Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

The Literary Life

May 13, 2013

Last weekend at the BC Book Prizes gala award ceremony in Victoria my book Trucking in British Columbia (Harbour Publishing) was nominated for the Bill Duthie Booksellers’ Choice Award. As I expected, I lost out to the very worthy winner, Shelley Fralic's history of the Vancouver Sun newspaper. Naturally it was a letdown – there was cash involved! – but principally I was disappointed because it meant that I didn’t get to deliver my acceptance speech which would have included a brief tribute to David Duthie, someone who played an inadvertent role in my decision to become a writer.

The prize is named for Bill Duthie, the legendary Vancouver bookseller who opened his first store in 1957 and eventually ran a chain numbering ten outlets before it all came crashing down under pressure from the giant megastores. But it was Bill’s younger-by-a-year brother David who managed the chain’s branch on West Tenth Avenue when I was growing up in the neighbourhood during the 1950s and early 1960s. As a teenager with a love of books I used to haunt that store like a ghost, but unhappily for the Duthies I was a ghost with little spending money so I mainly treated the store like a library, hanging around the aisles, sitting on the shelves reading and generally making a nuisance of myself, while buying very few books. None of this seemed to bother David Duthie. I remember his immaculate presence. He always wore a jacket and tie, often with a boldly striped shirt, and his short, silver hair was precisely combed. He seemed to me more a men’s clothing model than a bookseller. I can’t claim to have had any sort of friendship with him. I’m not sure we even spoke, beyond the usual retail exchanges. But he tolerated my mute presence in his store, after school and on Saturdays, where I breathed in the literary dust and marinated in a place that took reading seriously. The influence was subliminal, but surely I was learning that a life among books was desirable. When someone asks me why I became a writer I usually answer, only half facetiously, that I wanted a job that didn’t require me to be dressed before noon. But the real answer has more to do with David Duthie and his bookshop on Tenth Avenue.