A bookstore and a fiery debate

MacLeod’s Books—and its overflowing shelves—has a run-in with the fireman

Andy Clark/Reuters

Somewhere in the shelves or tottering towers of tomes at Vancouver’s MacLeod’s Books there has to be a copy of Fahrenheit 451, Ray Bradbury’s bleak tale of book burning and misbehaving firemen. The title refers to the apparent ignition point of books, and it is that flammability issue that now bedevils Don Stewart, owner of one of the most amazing, eccentric and, um, well-stocked bookstores in Canada.

Early last year, the Vancouver fire department announced it was radically increasing its annual rate of fire inspections from 13,000 to 20,000 commercial, industrial and multi-unit residential buildings. Among the businesses now lavished with attention is MacLeod’s, an early-20th-century building stuffed to the gunwales with books, or “fire load,” as inspectors call them. The fire department is also applying a $100-an-hour fee for buildings that require re-inspections.

Stewart had a peaceful relationship with fire inspectors for most of the four decades he has owned MacLeod’s, a downtown haven for bibliophile, browser and tourist alike. Now he’s had repeated visits from inspectors and once even a veiled threat of thousands of dollars in fines. Stewart says he has no quarrel with inspectors’ concerns that exit aisles are kept clear and that there’s access to electrical panels. “The one thing we’re having difficulty with is that they consider books to be a fire load. Even though we’re sitting in a sprinklered building, there is a perception that we represent a danger to everyone around us.”

Stewart concedes that his inventory can get out of control. He’s been selling off and donating stock to free up space, but clutter is part of the store’s appeal. “The problem is we don’t conform to the cleaned-up, tidied-up world view of today,” he says. “We intend to keep working to please these organizations so they find it possible to let us carry on.”

MacLeod’s isn’t the only paper-intensive business in trouble. Brian Grant Duff, owner of All Nations Stamp & Coin, says inspectors told him he has too much fire load in his Dunbar Street store. Since his business is buying and selling fire load—those bits of paper you glue on envelopes—this is “going to be an ongoing problem,” he says. He has rented storage space, hired additional personnel and is negotiating with inspectors, but he’s not about to turn away customers arriving daily with stamps and banknotes for sale.

He also worries that Vancouver’s character is being eroded by a bias for “nice clean corporate stores.” There isn’t much respect these days for flammable anachronisms like books, stamps—or, he adds, magazines.

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