The last great bookshop

Selling books for $40,000, and books for a dollar, MacLeod’s is a used bookstore quite unlike any other

The last great bookshop

Photograph by Brian Howell

For new visitors, the reaction rarely differs. After pushing through the front door, they stop, momentarily, in their tracks. On this rainy winter Sunday, an American tourist, dressed in purple Gore-Tex, lets out a gasp. “My God,” she says, to no one in particular, “I’ve never seen so many books in my life.” At MacLeod’s Books in downtown Vancouver, packed bookshelves stretch almost to the cathedral ceilings. Books are piled all over a worn, red Persian rug. “Please find the Faulkner paperback collection on the floor,” a note helpfully directs. A ladder leans haphazardly against a stuffed shelf. More books are stacked on its steps. “Is there any semblance of order at all?” asks a middle-aged man with tight black curls and John Lennon glasses. There is, of course; the finely ordered chaos is one of the marvels of MacLeod’s. There isn’t a computer in sight, but staff know exactly what they own, and where to find it. Within seconds, the churlish customer has the Tolkien he was after.

Behind him, a MacLeod’s regular, his wiry brown hair standing on end, rushes in and out, lugging suitcases filled with books into the store, adding to a pile stacked near the front. “He’s been buying books from us for years,” says the shopkeeper, as the man hurriedly retreats backwards, spilling out apologies, a farewell, a promise to return. “Now he’s leaving for Spain, and he wants us to buy them all back. I haven’t even agreed,” Don Stewart, the legendary—at least in the tight circle of Vancouver bibliophiles—owner of the bookshop adds with a shrug.

The last great bookshop

Photographs by Brian Howell

The customer who’s bound for the Malaga coast is just one of a long list of book lovers, writers, film directors and oddballs who have found a haven in MacLeod’s, surely Canada’s finest antiquarian bookstore. There is no better collection of obscure non-fiction, says Vancouver novelist Timothy Taylor, whose new book, Blue Light Project, hits other stores this month. You’ll find odd little instructional books on cricket or skeet shooting, he says, a field guide to edible mushrooms, and sprawling, whimsical collections—madness in the 19th century, imperial Japan, the history of gardening.

For local writer Charles Montgomery, the magic unfolds the moment he steps inside. “You breathe it when you walk in—that mouldy attic smell, that sense you’re beginning a kind of adventure,” says Montgomery, author of the forthcoming book Happy City. “Then down in the architecture section, you discover a manifesto by Le Corbusier, scribbled through with some critic’s notes, and you feel downright heroic, like Indiana Jones, negotiating those passageways heaped with books, knowing that in some dark corner you will find your treasure.” Of course the relic you find, he adds, is never the book you came looking for.

Don Stewart, an Alberta native, bought MacLeod’s four decades ago when he was 21. He started visiting used bookshops when he was six, starting with Jaffe’s, once a Calgary landmark. His dad was a businessman; his mom, a social worker with a radical bent, worked at a halfway house for new immigrants, and filled the family home with an eclectic cast of house guests—Spanish civil war refugees, French draft dodgers avoiding the mess in Algiers, Hungarians who’d fled after the uprising of 1956.

Stewart attended the University of Calgary until 1970 when, during the October Crisis, the federal government invoked the War Measures Act, giving it sweeping legal powers. Stewart, unhappy with the university’s response—or lack thereof—to what he felt was a grave attack on civil liberties, walked out. After hitching to California, he spent a year in Chile, volunteering in support of Salvador Allende’s socialist government. In 1973, he returned to Canada and bought MacLeod’s, which had been opened a decade earlier by Don MacLeod. He’d always wanted to be an archaeologist and became, he explains, a “paper archaeologist.”

The last great bookshop

Photograph by Brian Howell

“I’ve sold books for $40,000, and I sell books for a dollar,” he says, thumbing a $2,500 first Edinburgh edition of a book of poems by Robert Burns, the man known simply, among Scots, as “the bard.” His shelves are stuffed with treasures of all kinds: beautifully bound editions of Thackeray, Trollope, Dickens, Lord Byron—“the Mick Jagger of his day”—the first book of poems by Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first published black author. “We handle almost anything to do with paper, as long as it is needed or wanted or important,” says Stewart, opening a box filled with slave purchase orders. There’s one for a woman described as “a negress named Delilah,” a “slave for life” sold in Georgia for $72. He fingers a 17th-century map of France’s North American holdings, then a giant, old, black-and-white panoramic photograph of Terrace, B.C.; both sit randomly atop piles of books.

The woody smell of old books, the soft yellow light, and the faded, decades-old red Sale! banners hanging in the windows give MacLeod’s a timeless feel, so rare in the young city. Long before Taylor and Montgomery made MacLeod’s a haunt, Al Purdy, Canada’s unofficial poet laureate, did so—as did, more recently, local authors like Douglas Coupland and Nick Bantock, the Brit expat behind the Griffin & Sabine series. The American novelist Paul Theroux was in last month, as was Mexican director Guillermo del Toro, who shipped a whack of books to New Zealand, where he’s filming The Hobbit. Umberto Eco, the bestselling Italian novelist, has visited, and Barbara Kingsolver once “disappeared into the store’s Latin American section,” says Stewart. “She bought a whole lot of stuff,” he says, which she brought to her hotel, “where she was shacked up working on The Lacuna.” Stewart, his parents’ son, is part businessman, part benefactor, who, if you’re lucky, will return your phone call. Although he turned down Nike’s request to film a commercial in MacLeod’s, he allowed Vancouver artist Stan Douglas to photograph the store. For a time, Douglas’s photo MacLeod’s Books hung in the Vancouver Art Gallery.

The shop has stood in its present location on Pender Street since 1982: its original Hastings Street location burned to the ground after an American, a former military man and Ku Klux Klan member, firebombed a nearby Communist bookshop, a fire that swallowed MacLeod’s whole. Stewart went into shock. “It wiped out 13 years of work,” he says. Even today, he takes great care when placing books in the windows, mindful not to offend.

These days, though, bookstores are liable to disappear for less dramatic reasons. Books were once “extraordinary objects,” he says, “but they’ve become devalued in the eyes of society.” Vancouver recently lost Duthie Books, a city icon with a 50-year history. Even Borders, the U.S. indie-killing giant, couldn’t hack the new retail environment and filed for bankruptcy last month. Used bookstores have been hit particularly hard, though there are holdouts: Victoria’s Russell Books and The Word in Montreal still inspire devotion among dedicated readers; Aqua Books, a 10,000-sq.-foot former Chinese restaurant in Winnipeg’s downtown, doubles as the city’s cultural mecca, with puppet slams, writing workshops, jazz concerts and a live show, featuring local legends like David Bergen and Jake MacDonald.

Stewart is utterly unfazed by the doom and gloom. At the collectible end, he says, demand remains strong; there, prices are determined by scarcity and demand, and used books “will always be very competitive with the cost of downloading to a reader.” Distracted, he rushes the interview to a premature end, free publicity be damned. A new load of books is being delivered, and he can’t wait to see what’s inside.

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