A Bookshop on St. Catherine Street

A bookshop on Ste – Catherine.

Every weekday morning, as I walk my two children to kindergarten, we pass a bookshop. The bookshop is a small independent establishment that sells new, mainly paperback books. The neighbourhood is scruffy verging on run-down, but the bookshop’s location must be the envy of many a potential bookseller, myself included. It is located on the main thoroughfare of the downtown core of the city, and on its doorstep are many fine universities and colleges. It seems a perfect little place for the bookish student to go and browse for the new Murakami or the latest polemic from Slavoj Zizek. The bookshop is also in an area of the city where the blanketed homeless prayerfully emerge from the doorways to greet you with a polystyrene cup, while the busy and preoccupied (again myself included)  rush by avoiding eye contact. It is fair to suggest that the locale, despite it being central, is somewhat edgy.  Even the gaudy neon strip-lights of the dépanneurs and sex shows around the bookshop bring blurry blades of candour to the location. It all adds to an eclectic concoction, both in the human and material sense, which is thought provoking.It is a very busy part of the city and the pedestrian traffic of the sidewalk flows constantly.

Allin Bookshop 1904 via Whitby Archives, Flickr
Allin Bookshop 1904 via Whitby Archives, Flickr

In the window of the bookshop the owner uses an interesting device to engage the passer-by with the product he is selling. In the foreground in front of the displayed books is a Hermes 3000 manual typewriter, a thing of beauty in itself. The typewriter is loaded with paper and displays, for the passer-by or window browser, a typed literary quote or poem or reflective passage from one of the books he stocks. It is a simple but effective idea and the quotes change over time. During the summer months there were a few lines of  poetry by Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The passage was about a man walking down a street with a mirror for a head with a sign that read:

A POEM IS A MIRROR WALKING DOWN A STRANGE STREET.

This line concluded the passage. It seemed to me a perfect fragment of poetry to reflect on given the elements of the location, and every morning I would pause at the window and read the passage to my children. They would squeal in mock fear and look up and down the sidewalk for the imminent arrival of such a man. Of course, some would question my parenting responsibilities in reading Ferlinghetti to my two young children, but my four year old son became (and still is) quite enamoured by the idea of a ‘man with a mirror for a head’, and we would continue on our way, joyfully discussing the endless possibilities and scenarios that would entail in such a concept.

The text instantly engaged me with my surroundings and spoke with the deft touch of a parable. When the poet achieves empathy in the reader it is an inspired moment indeed. It got me thinking about many things. I questioned my firm judgements and wondered if they were just a veil for conceit, I thought about the clarity of innocence in a child’s perpective and  I brought forth a perennial question: whom is my neighbour? I am sure that my firm judgements will survive this small bout of empathy, as I am sure that all perennial questions are left unanswered. But the fragment of poetry uttered in its natural setting consumed my thoughts and left me with more questions than it did answers.Thankfully, it isn’t in the answers, it’s in the asking.

It also got me thinking of the act of placement of text in relation to environment. As often happens, simple ideas can be devastatingly profound. Presenting the text, in the type of machine in which it was probably conceived, to entice the passing world is eloquent in its simplicity. Presentation and its power of persuasion is a subtle art to master. The advertising industry have been using audio and visual icons from the arts for decades to help sell their product so, one would think, a good book should rightly sell itself? Yes, in the realms of my own personal Utopia. However, books are an investment in time which seems a scarce commodity, even the great ones needs to be ‘pushed’ to be read. Presentation gives the opportunity to express a connection with what we are selling in numerous ways, in celebrating the whole concept of books – the object itself,  the art-work, the emotional realms of communication, the profound beauty of expression and the meditative qualities that can be delivered by the process of reading – we have at our disposal something very unique and multi-dimensional. It is both emotional and cerebral.This opportunity is best expressed when it comes with a certain level of seriousness towards the content, it is an impoverished bookseller who is unaware of the emotional depth of the books they are selling.

gone worldInterestingly, a couple of weeks ago I passed the bookshop in the middle of the day and it was busy with customers. I walked in and asked the young man at the till if he remembered the Lawrence Ferlinghetti poem that was in the typewriter a month or so back? He did, and directed me to a small pocket book of  poems called Pictures of the gone world. It was inexpensive so I brought it. When I got home I sat at the kitchen table with a cup of tea and read the poem (#5) out loud in an empty house. The words, so powerful read on the downtown sidewalk to my children, evaporated in the domestic chambers of my home. Somehow the poem had lost its poignancy and the words became just dots on a page, something had changed. The time, or the space….or maybe just me?

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Discussion

  1. P. J. Grath

    I loved the detailed description of the neighborhood, allowing me to picture the bookstore very clearly, and the typewriter in the window was charming. I’m only sorry–very sorry!–that the poem was disappointing when read at home over tea. That is not the way a bookseller would want the story to end. Hope the next book bought will hold its magic for the writer when taken home.

  2. Aliend

    I loved the detailed account of the immediate area, allowing me to picture the bookstore very obviously, and the typewriter modish the window was charming. I’m no more than sorry–very remorseful!–that the verse was disappointing as soon as read by the side of at your house greater than tea. So as to is not the way a bookseller would would like the story to finish off. Look forward to the after that put your name down for bought desire grasp its magnetism used for the writer as soon as taken at your house.

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