Monday, February 08, 2010

Montreal Book Shops No. 3: Nebula (and William Gibson and Sting)

My memory seems a bit nebulous at times, but I definitely remember lining up on St. Mathieu Street in Montreal in front of the specialty bookshop, Nebula to buy William Gibson's new book, Virtual Light (released September 1993) and to have the pleasure of having it signed by him. Befitting the name of the bookshop, it was a grey overcast, cool--possibly cold--misty day of showers. At the time, I was busy working two jobs and attending university courses most nights, so I can't quite remember the exact date, but I think it was sometime in October of 1993.

The bookshop was in one of the older attractive stone row houses on St. Mathieu, west side, just down from de Maisonneuve Boulevard, huddled in the shadow of a high rise block of no memorable feature. I seem to recall that these old houses, though commercialized, still retained a fair amount of their gingerbread architectural detail in 1993. Using Google Street View today, the section of the street appears slightly different, the buildings have been modernized and the architectural details removed for the most part. There is an interesting restaurant, Pho Nguyen, in the address of the of old bookstore. Also interesting, the police station across the street, a building whose walls must have absorbed much stress, distress and anxiety, is now a commercial building with a company called BattleNet.24, an Internet café. An all night cyber café in an old police station. There must be some form of Gibsonian irony there.

The Book Signing:
Joining the line on the sidewalk outside in the rain, bumping umbrellas and trying not to poke some passing pedestrian's eye out--pedestrians bereft of comprehension of what could possibly draw people to line up in the rain--I found myself moving step by step as the line made its way slowly into the warmth of the upstairs shop. The bookstore was quaint, but cramped for space. William Gibson was seated at a table of modest dimension. He had a pen in his left hand. It looked promising. Thank god no beverages were involved. The line shifted forward like an assembly line for quality control. Murmur of small talk wafted backwards, voiced pleasantries with charming undertones. Perhaps a trill of light nervous laughter. The pressure to come up with something witty or urbane mounted within me. All of a sudden it felt quite warm. With the wet furled umbrella hanging over my left forearm, I advanced like some minion approaching his lordship with the latest telegram on a small silver tray, or a waiter with the soup of the day. I humbly mumbled a greeting and handed him the book. I recall he had a most discerning eye as we exchanged eye contact. I doubt mine was as discerning. He signed the half-title with panache, and finished by placing an audible period, or dot, in the middle of the "O" of his last name, closed the book and handed it to me. I duly thanked him and moved on allowing those behind their opportunity. I believe he said thanks for waiting in the rain, but whether it was to me or a friend who accompanied me, I can't recall.

I think it was one of the few specific book signings I had attended up to that date. I generally hesitate when it comes to asking authors for a signature. I remember a Martin Amis reading at the Centaur Theatre in old Montreal a few years later but I hesitated at approaching him in the lobby after his droll one-man performance. It takes a certain moxy to approach authors cold. I believe I would feel more at ease with a serendipitous meeting. Like spilling a drink on their suede shoes or something.

Looking at William Gibson's signature now, I realise I had forgotten that he had also underlined the "O" with three lines, creating an ideograph or logogram of some interest. A casual search of the Internet for his signature reveals examples of variation. Some are just plain W.M.Gibson. Some have a little circle within the "O" of his last name. I did come across a youtube video of him signing a book and I could see him underline the defining letter three times. There may be other variations. For the number of books he must have signed over the span of his writing career, variations must breath life into his well worn letters, and allow for a wider expression of his personality and character.

The bookshop Nebula, later moved to 1832 St. Catherine Street, the south side, (now an interesting Korean Restaurant called Towa) a larger space, but of infinitely less charm and interest, and here they continued to offer an excellent choice of science fiction, fantasy, crime, graphic novels, and magazines. Hard times must have hit them, for I then remember that it moved into the back of Mélange Magic bookstore for awhile. Then in the summer of 2000 it closed shop. Their letter of goodbye can be found here.

It is not quite a defunct bookshop as it continues in, dare I say with no disrespect, a nebulous form on-line.

Thinking about the year 1993, it certainly helps to jog the memory with music. The stream of popular hits that played in the shops and on the radio were probably dominated by Duran Duran, The Cranberries, Pet Shop Boys, U2 and perhaps overwhelmingly by certain songs by Sting off his Ten Summoner's Tales, especially Fields of Gold. For me, Sting's Fields of Gold dominates the year. The song and William Gibson's Virtual Light are connected in a an unusual juxtaposition, the pastoral romantic and a world of subtopian redeemers, their very substance seemingly at opposite poles, but spun together in a dance of time and place.


Michael Black said...

When Nebula opened, they were actually on Sherbrooke Street, in that block west of Guy. You had to walk up stairs to get there, though I recall they were inside. That would have been 1989 or 90.

They were not Montreal's first science fiction bookstore. That honor goes to "Nova" that opened in 1977 or 78 on Crescent Street below St. Catherine. The owner was Peter Black, no relation, who had previously worked at Classics. It was quite novel at the time, all those SF books and I don't recall anything but books It was also a time when there was fair success in the field, so a lot of classic material was being published along with the new, and there were quite a few autobiographical books coming out. And just barely at the point where novelizations of science fiction movies and TV began to take off.

It was a one man operation, I remember going in there one day and being the only customer, and he quietly asked me if I'd mind leaving, so he could go for a meal while the place wasn't busy.

Nova lasted into the eighties, but I'm hazy about it. I can't remember when they moved from Crescent, or if there was a second location. All I remember is that it eventually was in the Belgo Building at 372 St. Catherine Street and it was all or mostly comic books.


ralph mackay said...

Thanks for the comment. My little pieces about Montreal Bookshops are mainly personal recollections, not history, but I do enjoy learning about them. Thanks for the comment and info.

geinikankan said...

I remember Nova Books when they first opened on Crescent. Peter Black stocked books, but he also stocked comics. He had commercial comics, and a consistent selection of undergrounds as well. I spent many hours in that shop as a teenager. In fact, I spent so much time there, one day when I was short Peter said I could pay for the comic when I came back the next day. I've always wondered what happened to Mr. Black. In its day, Nova was a terrific place to spend time in.

Anonymous said...

I use to work for at Nova back in the Belgo years,(I was often referred to as Norm from Nova). I left the store around 1991/92 and moved to Vancouver. at the time that I worked there the store was on the second floor facing St Catherine st. many a times we would lose a ping pong ball out the window, (yes Nova was the only comic book store to have a ping pong table in use as a ping pong table). I do know that Nova had moved to the rear facing part of the building a year after I left. when I returned in the late 90s, Nova was gone. I heard a few rumors of the store being move out to the west Island, yet I found no trace of it. all I could hope for is that peter and his wife Joni moved on. I will say that, in its time Nova was the best store to shop at and was the city's most popular comic book artist hang out. Nova had hosted 5 Novacons in store with no charge admittance and always had regulars like Geof Isherwood and Bernie Mirault coming in.

MarkMorin said...

Nova was a great little store and Peter Black was a great, laid-back, decent guy.
Tall, thin, with long hair and Jesus facial hair, always in t-shirt and jeans, he struck me as a sci-fi / fantasy hippie.

I recall Miss Dunn, likely long-deceased, who owned the Readmore Paperback, speaking of him in glowing terms.

He had a lockable wooden chest, that he covered and used as a seat that held some very special comics.

I was at the Crescent St store late one day, the last customer when 2 chaps he was very friendly with showed up to make a buy and he opened it up and, if I recall correctly, one of them bought Silver Surfer #1.

Being quite young back then, I was never as friendly with him as I was later with Lee and the gang at Komico but I have some great memories of hours spent at Nova.

Unknown said...

A rare photo of Peter Black and "Nova Norm" taken inside Nova:!/photo.php?fbid=380320458726108&set=o.67826981966&type=1&theater