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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.