Honouring the Word
The Quebec Writers’ Federation tips its hat to the owners of the cramped, quirky McGill Ghetto bookstore
Stepping into the Word bookstore at 469 Milton is not like stepping into your average big chain bookstore. There’s no convenient Internet database, no oversized lattés, no mood music to lull you into a state of casual consumption and no perky staff in vests primed to sneak a copy of the DaVinci code onto your teetering pile of books. And unlike chain stores, with their mass quantities of bestsellers, pop psychology and yoga accessories, the Word prides itself on its meticulous collection of high quality books.
That careful screening process has provoked the ire of many a student looking to dump a box of first-year textbooks to pay for a night on the town, but it’s helped nourish Montreal’s bibliophiles for the last 34 years. That’s part of the reason owners Adrian and Luci King-Edwards have been selected to receive the Quebec Writers’ Federation (QWF) Community Award this year.
Adrian and Luci’s adventures began in the summer of 1973, when the two McGill English students started selling books to finance a trip around the interior British Columbia.
“We set up in trailer camps, lumber camps, and sort of obscure places. This was quite a novelty for anybody that reads. If you’re a reader and you’re in that situation, you’ve read all your books and someone turns up with a fresh book, you go for it,” says Adrian.
From the frontiers of backwoods bookselling, they drove their VW across the country, breaking down in Ontario before finally puttering into Montreal with no intention of putting their books away. They moved into a 4½ on Milton and transformed their living room into a makeshift (unlicensed) store.
“We put a picture of George Bernard Shaw in the window so our fellow students at McGill would know which door to walk through because it wasn’t locked, people would just walk in and we had books right there in our living room.”
Underground poetry stores can’t help but attract two types of people: it wasn’t long before their living room was becoming a literary salon, hosting bi-weekly poetry readings, and the subject of occasional visits by cops who wondering if they were dealing more than literature.
“This is actually where the roots of the award we’re getting come from, the association with the poetry community, the writing community,” Adrian says. The Word continues to host readings. Ilona Martonfi and Stephen Morrissey, a veteran from the living room days, will be launching new books of poems at the store November 17 at 7:30 p.m.
One day in 1975, walking out of his house, Adrian noticed a for-rent sign next door. Originally a horse stable, the building had been home to a Laundromat run by a Chinese family for seventy years. Though the wood is old and the second floor is made of planks placed crudely over the beams, Adrian would never move: “It’s such a really lovely building; I’m in love with it.”
Adrian goes to great lengths to maintain his stock, travelling as far as Connecticut to get books from retiring or deceased professors. He keeps the store’s focus on poetry and philosophy. “Those are the two areas where the books have a huge amount of meaning to people. People are very reluctant to part with them and people are very pleased to get them,” he says.
Thirty-six years after striking out in this business, Adrian has made links with readers and writers in Montreal and around the world and he still keeps in touch with former customers.
“Second-hand bookselling is all about community,” he says. “There was a guy in the store this evening who was there when we opened the first day, lives in the neighbourhood. He came in the first time and told us we didn’t know what we were doing and we wouldn’t be there long. He still comes in several times a week.”
The QWF Awards Gala takes place Tuesday November 17 at 7 p.m. at the Lion D’Or (1676 Ontario E). Info at www.qwf.org. Those shortlisted include Jon Paul Fiorentino, Yves Engler and Monique Proulx.
Montreal writers are also well represented at this years Governor General’s Literary Awards, which will be announced at the Grande Bibiliothèque (475 de Maisonneuve E.) on November 17 at 10 a.m. Montrealers nominated include Carmine Starnino, Sina Queryras Phyllis Aronoff and Howard Scott. See www.canadacouncil.ca for details.
Montreal Mirror 12 November 2009 (this is the unedited text)