There’s a little second-hand bookstore near McGill University in Montreal that has been my favorite stop for years. It’s called The Word, and like many good bookstores around the world, it hasn’t changed a whole lot in 30 years. I know this because back when I was a starving writer, the proprietor, Adrian Edwards, used to employ me to build shelves for the massive book collection that fills both the shop and his house a half a block away. Adrian has always been kind to poets and we love him for it. Last winter, I was looking for books by one of my old teachers, the great Canadian poet John Newlove, and Adrian told me about how John used to come in on Saturday mornings, grab every book he was interested in, and place the whole precarious stack on the table to one side of the only easy chair in the place, with a case of beer on the other. Then he would slowly browse through both until he finished up, smiling, and wandered out with a case of empties in one hand and a bag of books in the other. We both miss John Newlove a lot. He was a lovely, vulnerable man, and such a fine poet.
Entering the bookstore, you walk past the fifty-cent pile sitting on the sill of the front picture window. Inside are serviceable wooden shelves lining all the walls, filled with literature, poetry, philosophy, theatre, and more—an amazing selection for such a small place.
The center table is reserved for the collections they put together on special subjects. This week its selections are Langston Hughes and other Black American writers, showcasing Black History Month. Alongside that is a wonderful collection of British and European writers on their travels and observations about Arabia. On the New Additions shelf, someone has brought the collected works of George Saunders, a writer I enjoy so much I consider buying the whole bunch just so I can give them to people I like.
In the chilly middle of February in Montreal the entire store is heated by one brave gas heater nestled in the middle of the side wall, wedged between the music section and classic mysteries. But it is warm enough here, and every Christmas when they hold a party for their customers, the mulled wine they serve (or is it hot apple juice?) makes it even warmer.
February is a quiet time of year, a month past the January university textbook rush and the especially dreaded September used textbook rush, which terrifies even the proprietor. Today, Adrian’s son Brendan sits in the little cubbyhole under the stairs that houses the cash and the books people have placed on reserve. There is just enough room there for one person to sit, or perhaps crouch.
Credit cards are no use in this store, nor will your bank card get you much of anything. It’s cash or cheque only, and if you don’t have either, they’re happy to tell you about the ATM in the little grocery store across the street.
Upstairs is reserved for staff, partly because the floorboards are so thin that, unless you know where you’re stepping, you might find yourself taking an amazingly fast route down to the main floor. I was happy to build shelves up there, but that was quite a few years ago. As a starving writer I hardly had to worry. I didn’t weigh enough to cause much damage. Now that I’m a bit more prosperous I don’t think I’d even set foot on the stairs if they let me, which they won’t.
They like literature here, and they welcome writers, poets, and anyone who loves books. Their selection is an education in classic literature in English. It’s well worth a stop anytime you’re in Montreal.