this story I was surprised to hear of him doing business with someone who had been an American intelligence professional. But Stewart is more relaxed now than he once would have been. As a very young fellow he had helped to found Calgary’s first abortion information centre. Once settled in Vancouver, he devoted considerable time to protesting, “organizing anarchist study groups” and writing for small radical newspapers and journals. He stayed at my place once when I lived in Toronto. He was passing through on his way to a conference in Kingston, Ontario, where he also paid a visit to Brent Taylor in prison. Taylor was one of the so-called Squamish Five, who in 1982 bombed the Litton Industries plant in Toronto, where parts for U.S. Cruise missiles were made. “When I was younger,” Stewart says, “I defined myself for many years as a Marxist, but the Marxists said, ‘You’re an anarchist, not a Marxist.’ Finally I re-evaluated who I was in political terms. These terms no longer really make sense in that a lot of these old issues and boundaries have broken down—and for good reason.”
Long ago I was a partner in a Toronto antiquarian bookshop where one day I had a lengthy conversation with an MBA who was curious about how we operated. He was flabbergasted to learn that some of the most stubborn inventory takes twenty years or more to turn over and even then is often given up only reluctantly by dealers who hate to part with books they have become fond of through time. Like many others before him, he concluded, correctly, that antiquarian booksellers are a strange lot, drawn to the field in kamikaze fashion, or like mosquitoes attracted to a bug-zapper on a suburban patio. In that sense, the arc of Don Stewart’s story is quite predictable, though all the particulars are peculiar to him alone and to the indecipherably self-absorbed city where he’s chosen to make his life.
"Man of a Hundred Thousand Books" was published in Geist 80 and is the second in a series of five profiles commissioned with the support of Arts Partners in Creative Development. Previously published profiles include Edith Iglauer (by Annabel Lyon), in the 20th Anniversary Collector's Edition, and forthcoming profiles include Randy Fred (by Michal Kozlowski), Jan and Crispin Elsted (by Michael Hayward), and Jay Powell & Vickie Jensen (by Constance Brissenden with Larry Loyie) in later issues.