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.


Brian Busby said...

My thanks for this.I knew Classics only in the final years, so was interested to read of its long and rich history. The downtown Montreal store was a fine place right to the end.

ralph mackay said...

Good to hear from another who has fond memories of a good book shop. Thanks for dropping by.

Anonymous said...

Great history -fairly accurate, except that you leave out Dads most important asset -his wife, my mother.
Brian Melzack

ralph mackay said...

Thanks so much for your comment about your Mother and Father. That's wonderful. I knew I was only skimming the surface of the long and important history of your family's book business, so thank you for that human touch and your generous compliment.

OlmanFeelyus said...

I found a bookmark for Classic Books in an old used book I bought. Doing a bit of research led me to your great post. Thanks for the info. I linked to it in my review of the book. You can see the bookmark there as well.


Interluke said...

After being another young customer at the various Classic Books around Montreal, I spent the summer of 1977 working at Classic Little Books on St. Catherine. It was by far my favorite job. Reading the covers as I unpacked the books in the back, reading the customers as they came in off the street ("Dream interpretation? Second floor, make a right and its the third shelf on your left"), it was a lot of fun.

This is not totally related but I heard rumors that Louis Melzack was, in an earlier time, part of the left leaning crowd of which David Lewis, late NDP leader, was also a member.

Thanks for the memories

Anonymous said...

I also worked at the paperback store in 1977. It was called that because the hardcover bookstore was across the street at 1430. I worked at all of the downtown stores. I started in 1971 at Place Ville Marie. Would you know the exact address of the paperback store?oYesterday I looked up the address of the Apple Store on Ste. Catherine St. And I thought it might be the former classic location.

Unknown said...

Thanks for the great memory. I was an employee in a few of their stores around Montreal (Anjou, Laval, Alexis Nihon, Westmount Square and the 3 Sainte-Catherines stores. What an amazing bookstore business school.
I would just like to point a slight mistake in your text: Mr Melzack had 3 stores on Ste-Catherine West: at 1430 (hard cover store), 1432 (now a police station!)(remainder stores) and the paperback store which was at 1327 Ste-Catherine West. The first bookstore that I worked at! It was great fun.

Barry Norris said...

Louis Melzack's wife Rose hired me to work in the hardcover store at 1430 St. Catherine in November 1971 and I stayed with Classics until the end of 1978. For a while, I was the assistant manager of 1430 under manager Peter Tomlins. Many fond memories. The head office was in the same building as the store, and you never knew when Louis would come in and catch you reading -- he caught me more than once, but always gave me a wry smile. Both he and Rose were very kind to me. Rose's sister Riva Lutterman ran the children's book section up on the second floor of the store -- she was always very nice, and knew everything there was to know about kids' books. The chain got too big, eventually, I think, and then there was the unionization of the Quebec stores and a prolonged strike (I'd left by then), which crippled the company. Son Brian sold out to W.H. Smith and the good old days were over. Brian later popped up in Toronto with stores that just sold best-selling books and videos (I used to pass one in the Eaton Centre), but I don't think the concept worked -- it certainly wasn't any place for a real book lover, like his father's stores were.

Unknown said...

It's good to finally know the history of Classic. I worked at their World Trade Center store in New York in the early 1980s and I recall hearing that the chain had humble beginnings in Canada. I found your post, by the way, through Googling "Classic" and "Melzack" while feeling nostalgic about my own bookselling past.