This was published in the Kingston Whig Standard in June/2013
In 1979 I opened a shop selling out-of-print books when the government began making me nervous. I knew that small shops like mine, hoarding the works of classic writing on inequality, were places where opposition to power gone mad could be discussed. History in many countries often linked such strategizing to little bookshops that offered information and time to think.
There were 35 book businesses in Kingston at the time. Mine was the only one on the north side, where students were told not to rent nor banks offered mortgages. Over there with the poor was not a safe place, they said. Who knew what might happen?
We had immigrated a few years before, fleeing the horror of the Kennedy and King shootings, which felt like personal betrayals. After training as an antiquarian bookseller in Toronto for a couple years, Kingston prisons attracted us. Usually in a small community, the polarization is between town and gown but here it was town, gown and joint.
It was clear that if you were connected with the prison, or the psych hospital, you lived wherever you could find shelter, which would not be the best neighbourhoods. Many north-enders felt city amenities were not for them. They feared being seen as out of place, stopped and questioned if they made a visit to Queen’s for a function.
The antiquarian tradition requires expensive hardcovers, first editions and at least those dating from before the turn of the century. Paperbacks were considered declasse with their lurid origins, when their sale began on racks in drugstores, where Steinbeck did very well.
I put up shelves throughout the entire downstairs of the small rowhouse we bought and stuffed them with paperback lefties and reformers, Dickens and Hugo, mingling with Saul Alinsky and those such as 19th-century philosopher Henry George, who said: “Social Reform is not to be secured by noise and shouting, by complaints and denunciations, by the formation of parties or the making of revolutions, but by the awakening of thought and the progress of ideas.”
I named it “Second Thought Books” and set about being a very bad bookseller, though not on purpose. I was horrified that some of my new customers felt they had to admit to a lack of formal education and ask permission to come in.
So I turned part of the shop over to comics, piling them into cardboard boxes where my two black and white cats would often nap. Sliding the issue you wanted out from under a sleeping cat was a risky business and often earned you a nip. Still, the section expanded. If north-enders continued to be wary of classics, just let them try and resist Donald Duck!
I was determined to spread the printed word throughout my side of Kingston, hoping that I might play even a small part in changing the way things had gone in the U.S. before it was too late.
While I had great literary theory, I was simply awful with the general public. After only a few years in business, a story in the Whig labeled mine the “Messiest Bookshop in Kingston!”
An academic would trot in, blow the dust off Henry Fielding and try to haggle over my really very cheap price, and I would promptly throw him out.
Once a poor fellow whom I’d thrown out for that sort of thing came back an hour or two later wearing a hat pulled down and dark glasses. I watched his unfortunate hand reach for the same book, which I had reshelved.
“Oh please, let me buy it. It’s a fair price,” he pleaded.
“The author is long dead but still should be honoured. So when you say the book isn’t worth much …” I gave him the librarian look.
These abysmal attempts to spread the word on the north side, customer by quivering customer, were not at all the way to go about things.
After I shut the foot of a Toronto dealer in the door, trying to ban him, I saw I must mend my ways. So I closed the shop. Then I put up a big “Under New Management” sign, renamed it “The Idea Factory,” and opened up again at the end of the week.
Right away a woman came in and complained bitterly about how awful the previous owner (me) had been. Feeling sympathetic about her very poor eyesight, I just agreed and never said a word.
If the poor would just come in and read, then perhaps ideas would progress as Henry George promised. But like anyone else on a meagre income, they were mostly looking for immediate help, such as How To Fix Your Volkswagen and 365 Ways To Cook Hamburger.
I would close up now and then, once to help form a new political party, another to join a group of pacifist older women who hoped to shame the government through satiric song lyrics. It was pretty clear my goal in this little shop (into which I poured my heart), was not going to make me huge amounts of money.
When a recession hit, I started up a resume service behind the counter after discovering north-enders were being required to apply for jobs like waitress, fry cook and dishwasher using the university exclusion formula. That write-up starts by requiring you to list your degrees and publications.
One woman came in for a clerical resume. When I gave it to her she smiled.
“I’m sure it will work,” I said.
“Oh, I don’t need a job,” she said. “You wrote one up for my sister and it made her feel so good, I wanted one too.”
I used the front yard as a running commentary. “Last Crack At Jane Austen Before the 401” was one of my more long-lived signs. I ran a thriving book exchange in Westerns and Romance, shelving that last section by colour.
Without warning, the Ice Storm of 1998 put me and some 30,000 books out of business after nearly 20 years. While I was devastated, support came from all over town.
Our Kingston Community Credit Union let us live in their staff room for the three months it took to turn my shop back into a home.
But one thing was clear. With the Internet now linking the world, the information I had been at pains to gather and guard till needed was now available to anyone. With it, they could change their life, the same way that books had done for me.
Students and mortgages were spreading like warm butter over the north end. I had done what I came to do. I believe that someone will come along some day and see the need as I did. The awakening of thought and the progress of ideas will begin again.
But beyond all certainty they will surely do it in an entirely different way.
Rose DeShaw is a member of the Whig-Standard’s Community Editorial Board.