Quite often I’ve written about civic engagement being a big part of what a brick-and-mortar bookstore can do to build a customer base. By being more than simply a place that has books to buy you create a reason for the customers to want to visit your store. The book can be a tool of civic engagement just as much as a bookstore. Inhabitants of a city will proudly talk about the authors who live in them; they use the books that have been set in them as a way of identifying themselves. (Any inhabitant of North Bay will proudly tell you that the Algonquin Bay setting of Giles Blunt’s John Cardinal mystery series is actually North Bay)
Recently I discovered a project to create a physical link between the printed word and Canadian cities and landmarks: Project Bookmark Canada. The website for this wonderful initiative calls Canada “a country of stories and storytellers.” It’s goal is to bring these stories that are set in Canada, and in some cases have defined Canada, to life in the locations that the events of the books occur. And, I’m sure, also to promote Canadian literature.
I was out for a walk in Little Italy in Toronto one Saturday a few weeks ago and I saw a Green and White plaque at the corner of College and Manning, an intersection that I had never really thought there was anything special about besides having an awesome ice-cream parlour (the Big Chill) right at the corner and a great use bookstore a block away Balfour Books. I went to take a look at it and it was a plaque about Anne Michael’s Fugitive Pieces. The text of the plaque was an excerpt from the book and an explanation for why it was at this site. I guess I’m a bad Canadian because I’d never heard of this book, let alone knew that it was set in Toronto. Needless to say, I went out and got a copy to read. I guess the project is working already.
The name of the project implies that it is Canada-wide, but so far it seems limited to Ontario. I’ve found a few of the other plaques in and around Toronto, and one in Ottawa. The only book I had already read was Michael Ondaatje’s In the Skin of the Lion. I had always known that part of it was set at the Bloor Viaduct, but to go there, to see the plaque with the scene and read the text of the book at the location brought it to life in a way that just reading at home had not. It made the book more real, cementing it as a part of Toronto’s heritage.
A country needs to be proud of its literary tradition and promote it. Bookstores will often have sections dedicated to non-fiction books about the history of the city or town that they are in, but only once have I ever seen a bookstore with a list of fiction books set in the city. I was in Chicago on a trip and I stopped by a great used bookstore called Myopic Books. Right inside the doorway on the right was a huge wall of books set in Chicago. What better way to promote your city then to sell the books that are set in it? What better way to sell books then to appeal to the vanity of people who love the city, or the interest of tourists?
Maybe it’s arrogance that I like reading books set in places I know and love, but when I can read a book and know that the characters are walking where I’ve walked, when the author has put the time and effort into learning about the layout of a city and the buildings in it so that the characters follow real and accurate paths, it brings a new level of realism to the story. Who hasn’t gotten engrossed in a novel and wished that the events were real? Project Bookmark Canada makes the stories a bit more real. It ties the stories to real locations and brings them into the real world. These plaques promote Canadian authors and proclaim loudly that these works are cherished pieces of Canada’s culture and shared heritage. And hopefully they’ll inspire a few people who have never read these books and stories to find a copy and see what they have been missing.