On the west side of Granville Street in downtown Vancouver, near the corner of Smythe next door to the McDonald’s, there is a storefront which for many years has been occupied by a camera shop. In the 1960s, however, it was home to The Book Barrel, the largest link in a small chain of book stores owned by Ted Fraser. (There was also The Book Bin at the north end of the Granville Bridge and a third store on Robson Street.) Mostly forgotten now, Fraser at the time was the only competition giving Bill Duthie a run for his money in the city's bookselling trade. Located in the heart of the movie district, The Book Barrel was unusual for staying open every evening until eleven and on Sundays, something unheard of back then.
In the autumn of 1969, I went to work at The Book Barrel. I was just out of university, an aspiring writer with a bank account depleted by a summer of unemployment. The Book Barrel seemed like a good alternative to a real job.
People like to romanticize bookstores. We imagine them dimly lit and cozy, Vivaldi and Mozart whispering softly on the sound system, bohemian poets sipping cappuccino and engaging in literary conversation. Not the Book Barrel. It catered to the matter-of-fact reader. Flowers, Pets, Auto Repairs, Hunting and Fishing -- these were the subjects that attracted the majority of its patrons. Cardboard placards hung like bright clouds above the shelves, identifying each section. The erotic novels near the door were not as candidly identified, but they were heavily patronized all the same. I read the most explicit ones in the back of the shop on my lunch breaks.
The bargain tables ran down the middle of the store, groaning under heaps of three-for-a-dollar pulp novels, plastic-wrapped sex magazines from Scandinavia and a choice of remaindered and bargain books. One of the best sellers was a $2.99 edition of Shakespeare’s collected plays. The cover, a nauseating shade of green, featured a portrait of the Bard as Gahan Wilson might have rendered him.
Ted Fraser was a gruff, stoop-shouldered man who always had a cigarette smouldering between his fingers. Conversation with him was a hit-or-miss affair since he was always looking around for somewhere to deposit his ashes. His interest in books was commercial, not literary. As he once told me, he could just as happily have been selling refrigerators.
The other clerks and I spent a lot of our off-hours drinking in the beverage room at the Dufferin Hotel on Seymour Street. I remember Andrew, an intellectual who wrote poetry and left the store to go into advertising. And Hazel, a tall, angular, middle-aged woman who knew very little about books but made up for it by dusting the shelves with ferocious intensity. Denise was the floor manager; good-looking, exuberant, sexy, she scared the wits out of me. I figured her after-hour activities were certainly immoral, quite possibly illegal and a whole lot more interesting than mine. Denise also read the erotic novels only she did it out loud, shrieking with laughter while I grinned stupidly at the customers.
And then there was Charles. Charles was a German immigrant who had come to Canada prior to World War Two, one step ahead of the Gestapo. His first job was backpacking supplies up Grouse Mountain to the ski cabins near the summit. During the war, he told me, he played the part of Hitler in anti-Fascist parades through the West End, standing in the back of an open car while people threw rotten fruit at him. When I knew him, Charles still had the wiry physique of a hiker, though his legs were slightly bowed. I would say he was about fifty years old, but still physically strong. One of his jobs around the store was to take care of the heavy lifting.
Charles functioned more as a floorwalker than a salesclerk. He was a mine of information about books on auto repair, gardening and animals, subjects which interested him. For the rest, he saw no need to help customers. In fact, he resented them and the time they took up. After all, he had a store to keep in order. All day he dusted, piled and straightened, only to have these intruders interrupt his work with nagging questions and intolerable behaviour. Charles would have been happier if the door to the store was kept locked and he could work in peace.
Most bookstores arrange their books on the shelves in alphabetical order by author or by subject. Charles arranged books according to their size. On the left he put the tallest volumes and across the shelf he set out the others in order of descending height. It was rather as if in a clothing store suits were arranged alphabetically by colour.
Charles kept a boa constrictor as a pet. Sometimes he brought it to work. It lay curled up in a cardboard box in the back of the store with a copy of The Joy of Cooking resting on the lid to prevent escape. Charles often had his pockets full of white mice to feed to his snake. He acquired them at the pet shop up the street. One night while we were working together, he lost a mouse in the store. Locking the doors, he kept the customers hostage while he gave the aisles a thorough search. He was about to give up the hunt when I spotted something moving in his cuff. The mouse had eaten a hole in his pocket and tumbled down the inside lining of his pant leg. With relief, I opened the door and allowed the customers to escape into the night.
Charles was a democrat; he mistreated every customer equally. But he was most officious with children. He would not allow them to touch the books, on the theory that they stuck gum between the pages or left melted chocolate on the covers. Neither would he allow them just to browse. This was loitering. In either case Charles loved to throw kids out of the store. If they were with their parents, he badgered them about the many sins their children were committing until the whole family was driven away.
It was inevitable that one day Charles would go too far. I never knew exactly what was done or said. As I heard it, Charles chose to hector the wife of one of the store's silent partners about the behaviour of her child. The women went straight upstairs to the boss and that was it for Charles.
I left The Book Barrel soon after Charles got the sack. I figured that if I had to work for a living I could do better than $75 a week. In an essay about his own experience working in a bookstore, George Orwell wrote that it almost destroyed his love of books. My experience destroyed not my love of books but my naive reverence for bookshops. You may think they are small oases of calm where the intellectual life flourishes. I know them to be irrational places where small rodents lurk in the clerk's pant leg and one is liable to see a fruit-stained Adolf Hitler dusting the shelves.