My Bookselling Career

Posted by Daniel on Mar 24, 2010 - 7 comments

The closing of Duthie's Books last month unloosed a slew of memories about my own brief experience as a bookseller.

At the close of the '60s I worked in The Book Barrel, a shop on Granville Street near the corner of Smythe. It was the flagship of a small chain of three or four bookstores owned by Ted Fraser. They are all long gone now but at the time The Book Barrel was well known for staying open until 11 p.m. (the idea was to get the people coming out of the late movies) and on Sunday, then unheard of.

It was also known for its stock of erotic paperback fiction which sold amazingly well. When business was slow, Denise, the floor manager, used to embarrass me by reading steamy extracts aloud, shrieking with laughter as we stood at the cash register. Denise was what we used to call "liberated".

Fraser himself was a gruff, stoop-shouldered man who always had a cigarette smouldering between his fingers. Conversation was a hit-or-miss affair since he was usually looking about distractedly for somewhere to deposit his ashes. His interest in books was commercial, not literary. He once told me he could just as happily have been selling refrigerators. But he was a very kind boss, at least to me.

People like to romanticize bookshops. We imagine them dimly lit and cozy, Vivaldi and Mozart whispering on the sound system, bohemian poets sipping cappuccino. The Book Barrel was not like that. It specialized in books on auto mechanics and home repair and offered a complete selection of Coles Notes. Each section was appropriately marked by cardboard placards hanging like bright clouds above the shelves. The bargain tables ran down the middle of the store, groaning under their weight of discount Shakespeare and plastic-wrapped sex magazines from Scandinavia.
Of all my co-workers I remember Charles the best. He was a middle-aged immigrant from Germany whose first job, he told me, was backpacking supplies to the cabins on Grouse Mountain (before the chairlift). Charles functioned more as a floorwalker than a salesclerk. In fact he seemed to resent the customers. All day he dusted, piled and straightened, only to have these intruders interrupt his work with nagging questions and sloppy behaviour.

Most bookstores arrange their books on the shelves in alphabetical order by author and subject. Charles arranged books according to their size. On the left he put the tallest volumes and across the shelf he set out the others in order of descending height. It was as if in a clothing store suits were arranged alphabetically by colour. Needless to say I spent a lot of time deciphering this system for bewildered customers.

Charles kept a boa constrictor as a pet. Sometimes he had it in a cardboard box in the back of the shop with a copy of The Joy of Cooking on top to prevent escape. He would go to a pet shop up the street to acquire pockets-full of white mice to feed the snake. One late evening while we were working together he lost a mouse. Panic-stricken, he locked the front door and began to search the aisles. Customers, all of whom were trapped inside, thought they were being held hostage by a maniac.

Charles had just about given up his search when I noticed movement in his pant leg. The mouse had gnawed a hole through his pocket and was hiding in the lining of his trousers. With relief I unlocked the door and released the customers into the night.

In an essay about his own experience working in a bookstore, George Orwell wrote that it almost destroyed his love of books. My experience destroyed not my love of books but my naive reverence for bookshops. You may think they are small oases of calm where the intellectual life flourishes. I know them to be irrational places where small rodents lurk in the clerks' pant legs and the staff are all salivating over erotic novels on their lunch hour.

The Book Barrel closed sometime in the early 1970s and hardly anyone remembers Ted Fraser, Vancouver's "other" bookseller. Sic transit gloria mundi. Roughly translated: people have short memories.

I hope someone is at work on a history of Duthies so that Bill Duthie and his family will not be lost to the civic memory as Ted Fraser has been.