Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Montreal Bookshops No. 1: Classic Book Shop

Having recently posted about Penguin Books, I began thinking of my own interest in this publisher's offerings and I began to recall my visits in the 1970s and early 1980s to a Montreal retail bookshop on St. Catherine Street West called Classic Book Shop, or Classics as it was referred to by many people including myself. Little did I know, as I browsed the shelves for, among others, the small green Penguin Modern Classics, and the small black Penguin Classics, that this store had such a long history. I still have vivid memories of moving about in that shop and certain faces of the employees are discernible. I can still see the various subject sections and the modern staircase in my mind, and the shelves with the majority of the books with their front covers facing the customer, an innovation developed by the store and followed by others.

Of course there are many who knew the history of the bookshop while it was still in operation, and knew of the owner Louis Melzack (1914-2002) and no doubt many people have pleasant memories of browsing the shop during the earlier decades, but I was just a young customer who experienced what I now see was but the tail-end of the book shop's fairly long existence. Only now, looking back , and using Street directories (complete with occasional mispellings of information) and other reference sources, can I appreciate the background and developement of this bookshop.

The roots of the book shop can be traced back to The Universal Book Store which first opened its doors in 1928 at 1055 Bleury with the proprietor listed as one Jack Melzac, the father of Louis Melzack. Bleury was of course a completely different street from today, with many small shops and businesses including quite a few book shops; certain buildings that survive such as the Southam Building (now gentrified into condos) reflect a long forgotten era. In 1930, the book shop moved to 1122 Bleury (between Dowd and Carmichael streets) and was renamed Classic Book Shop, proprietor J. Melzack. The book shop remained at this address until 1938 when it was relocated to 1380 St. Catherine Street West, the south side between Mountain and Crescent.

So, Louis Melzack, born in 1914, the son of the owner, presumably started helping out in his father's book and magazine shop in 1928 when he was 14 years old. By 1938, Louis Melzack was in his early twenties and listed in the directories as "emp" or employee of Classic Book Shop. By looking at the home addresses of the family, I can surmise (conjecture on my part of course) that it was Louis who was interested in moving westwards. His father's residential addresses were close to the original bookshop location, such streets as de Bullion, Pine Avenue, Waverley, Querbes, Bernard and St. Joseph Boulevard, while the younger Louis first moved to 1811 Dorchester West, and then much further west to Ponsard Avenue. This westward movement was quite typical as the areas of Cote-des-Neiges and Notre Dame-de-Grace were freshly developing residential districts from the 1920s to the 1940s and I think of my own grandfather who first lived in the Plateau Mount Royal area back in the 1920s before moving to Notre Dame-de-Grace in the mid-1930s.

Moving the shop in 1938 to St. Catherine Street West was a bold commercial step. There were already many well-established book businesses in the area:

Brown Foster Ltd. at 1240 St. Catherine Street West.
Burton's Ltd. at 1004 St. Catherine Street West.
Lyon's Book Shop at 1480 St. Catherine Street West.
Montreal Book Room at 1458 McGill College Avenue.
Poole Book Store at 2055 McGill College Avenue.
Toronto Book Store at 1344 St. Catherine Street West.
VanGuard Book Company at 1170 St. Catherine Street West.

In addition to these establishments, there were the book departments of the various Department Stores.

In the year 1941, the directory lists the proprietors of Classic Book Shop as "J. & L. Melsack", the first listing for Louis as a partner in the business. In the year 1956, Louis Melzack, though still listed as partner in the original shop, is also listed as running Classic's Little Books Inc. at 1373 St. Catherine Street West (he opened it in 1955 and it was the first paperback shop in the country) and it is from this point that the expansion of this business develops, with stores on Rockland Road and one at the Dorval airport, and eventually to shopping malls such as Alexis Nihon Plaza, Place Ville Marie and others until approximately 60 stores nationwide by the year 1980.

In January of 1981 Louis Melzack sold the business to his son and essentially retired. But he was back at it again and opened an antiquarian book business in Toronto in 1981 revealing his life long interest in collecting books and manuscripts.

In 1985 the Classic Bookstore chain, now 110 stores, was sold to the Canadian branch of the British book chain W. H. Smith. This then was later purchased by Chapters Bookstores, and as we know, Chapters was then taken over by Indigo.

In browsing these new mega stores today, I can appreciate the influence and importance of the innovation that Louis Melzack and his family brought to the business of book selling in Canada. There is a hidden legacy there.

The bookmarkers pictured here are samples from the 1960s to early 1980s. The name Allan Harrison is printed sideways on the bookmarks, left to right, 2nd, 3rd & 4th in the top row, and I gather he was responsible for the design. The lettering captures the 60s early 70s "groovy" zeitgeist, and triggers vague memories of similar lettering for movies, music and advertising of the period.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Small Selection of Penguin Books Ephemera

This year marks the 75th anniversary of Penguin Books. They have come up with a "decade-defining" list of books and a new logo which you may have read about. Five books for each decade from the 1950s to the 1980s will be published with new introductions, the Penguin Decades.

With Penguins on the mind, I thought I would post a selection of ephemera from the publisher.

1. The Penguin Books fold-out catalogue (for the Canadian market) for April 1959 along with an earlier order form insert which states "more than 250 titles now available." For a collector of Penguins, it was a period when it was still possible and conceivable to collect a complete run, including those that had fallen out of print. For a Canadian, I must say some of the titles listed in this catalogue would prove a challenge to locate today, such as Penguin Specials, Crossword Puzzle books, Periodicals for New Biology and Science News, various Reference Books and Handbooks and the Puffin Cut-Out Books.

2. The Canadian advertising inserts must be from the early to mid-1950s or perhaps even earlier as they list basic issues at 30 cents, compared to the 1959 catalogue which lists them at 70 cents. The Penguin logo by Jan Tschichold is also an earlier design, the Penguin on the move so to speak.

3. In 1960, Penguin's 25th Anniversary, this little fold-out insert, "A Feast of Penguins" was issued. I shall quote the front cover text in full:
Penguins Progress

Since their first appearance twenty-five years ago, Penguins have grown from a shelf of ten books to a library, from a library to what has been aptly called, for its quality and range, the Penguin University. Today there are more than 1,200 Penguins, Pelicans, and Puffins in print: among them representative works of almost every living author of note.

Some of the books on their list of 25 books for the anniversary reflect the era, such as William Whyte's The Organization Man, and J. Bronowski's The Common Sense of Science.

Various Bookmarks from the 1960s to 1980s.

The University of Bristol is home to a Penguin Archive, more information can be found here.

Friday, January 01, 2010

The New Year's Resolutions of a Secondhand Book Dealer

The New Year's Resolutions of a Secondhand Book Dealer:

1. Sell complete book stock to a wealthy accomplished soul to help fill out their country house library.

2. Use funds from no. 1 to finance a new perspective on life--or pay old bills.

3. Attain gainful employment. (Decent writer, half-decent after 5. Have worked many lowly jobs in life, so will likely do windows if asked.)

4. Write script for [the star of your choice] that will make kabillions, retire and raise Arabian sea horses.

5. If no. 4 does't pan out, write a book entitled: "How to write a script for [the star of your choice] that will make kabillions, retire and raise Arabian sea horses."

6. Answer that ringing in my ears.

7. Gain weight and ease up on the exercising.

8. See if Paul Shaffer can get me a job as a writer on Letterman, using the fact that I could fill in on guitar if someone calls in sick.

9. Find out who this Walter Mitty is that my wife keeps making reference to.

10. Make a pilgrimage to Pat Sajak re: the meaning of life, for he has been in a state of near Vanna for so many years.

11. Refrain from inadvertently annoying my dear wife with my overuse of the phrase: "My God, is that the time?" (Apt words for my epitaph, and a good choice of words for anyone's Less-than-famous-last-words.)

12. Find the feather duster.