Spend a life building a maze of old books and there’s no guarantee the world will stop by to wander around in it—but you never know. It happened in Vancouver, where a former campus radical named Don Stewart has turned a city storefront into one of the planet’s finer collections of hand-me-down literature. If you’re looking for a rare edition of Dante’s Divine Comedy, a bit of pretty verse for a new sweetheart, or that serendipitous discovery to inspire a book of your own, they’ve got it at MacLeod’s. That doesn’t mean you’ll find it right away, but you’re bound to meet some characters while you look.
For a scandal-ridden American president, a famous Italian scholar, and a Winnipeg Christ, MacLeod’s Books in downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, is the setting of an ongoing passion play. A revolving cast of lovers, writers, kooks, and revolutionaries haunts the store’s narrow aisles. A tall blonde in a tailored suit calls her husband on her cell phone, then puts the phone away. “He wants it. He needs it. He has to have it,” she says.
On rainy afternoons, MacLeod’s has an eternal character. Bulging bookshelves extend to high ceilings. More books are stacked in piles on the floor, with still more waiting in boxes. A number of the customers look like extras in a period film: One afternoon brings three fedoras, a golf cap, and a Russian-style fur hat. The muted light passing through large storefront windows makes it easy to fall under the spell of one of North America’s finest antiquarian bookshops.
Don Stewart, who bought the shop three decades ago when he was 21, is tall, gray-haired, and witty—a combination of scholar, librarian, and traffic cop. Prone to calling men “chaps” and making literary jokes, Stewart maintains an atmosphere of organized chaos. In the space of two minutes, he and his assistant, Laura Hackett, field requests for Japanese illustrations, 17th-century European narratives, The Lord of the Rings, T.S. Eliot, and novelist Vladimir Nabokov (who is sold out for the moment).
“Nabokov’s very salable these days,” notes Stewart. Books and authors go in and out of fashion. “In my career I’ve seen at least three revivals of Leonard Cohen and four revivals of Bertolt Brecht.” Others are evergreens: Hemingway, Steinbeck, Austen, the Brontës, Dickens. He shows me a new acquisition, the handwritten first page of an early draft for Carol Shields’ novel Swann, which he will wrap in plastic and sell for $500. “She’s hot,” he says.
Marcel Proust has come back around. Laura Hackett is on the phone: “Yes, we have Remembrance of Things Past,” she is saying. “Two volumes.”
MacLeod’s is a repository of things past. It is the realm of magicians and mystics, of obsessed people and citizens of another age: of collectors who think nothing of laying out $25,000 for a series of rare editions, cash-poor grad students and bush dwellers who leave the store with 20 paperbacks, and various lost souls whose salvation is found in words.
The beguiling atmosphere makes it possible, if still a bit bewildering, to understand why Nike wanted to shoot a commercial here. The place has been a magnet for writers and intellectuals since its first owner, Don MacLeod, opened it in 1964. In those years, iconic writers such as the Canadian people’s poet Al Purdy could be found here. Today, Vancouver authors and book artists such as Douglas Coupland, Celia King, Barbara Hodgson, and Nick Bantock (creator of the Griffin & Sabine series) come looking for inspiration. MacLeod’s also brings out the crackpots, like the “chap” who thought he was Alexander the Great, or the woman who wanted to buy a book by Dr. Hans K ng (a liberal theologian the pope has tried to silence) so she could burn it. (Stewart refused to sell it to her, just as he refused Nike’s request to film here.)
Books inspire a range of human emotions. Hackett, an artist who teaches media literacy to high school students and works in the store part time, is repairing a Victorian-era copy of The Poems of William Wordsworth. Earlier that day, a young man had come in looking for a special gift for his girlfriend of three months. Hackett quizzed him: Did his girlfriend like nature? Poetry? Was she romantic? They finally settled on Wordsworth, one of the definitive, if longwinded, Romantic poets.
“If some guy gave me this, I’d give him at least another month or two,” she says, gently gluing the book’s delicate spine with an expertise acquired while she was studying art restoration in Florence. Shortly, a thoughtful-looking young man in a black felt coat and glasses returns to collect his gift.
“Now that I think of it, do you have The Private Life of Chairman Mao?” asks a bespectacled Chinese woman. Hackett directs her.
Meanwhile, professor Giovanni D’Agostino, in sweatshirt and ponytail, is studying a 1568 Viennese edition of Dante Alighieri that includes the Divine Comedy, the Italian poet’s early-14th-century masterpiece. D’Agostino teaches Italian literature at Montclair State University in New Jersey. The price penciled inside the front cover reads $950. It’s clear he is torn. He wrote his thesis on Dante, he explains.
“Would you consider spending $950 on Dante?” I inquire.
“I’ve devoted my life to Dante, so I would consider it,” D’Agostino says. He’s visiting his parents in Vancouver and has until the end of the week to make up his mind.
Yet another customer asks for Nabokov. Not today. But come in next week. Like the assistant to Bill Clinton who, Stewart says, stopped in a few years ago to buy Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass as a gift for a special intern, he might get lucky.
Don Stewart is an expatriate prairie boy. His father was a businessman while his mother, a social worker, ran a halfway house for immigrants in Calgary (she later helped found the activist street-theater group Raging Grannies in Victoria). Their home hosted Dutch and Danish immigrants as well as Frenchmen dodging the war in Algiers. Stewart grew up surrounded by diverse cultures and influences, suspended between his father’s conservative values and his mother’s radical ones.
In 1970, Stewart dropped out of the University of Calgary to protest the university’s handling of the War Measures Act, a 1914 law that Canada had re-enacted largely to suppress radical Quebec separatists. “I spent a year reading, smoking dope, dropping acid, and doing politically active things,” he says. He took work in a used-book shop in the city; within a week he knew he had found his vocation.
He went on to spend a year traveling in Latin America, including a stint volunteering in Chile in support of president Salvador Allende’s beleaguered government (during which time he sent 38 packages of antiquarian books back to Canada). On his return in 1973, he bought MacLeod’s from its second owner, Van Andruss, who was planning to move to Paris to write a novel.
Stewart admits that antiquarian bookshops can attract some offbeat characters. The number of fedoras is only the first sign. “Our society doesn’t always tolerate or value eccentricity,” he says. Galleries, libraries, and bookshops, he points out, offer the nonconformist a place to fit in.
A young man in a Skull Skates sweatshirt is looking for a dictionary. “One with, like, every word in it,” he says. Meanwhile, a young woman in enormous bell-bottoms and a skinny young man in an Evil Dead sweatshirt are buying a stack of Hunter S. Thompsons and a book of prints by Salvador Dali. Stewart opens the Dali book to the 1951 painting titled Christ of Saint John of the Cross and explains that the model for Christ had been in the store five years earlier. Originally from Winnipeg, he had been a young man when Dali hired him. Dali needed someone strong enough to pose hanging from the cross for hours.
The Winnipeg Christ and Dali kept up a long-term friendship, as Stewart does with so many of his customers. Every time I enter the store, people are sitting on a small bench across from the till waiting to talk to him as they would wait for a physician.
“You meet some of the most interesting people you’ll ever imagine,” says Stewart. One visitor included the archivist from New York’s legendary, century-old Explorers Club. She was talking to Stewart when she stepped back and almost fell over “a chap from the British Library,” who happened to be one of the last surviving members of Britain’s India Office, the department that governed colonial-era India from the mid-19th century until its independence in 1947. The man was in the city researching marine charts and maps and had been on his knees poring over books on the floor.
On another occasion Stewart came across Umberto Eco -- best-selling Italian novelist (The Name of the Rose), learned semiotician, and one of the world’s preeminent book collectors -- searching in a corner. The store ships books around the globe to collectors like Eco.
According to George Fetherling, the author or editor of more than 50 books, “Don is not a secondhand-book dealer. He is a private-sector scholar, a true antiquarian. To succeed in that business, you have to know a little about everything. Don has succeeded because he actually knows quite a bit about everything.”
Fetherling relates many of the woes facing all antiquarians: the trend toward appointment-only shops; the high rents that are driving antiquarians to the ‘burbs; the large space needed to house inventory that may go unsold for years; the spread of Web-based companies that consider themselves booksellers but lack the requisite knowledge.
“I don’t want to create the impression Don is the last dinosaur,” says Fetherling. “That’s not the case. But he is our senior and most knowledgeable dinosaur.”
Books were once extraordinary objects, says Stewart. Librarians and booksellers were the guardians. “Now books end up in Dumpsters all the time. They’ve become devalued in the eyes of society.”
MacLeod’s illustrates that Dumpster diving is a public service (if there was any doubt). Stewart shows me a copy of Pablo Picasso’s Women retrieved from a city Dumpster. The finder was rewarded $100 for the stunning edition, which is now priced at $200. On other occasions, Dumpster divers have brought in gold sovereigns, 17th-century Dutch maps, and countless other rare treasures.
Stewart also collects banned books. (His home in East Vancouver houses an astounding collection of radical and anarchist literature.) He pulls out an autographed copy of Henry Miller’s 1934 novel Tropic of Cancer, banned in the United States for 27 years. “To ban a book is to make it more attractive,” he declares. He has another copy of Tropic of Cancer that he says a Vancouver detective used to prepare for an obscenity trial against a different local bookstore. All the salacious passages were carefully ink-marked. Another time, a municipal inspector came to investigate a complaint of “lasciviousness” that turned out to be connected to a book about the murals of Pompeii.
“I myself suffered tremendously,” recalls Stewart, speaking of the high emotions books can generate. In 1982, an American—who had spent time in the U.S. military, the Moonies, and the Ku Klux Klan—took offense at a Communist bookshop several doors down from MacLeod’s original Hastings Street location. When he firebombed the place, the fire spread and burned down four shops, including MacLeod’s.
“It wiped out 13 years of my work,” says Stewart. “I went into shock.” Local poets staged a benefit reading, colleagues and friends banded together, and an insurance settlement helped him rebuild. Even so, he’s careful about which books get placed in the window. “Things you think wouldn’t offend people, offend them.”
“Books are powerful,” I observe.
“Yes,” Stewart responds. “They are sacred objects.”
Deborah Campbell is an associate editor at Adbusters magazine in Vancouver.
From Vancouver Magazine (April 2003). Subscriptions: Outside Canada, $41.95/yr. Canadian (10 issues). Suite 500, 2608 Granville St., Vancouver, BC V6H 3V3.