Friday, February 1, 2013

On the road: Ottawa and Montreal en hiver

photo by Dmitry Gimon

When I came to Ottawa last winter for a couple meetings with booksellers, Winterlude- the annual ice-skating party and festival- was a sad bust. It normally unfolds on a resolutely frozen Rideau Canal, but had to be cancelled because absurdly balmy temperatures made the ice a sea of slush.  Food and arts stands that had been set up days before sank slowly at odd angles into the frigid muck.  It looked like something out of a Guy Maddin film.

But unusual heat was not a problem when I landed in Ottawa on Monday night.  The air was kinetic, and so cold it almost hurt to breathe.  Plows had sculpted the snow into towering caverns along the roadways, creating a kind of claustrophobia that put me in mind of Iowa back-roads in August when the corn is six feet high.  I grabbed a cab to the dreary but sufficient “Business Inn” off Elgin, watched a bit of coverage of the Obama Inauguration on television, and headed over to Sir John A across the street for a burger and a Keith’s.

Tuesday morning was colder still, if that were possible.  I left one bag at the hotel, packed another on my back, and hiked up to my first appointment, at the National Gallery Bookshop.  I got there early enough to fortify myself with coffee and brioche at Le Moulin de Provence in the Byward Market.  Barack Obama stopped here several years ago, and the place is still a shrine to him.  I passed on the Obama cookies but everything else was delicious.

On the way to the Museum I passed the US Embassy, and was feeling uncharacteristically patriotic after seeing parts of the President’s touching inaugural speech.  Unlike the charming embassies and ambassadorial residences in Sandy Hill and Lower Town, this is a fortress.  The wife of the US Ambassador to Canada is a former bookseller at a store I know well in suburban Chicago, and I’ve been tempted to stop by to say hello.  But somehow the welcome mat just doesn’t seem out. 
My meeting at the Museum went well, the buyer there being one of the sharpest tacks in art book-selling.  It's a wonderful store and somehow she seems to know every book in it.  

I’m not a fan of taxis but given the weather I indulged in one to my next appointment, at Octopus Books in the very winning Glebe neighborhood.  Lisa, the owner, is my favorite kind of appointment: passionate and personal, with lots of interesting tangents mixed with savvy street-level book retail intelligence.  I always leave feeling like we could have gone on longer.  And had I stayed in town I would have been able to hear Robert Fisk, whom they were hosting that evening.

Back to the hotel to pick up my stuff and cab (again) to the Via Rail station, which seems in the middle of nowhere.  As in many Canadian cities, the gorgeous old train station downtown has been preserved, but as a convention center or shopping mall.  The VIA passenger rail stations are farther out.  But it was a swift and lovely ride and I was in Montreal by 6:00pm.  Despite the arctic weather, which had deteriorated further, I walked about a mile to the hotel rather than face rush-hour Métro crowds, weighed down by books and bags and catalogs.

Arriving at the Chateau Versailles always puts a smile on my face.  Warm and cozy, pleasantly creaky, a bit of faded glory (whereas the Business Inn was mainly fade and no glory), the welcome is always friendly and I’m never made to feel bad for always taking the smallest, cheapest room in the place.
Exhausted, hungry, and with the wind howling outside, I opted for the very fancy RIDI bar/ristorante across Sherbrooke from the hotel.  I normally travel cheap.  My meal expenses are overloaded with Subway lunches and take-away dinners.  But given the circumstances I decided to splurge and enjoy my soup, salad, pasta, glass of wine and amuse bouche.  I returned to the room and wrote up my notes from the day while watching the Simpsons in French, read for awhile (The Complete Saki, I’m trying for a “one book per trip” plan this season), and enjoyed the soundest sleep in weeks.

I’m not a breakfast person but the Chateau puts on a fantastic spread- fresh breads and pastries, hard-boiled eggs, ham, turkey, several types of cheese, jams, yogurt, stewed prunes, fruit, a couple types of cereal, granola, fresh juices and the best strong coffee I’ve ever had in a hotel.  Loaded up on all this I can face the day and skip lunch.

First stop: McGill University Bookstore.  The once great store- still adequate but in a downward inventory spiral- is being picked apart by bean-counters who don’t seem to appreciate what a quality bookstore means for a university.  I hope they realize what talent they have in the two buyers I see, who are incredibly smart, detailed, and committed to the books.  Kim recalled that last time we met our conversation veered on to childhood candy obsessions, and she presented me with a pack of Thrills gum she’d managed to procure somewhere.  Though no longer made in Canada, it pushed all her nostalgia buttons, especially with the puzzling and fantastic slogan on the package: “It still tastes like soap!”  A product that sees that as a selling point, truly amazing.  If someone can sell gum on tasting like soap, how can a world class university not manage to find a way to sell books?  Though I guess the point is that it didn’t survive, and is now beloved only by connoisseurs of antique artifacts, a fate that may await books.

On to Paragraphe across the street, the wonderful general trade store where I purchased my first book in Montreal in the eighties.  The buyer is super-organized, has the tidiest desk I’ve ever seen in a bookstore, and had spent hours of her own time reading every word of my catalogs in advance.  Many buyers do this, as did I when I was one, but it still makes me a bit weepy with gratitude.

Dinner time.  And no, I haven’t invited any of these great booksellers to join me.  Though I often have working lunches with booksellers, by the end of the day I cherish my private time with a meal and a book or newspaper.  Pizza at Angela on Maisonneuve.  Not great, but not bad, and mercifully close to the hotel.  Back to the room to write up notes, answer email, and listen to the wind howl.

Breakfast again, yum.  The temperature outside has plunged to some nether land where Centigrade and Fahrenheit come together, something I never realized happened.  I have never felt colder, even with layers of clothes.  I’m fine walking around outside, in fact the air is peculiarly sweet and light, as if it contains some other gas than oxygen.  The problem is that when I come inside to a well-heated office, I’m absurdly over-dressed.  No easy way to surreptitiously slide out of long underwear.  And I feel like an eight-year-old again, keeping track of two pairs of gloves, two scarves, two hats, sweaters and an extra shirt.  But missing any of these items would be deadly, as the clever Quebec wind seeks out the slightest square inch of exposed skin.

The Canadian Centre for Architecture is a spectacular institution and to have an excuse to go there regularly is a great job perk.  The bookshop is a design achievement (not a surprise) and the inventory is first rate (alas, something of a surprise these days since many museum bookshops are transforming themselves into toy and jewelry boutiques.)  The buyer is a treat to work with, and I always walk out of there with a feeling of being appreciated- both for our books, which Sarah loves, and personally.  (Perhaps it’s our shared obsession with oddball Soviet iconography and books about bears.)

I have a little time to kill, so I unwisely decide to hike all the way down Ste-Catherine to Librairie Formats, the contemporary art theory and criticism shop, and arrive feeling like a frozen vegetable.  Another very interesting book operation, located on the third floor of a complicated-sounding arts complex called RCAAQ, which is all about supporting home-grown Quebec artists by selling and promoting their books.  Jean, Patrick and Vincent are exceedingly nice people, and I feel more like a guest in someone’s well-chosen library when I visit than a salesman peddling wares.

Exhausted again after a long day, I treat myself to a delicious dinner at my favorite Indian restaurant, L’Etoile des Indes.  This is a sentimental gesture, as my partner Randy and I first ate there on a visit in the mid-eighties when Indian restaurants seemed rare and exotic.  Even though they are now ubiquitous, L’Etoile is completely satisfying.  They really get the naan right- my mouth is watering just thinking of it.

The other thing they get right, and seems a secret to business success with bookstore applications, is that the owner/manager is very hands on.  Nothing in the restaurant escapes his eye.  (Well, except that lady’s purse which went missing the last time I was there, but that could happen anywhere.)  So much has changed around Concordia and the intersection of Ste-Catherine and Guy (oh how I miss Faubourg!) and yet, somehow, L’Etoile has stayed exactly the same. 

Back to the room for more reports, notes, scanning foolish facebook posts, email, and French television.

Friday morning I call on the Musée des beaux-arts bookshop.  As in most big museums these days, one passes through checkpoints and signs in and wears a badge.   The meeting takes place back in the bowels of the building.  But my buyer is completely charming, orders lots of books, has interesting things to say about them, reacts to the beautiful digital page-spreads on my Ipad, and indulges my absurd attempts to speak French with him.  At one point when the word “seek” turned up in a subtitle, he asked what it meant.  “Chercher!” I replied, with a feeling of language mastery I definitely don’t deserve. 

Last but not least, Argo.  Sigh.  I love this little store.  It’s an iconic old literary shop that had fallen on hard times and was rescued by a collective of dedicated, book-loving twenty-somethings who are determined to make it live.  They remind me of Roberto Bolano’s poetry mad “visceral realists” in Savage Detectives, though they will hopefully not come to the same end.  By necessity and mission, they are quite selective, and the store hasn’t room for one tenth of the books they’d like to bring in.  But each page of the catalog gets respectful consideration and I get intelligent questions. 
We emerge a couple hours later, they with a few enthusiasms from our new lists, and me with a stack of books they recommended: The Crime on Cote des NeigesMurder Over Dorval and the Body on Mount Royal, three fifties pulp fiction reprints by Montreal writer David Montrose, newly released in imaginative formats by the always interesting Vehicule Press.  And Alejandro Zambra’s Bonsai is a book that the whole store is a little obsessed with, and, not surprisingly, recalls Bolano.
Finally, the Man Booker nominees were announced that morning, and among them was a Montreal writer I hadn’t heard of before- Josip Novakovich.  I asked whether they had the nominated book.  They did.  But they recommended that if I’ve never read him, I start with another of his books, Three Deaths, and explained why.  I bought it.  This is exactly the kind of expertise and informed opinion for which you go to a bookstore, and I would have had it at most of the stores I saw this week.

As I left on Saturday the existential cold began to show a few signs of thaw.  The idea of Montreal in winter is intriguing to lovers of the city.  My friend Matt in Iowa wants to know how Montrealais get up and down their trademark twisty staircases in the snow.  (Tell him “hold on tight,” recommended Kim at McGill.)

I’m sure it’s only a little private myth I’ve invented for myself, but it seems to me that everyone in Montreal listens a little more carefully and tries a little harder at civility than residents of unilingual cities.  Because everyone here is a minority in some sense, and because the language divide is so real, people try a little harder to make ordinary civic life function.  There’s a kind of shared working out of problems in public spaces.  True, Montreal traffic is the rudest in Canada.  But the car horn is a blunt instrument when it comes to communication. 
If I’d stayed another day I could have attended the “human book” event at Atwater Library, wherein thirteen Montreal residents have volunteered to be “books” that people can “check out” and interrogate.  (The Montreal Gazette described them as including “a gay rabbi, a dwarf, a member of the Roma community, a former bully, a trans advocate, and a vegan ex-Canadiens player.")

A hard week, a good week.  Too busy and too solidly scheduled to over-think the big issues like future of the book and how to get people to look up from their screens.  A week of head down, get it done concentration, one day at a time.  Kind of like a booksellers week.