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Gently Mad

Viva Vancouver

Book Culture Thrives in Canada’s Frontier City
By Nicholas A. Basbanes Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.

Whenever I travel to a new city and spend some time with bibliophiles of every conceivable persuasion, be they collectors, booksellers, librarians, writers, publishers, readers, book artists, or printers, I go home with a renewed respect for the power of books to find common ground. It is the kind of experience that never fails to impress, though rarely do I get to see it all in one week, as was the case during a recent trip to British Columbia. I gave eight talks in four days in and around Vancouver, all made possible by the wonderful planning and warm hospitality of Richard Hopkins, Howard Greaves, and Leah Gordon of the Alcuin Society, my hosts for this memorable adventure.

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This is a city, I quickly realized, that is devoted not only to books, but to every aspect of what we mean when we use the phrase book culture. On the day my wife and I arrived, Vancouver was wrapping up its twenty-first annual Writers & Readers Festival, a celebration that unites dozens of authors with thousands of readers over a six-day period every October. The next day was a gorgeous Sunday, and people were outside in abundance enjoying the lush parks and lively urban neighborhoods, some having picnics, many jogging along the banks of English Bay, others poking through the arts and crafts shops of trendy Granville Island.

Given the lure of such seductive diversions, I would have understood perfectly if our first destination, the Central Library at 500 West Georgia St., as beautifully appointed and welcoming a refuge for the intellect as it is, might have been empty. But the elegant building, opened in 1995, was filled on every floor, by my modest estimate, with perhaps as many as three thousand patrons, all absorbed in the tasks at hand. (I was told later that this oval building—kind of like a small Roman Coliseum in the heart of the city—averages five thousand visitors a day, so I was pretty much in the ballpark.)

Vancouver is a city devoted to what we mean by the phrase book culture.

From there, my wife, Connie, and I walked two blocks east on Homer Street to MacLeod’s Books at 455 West Pender St., which was busy with browsers and buyers alike. How to describe this place? An observation once made to me by California bookseller Peter Howard, to explain the frenetic condition of his Berkeley shop, Serendipity, applies perfectly here. “I am extremely mistrustful,” he said, “of bookstores that are neat as a pin.” His rationale being that antiquarian and secondhand emporia piled high with volumes stacked on the floors means they’re awash in new arrivals, a sure sign of fresh and lively inventory. How many volumes, I wondered, were packed cheek-by-jowl here? About 250,000, give or take, according to owner Don Stewart.

In subsequent days I gave talks in a number of venues—including the rare book rooms of the University of British Columbia, Simon Fraser University, and the University of Victoria, several at the Vancouver Museum, another at the Victoria Conservatory of Music. I also had the opportunity to see some fabulous collections, a good number of them built by private collectors. I was particularly taken by the remarkable Judaica material gathered by a local philanthropist, author, educator, and bibliophile, Dr. Yosef Wosk, founder of the Academy for Independent Scholars in Vancouver, and a principal sponsor of my trip.

At the University of British Columbia Library, a collection of 25,000 books and dazzling artifacts given by Dr. Wallace B. Chung, a former head of the Department of Surgery at the university hospital, documents the history of the Pacific Northwest, the Chinese experience in North America, the history of British Columbia, and the story of the Canadian Pacific Railway Company, and has its own room; our guide here was Ralph Stanton, head of rare books and special collections, who also demonstrated an automated book retrieval system that looks like a device out of the "The Matrix," except that this massive contraption is user friendly, and decidedly pro-human.

Vancouver is a city devoted to what we mean by the phrase book culture.

Stanton’s counterpart at Simon Fraser University, Eric L. Swanick, had some lovely treasures of his own to trumpet. Of special interest to me were a comprehensive collection of materials produced by regional craftsmen, notably the fine press printer, type designer, and illustrator Jim Rimmer and papermaker Reg Lissel, both known internationally for their work.

Great fun, too, was the opportunity to spend some time with Robert R. Reid, a typographer, designer, printer, and private press publisher of such stature that a national award in Canada has been established in his name to honor significant contributions each year in the book arts.

Two people I would like to have met, but didn’t get the chance—though I did come home with copies of their books: Robert Bringhurst, poet, linguist, typographer and author of numerous monographs including, most recently, The Surface of Meaning: Books and Book Design in Canada, and Dorothy Field, poet, papermaker, and author of Paper and Threshold: The Paradox of Spiritual Connection in Asian Cultures. As I say, I didn’t get to meet them. But there’s always next time.

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Nicholas A. BasbanesNicholas A. Basbanes recently received a National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship to work on his book on paper, which is forthcoming from Knopf. His most recent book is Editions & Impressions, a collection of essays. His other works include the acclaimed A Gentle Madness, Every Book Its Reader, Patience & Fortitude, Among the Gently Mad, and A Splendor of Letters.