For new visitors, the reaction rarely differs. After pushing through the front door, they stop, momentarily, in their tracks. On this rainy winter Sunday, an American tourist, dressed in purple Gore-Tex, lets out a gasp. “My God,” she says, to no one in particular, “I’ve never seen so many books in my life.” At MacLeod’s Books in downtown Vancouver, packed bookshelves stretch almost to the cathedral ceilings. Books are piled all over a worn, red Persian rug. “Please find the Faulkner paperback collection on the floor,” a note helpfully directs. A ladder leans haphazardly against a stuffed shelf. More books are stacked on its steps. “Is there any semblance of order at all?” asks a middle-aged man with tight black curls and John Lennon glasses. There is, of course; the finely ordered chaos is one of the marvels of MacLeod’s. There isn’t a computer in sight, but staff know exactly what they own, and where to find it. Within seconds, the churlish customer has the Tolkien he was after.
Behind him, a MacLeod’s regular, his wiry brown hair standing on end, rushes in and out, lugging suitcases filled with books into the store, adding to a pile stacked near the front. “He’s been buying books from us for years,” says the shopkeeper, as the man hurriedly retreats backwards, spilling out apologies, a farewell, a promise to return. “Now he’s leaving for Spain, and he wants us to buy them all back. I haven’t even agreed,” Don Stewart, the legendary—at least in the tight circle of Vancouver bibliophiles—owner of the bookshop adds with a shrug.
The customer who’s bound for the Malaga coast is just one of a long list of book lovers, writers, film directors and oddballs who have found a haven in MacLeod’s, surely Canada’s finest antiquarian bookstore. There is no better collection of obscure non-fiction, says Vancouver novelist Timothy Taylor, whose new book, Blue Light Project, hits other stores this month. You’ll find odd little instructional books on cricket or skeet shooting, he says, a field guide to edible mushrooms, and sprawling, whimsical collections—madness in the 19th century, imperial Japan, the history of gardening.
For local writer Charles Montgomery, the magic unfolds the moment he steps inside. “You breathe it when you walk in—that mouldy attic smell, that sense you’re beginning a kind of adventure,” says Montgomery, author of the forthcoming book Happy City. “Then down in the architecture section, you discover a manifesto by Le Corbusier, scribbled through with some critic’s notes, and you feel downright heroic, like Indiana Jones, negotiating those passageways heaped with books, knowing that in some dark corner you will find your treasure.” Of course the relic you find, he adds, is never the book you came looking for.
Don Stewart, an Alberta native, bought MacLeod’s four decades ago when he was 21. He started visiting used bookshops when he was six, starting with Jaffe’s, once a Calgary landmark. His dad was a businessman; his mom, a social worker with a radical bent, worked at a halfway house for new immigrants, and filled the family home with an eclectic cast of house guests—Spanish civil war refugees, French draft dodgers avoiding the mess in Algiers, Hungarians who’d fled after the uprising of 1956.
Stewart attended the University of Calgary until 1970 when, during the October Crisis, the federal government invoked the War Measures Act, giving it sweeping legal powers. Stewart, unhappy with the university’s response—or lack thereof—to what he felt was a grave attack on civil liberties, walked out. After hitching to California, he spent a year in Chile, volunteering in support of Salvador Allende’s socialist government. In 1973, he returned to Canada and bought MacLeod’s, which had been opened a decade earlier by Don MacLeod. He’d always wanted to be an archaeologist and became, he explains, a “paper archaeologist.”
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