A Book Lover’s Maritime Road Trip

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First appeared in Salt Magazine

The week ahead was primed for indulging two passions: fast driving and book collecting. I made Moncton from the Saint John airport in about an hour, my sporty new Mazda3 GT purring with pleasure as it raced along smooth, traffic-free highways.

I collect modern first editions, or more accurately, contemporary firsts. As British book collecting icon John Carter puts it in his ABC for Book Collectors, the term “modern” originates from the 1920s, and was first applied to books from the naughty ’90s. My preferred territory is the past 50 years, although I tend not to read much written after 1980.

Moncton’s Attic Owl Bookshop was the first store on my collecting tour. Most of the books were housed in one large, high-ceilinged room on the main floor of an old Masonic temple. The radio was tuned to CBC Two. A little table with a chess set on it was in the corner accompanied by two children’s chairs. The floors were hardwood and didn’t creak, and no cats were evident.

After asking if I needed help, the proprietor, Edmond Lemond, beckoned me to a bookshelf of first editions. “There are also some signed books just around the corner,” he said, leaving me alone with the books, displaying just the right measure of solicitude and reserve.

The selection was good. William Gaddis’s JR, a novel noted for its “scabrous, hilarious condemnation of American business,” immediately got my attention. The $125 book was unmarked and square, the jacket slightly rubbed at the spine ends with one closed tear on top of the front panel. I judged it to be in near fine condition, and bought it.

A book’s condition is crucially important to the discerning collector. This holds particularly true of the dust jacket, where a whopping 70 per cent of a volume’s value resides. I continued to browse, spotting a flock of porcelain and stuffed owls perched atop one of the stacks.

The impact of the Internet and big-box retailers on the used and rare book business was a hot topic of conversation with booksellers during my tour. The tone was largely one of sadness and disgust. Used-book and independent bookstores are slowly dying, much to the detriment of community life. For example, the Book Room on Barrington Street in Halifax – billed as Canada’s oldest bookstore – closed its doors in March 2008. It opened for business in 1839 and survived two World Wars and the Great Depression. Indeed, since my bookshop tour, the Attic Owl itself has closed its doors.

Browsing its shelves had given me an appetite so I walked down Main Street to an local tavern. I sat at the bar, and had a conversation with a guy who said that he judged a city’s culture by the quality of its used bookstores. Here was someone I could relate to. Farther down Main Street I came across Rags of Time Books. This time the floors were carpeted. Still no cat. It was well-stocked with paperbacks, a place more for readers than for collectors. Jazz played in the background. A young woman working there was the first of many to hand me a pamphlet containing a list of antiquarian and secondhand book sellers in Atlantic Canada. It became my guide. I would fill the gas tank and drive to Charlottetown in the morning.

Once over the Confederation Bridge speeding along smooth tarmac, a simple little “Books” sign had me swerving sharply onto a road headed for Victoria-by-the-Sea- a village full of tangled gardens, quaint sweet shops and a little theatre.

A barn was home to Hilary Price Books. Jim Price sat in a comfy chair, reading. The floor was concrete, and if there was a cat it was probably out thinning the field mouse population. The setting was spartan for a reason – Jim had plans to move to the Caribbean. I found first editions of William Boyd’s An Ice Cream War and Richard Hughes’ The Fox in the Attic, along with a paperback edition of Alan Sandison’s George Orwell after 1984.

Then it was on to downtown Charlottetown, “Canada’s Birthplace,” and The Bookman, a bookstore that really looks the part, with big bay windows, tall shelves packed with books, high ceilings, wooden floors and a wall of big, bound Bibles. There was no cat or store owner in sight. Nor were there any of  books I wanted. Lots of paperbacks, a good children’s section, good biography, Canadian fiction and Irish writers sections too, plus that trophy selection of folio-sized leather-bound Bibles. A brief conversation with the cashier about Welsh book-town Hay-on-Wye, and Irish writer George Moore (one of the first in English to practice French realism), the purchase of Nicholas Parsons’ Book of Literary Lists, and I was out of there and into The Shipwright Inn.

The next day after a breakfast of wild blueberries I headed a few blocks east to The Reading Well, a store with surprising urban cool and a water bowl on its front steps, “for literary dogs” . Fittingly, the shelves were larded with salon.com-endorsed authors such as Alan Hollingshead, Dale Peck, Rick Moody and William T. Vollmann. Sadly, it too has closed its doors.

Right around the corner was former CBC reporter Aubrey Bell’s store, Gallery 18, where I picked up Graham Green’s Our Man in Havana and a signed copy of the great Martin Amis’s The Information. Bell told me he planned to move his store to New London, into a big barn structure, something I am informed he has now done.

From Charlottetown, I made my way to the Wood Island ferry along a beautifully smooth stretch of highway, sloping down into a wide, curving valley. In Halifax, I stayed at the Backpackers’ Hostel which, wouldn’t you know it, had used books ‘for sale or swap’, lining the walls of a little café entrance area.

Halifax is home to some impressive bookshops, including John W. Doull’s (now located in Dartmouth), housed in an old bank building – the good stuff is kept in a walk-in safe. Doull also blamed the Internet and big-box stores for a dent in his sales. I wobbled giddily out of the store, balancing a towering pile of first editions with me, among them Paul West’s A Quality of Mercy and Eudora Welty’s Golden Apples. Then it was on to Schooner Books.

Time was running out; my week of frenzied book buying and white-knuckled driving was nearing its close. I made final stops at one of my all-time favourite shops, The Odd Book in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, and Crooked Timber Books in Digby, the latter with its particularly impressive Irish literature section. Then it was on to Saint John and Fredericton to round out the Maritime marathon. Loot on this last leg included titles by Robert Coover, David Jones, Isak Dinesen and Fay Weldon. Newfoundland and Labrador would just have to wait.

In fact, this was probably a good thing because, as it turns out, used books are scarce in the province. If however it’s new children’s books you’re looking for, Granny Bates, in downtown St. John’s, is a delight, as is its co-owner Margie McMillan. She’s been running the shop for more than 20 years and knows every little person’s title you can possible imagine. Be sure to stop in next time you’re in town.

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