Shelf Life

In Vancouver, an antiquarian bookstore has become a unique cultural center

| November-December 2003

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.
—The Editors

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.”