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Posted By DMB

I’d be willing to bet that you don’t know a lot of used booksellers whose cleaning ladies have the Order of Canada. Well, mine does. She was just up in Ottawa where our delightful new Governor General pinned it on her. Her name is Linda McKnight (my cleaning lady, that is, not the Governor General) and before she became the cleaning lady at David Mason Books she was a literary agent for about 30 years and before that an editor, editor-in-chief, and then the President of McClelland & Stewart. The closest analogy I can come up with was an American colleague who often boasted that his book packer was the only shipper anywhere in the booktrade who owned a copy of the first edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species (today a $150,000 book but then only worth around $35,000 or so).

Linda phoned me one day and told she was retiring and coming to volunteer with me. She didn’t tell me then that she intended to be the cleaning lady, that came later. After she’d been here a bit and had settled in with her own desk, one day I suggested that she might find it fun to try and learn to do some minor repairs on books, something we do regularly to both keep defects from getting worse and to make the books look prettier. Just generally treating them like we do to our children. “I’m not doing any of that,” said Linda. She often talks like that to me. I was thinking of asking her if there was anything else that she would like to do, when she said loudly and aggressively, “I’m the cleaning lady around here. I’m not interested in all that literary crap. I told you that.” She was also appointed head of the ephemera department which she pretty soon got entirely organized. But she got bored because she only ever had one person come in as a potential client. So she doesn’t get a lot of action. Then one day a man came in and she made her first sale, and a pretty good one too. She stopped saying we should just give it all away after that.  

But she’s always tidying and straightening the displays of ephemera, books and prints. She’s put all of that in order and started looking around for other messes to clean up. We have to go up the hall now to wash dishes. There was a small pile waiting once and when she looked at it then looked dangerously at me I tried to explain that I was the company dishwasher and I would be doing them soon. Five minutes later they were done and then she spent a while glaring at me without saying anything. After some time, she started looking around again for other problems which offended her sense of cleanliness and decency. She chose me, deciding I was the main obstacle to the sense of order which she thinks proper to a bookstore. She started asking questions about what things were and why were they where they were. She soon decided that this store was incompetently arranged, and I was the one responsible for what she considered offensive chaos. That’s when she started pushing me around. 

Linda pushes me around a lot. She seems to enjoy it and I thought of asking (very meekly) if she did that to everyone and was it because she had enjoyed pushing people around from when she was the President of McClelland & Stewart. But then I noticed that I’m the only one she pushes around in my bookstore, everybody else she gets on wonderfully with and chats with and laughs with (often at me, I’ve noticed too). So, I didn’t ask. Later, I thought I’d like to ask her if that’s why she went from being a president to an agent, because I knew that’s what agents do. They push around publishers to get all that money from the publishing house so their writer clients can get rich. But by then I was too worried what might happen, so instead I went back to my dishwashing.

Now, I’m thinking they’ll soon be raising Linda up to the next level in the Order of Canada, this time for her services in cleaning up the traditionally seedy and dusty used book stores in Canada. Certainly we now have perhaps the cleanest bookshop ever seen around here.

As a cleaning lady Linda doesn’t work all that quickly, possibly because of all the time she devotes to pushing me around. I was hoping it might diminish some when we finished our downsizing move, which was very stressful but is now largely accomplished. The stress was largely due to me having to somehow dispose of half my store. Not an easy task for a man who has spent fifty years working on the principle that buying books would save my life and provide for my old age, a sort of insurance and pension in one. Linda’s solution for all books and furniture during the move was simple “Get rid of it!” Into the garbage or off to storage became her solution for everything.

Recently I acquired a bumper sticker created by some genius which perfectly encapsulates the philosophy I’ve used during my entire so-called career. I affixed it to a wall of the store instead of my car, based on the belief that the general public driving behind me might not get the point, whereas the kinds of people who come into my store will likely understand the philosophy behind it better. It reads, “THE ONE WHO DIES WITH THE MOST BOOKS WINS”. A wonderful slogan. Since I’ve always worked on that principle this demonstrates why I had so much stress with the downsizing. But in fact that was multiplied ten-fold by my cleaning lady, Linda McKnight, CM. It appears that simply cleaning is only a small part of the Linda McKnight, CM’s cleaning philosophy. The main thrust for her is to, and I quote, “Dump it. Out with it.” She says that a lot.

Pointing at a closed bankers box she will say “What’s that?”

“It’s books. Or it’s ephemera.”

“Get rid of it. We have to get rid of this junk.”

“Linda,” I would explain (meekly), “I do want to get rid of it, that’s why I bought it. I’m a bookseller. I plan to sell it.”

“And that pile of old magazines, those boxes of old sheet music, what about them?”

“Well, they’re for sale too. That’s what we try and do here. Buy these things and sell them and make a living. You should like magazines and sheet music, it doesn’t take up as much space.”

“You haven’t sold a bloody one of them since I’ve been here, not one. Get rid of it. It’s all crap.”

“But Linda those things are valuable that’s why I bought them. We’re going to do very well with them eventually. It just takes time.”

“We need to get rid of all this stuff now. If you won’t throw it out, take it to storage.”

That became the next mantra, “Take it to storage, we need to get it out of here.”

“But Linda (even more meekly), if it’s in storage we can’t sell it.”

“They won’t buy it anyway. It’s just junk. You’re a hoarder – you need help and I’m here to provide it.” The fact that Debra Dearlove, and all the other staff wholeheartedly agreed, supporting General McKnight, CM with great enthusiasm, didn’t make it easier.

“I’ve trained myself for fifty years to recognize gold amongst the chaff and now you all want me to get rid of it.”


Posted By DMB

Basking in Linda McKnight CM’s shadow the staff became unruly, openly challenging my vision. So every day I had to solve a hundred problems of disposal, constantly harassed on all flanks. Only my deep convictions of the value of my artifacts kept some slight balance while I rescued what I could. It got so that I hardly dared go out, or even to the washroom, without precious things disappearing while I was gone.

One day I returned to find two of my precious 8’ x 4’ shelves, built myself years ago using the famous Mason System – where I could build a shelf in 20 minutes, an accomplishment still not equaled in the intervening 50 years – blatantly destroyed. All through this crucial period I was assailed constantly by what I had believed to be loyal cohorts. I became openly ridiculed and told that I would never manage to “get rid of all that crap” by our deadline.

But I did. I made it with a couple of days to spare, at the cost it must be admitted, of some of my favourite shelves and fixtures, and quite a few wonderful books which will one day be extremely valuable and which Debra Dearlove will certainly lose thousands of dollars on. Well, I warned her. Others will profit from my foresight and it serves her right.

But at least the pressure of deadlines is off, although not without a certain amount of suffering. Our storage is jammed, there are unsightly boxes and pictures around the store but I’m hoping to sort at my pace now. But don’t think I’ve won anything. My esteemed cleaning lady Linda McKnight, CM has begun her next campaign.

“Next is that desk of yours. It’s disgusting, papers everywhere, with rotting fruit underneath it. Books everywhere, no order you can’t find anything. No sane person could work there. The first of January we’re starting on it. Out with it all, we’re getting rid of. It’s all crap.”

Posted By DMB

Best advice from a doctor I’ve had in all 0f these three-five years of health problems came from Dr. Uno.

Thinking of going with Dr. Dos as he left his final post-graduate training and begins on his own – switching Rheumatologists – I thought I should first discuss it with Dr. Uno, my lung doctor. I seldom saw Dr. Tres, the head of Rheumatology, I would meet with Dr. Dos and see Dr. Tres at the end for five minutes. I liked Dr. Dos a lot, we connected well personally, shared a similar sense of humour and further, I sort of liked the idea of being his first patient. But he was going to a different independent hospital and we had learned something of the consulting connections between doctors in connected fields in all our hospitals which now includes Dr. Quatro, who is treating one of my ears. He also consults with the other ones I see. I thought it prudent to ask Dr. Uno for advice.

Dr. Uno said, “Choose what makes you most comfortable.” But here’s what to know about doctors, “In a doctor you should look for ten years’ experience. And you shouldn’t want one who has fifty years’ experience.” I laughed. “Why are you laughing?” he asked.

“Because precisely the same would be true of antiquarian bookselling, Doctor. Before they have ten years’ experience no matter how good a bookseller may become they are still just essentially used booksellers. But I’m laughing because I’ve just finished fifty years as a bookseller and the parallel with me I’d say is precisely the same as well. I don’t care about most of it anymore. The only enthusiasm which has never lessened and never will, is that I still love to buy books. I still do it with the same curiosity, passion, and anticipation that I did on day one.

“But most of the rest I leave to my wife.” I’ve lost the ambition I had as a young man and what’s left is taking me in different directions. These new areas, mostly coming from my incessant reading (the only other passion that has shown no lessening of intensity since I was five years old). And my recent passions for scribbling, and lecturing young booksellers (and rightly so, in spite of my awareness that they largely see me as an old pompous bore. I believe this is my moral obligation).

That moral obligation I feel to pass it on begins with giving out books with the candy to kids on Halloween. It occurs to me here that this would be a major difference between me and the late Peter Howard of Serendipity Books, a bookseller who I much admired, but found excessively humourless. Peter would have approved and might have given out books to the kids too, but he might have forgotten to give them candy too. I wish he was here, so I could accuse him of that. I once found out that his specialties in university were English literature and Biblical studies. It’s not surprising that the nickname bestowed on him by the ever-prescient Franklin Gilliam of Brick Row was “The Ayatollah”. Ever after that I felt I understood him. Told him that once too. He didn’t answer, just got that weird look he had, where you could tell he was thinking that he might hate what you were saying but he was giving your accusation the courtesy of thinking about it. Few do that, to his credit. But still when I find myself thinking of Peter after his death, I keep trying to remember him ever exhibiting a sense of humour. And I can’t.

Sorry I digress. Back to the doctor: Along with my bookselling ambitions, my arrogance has also diminished – except for when one encounters that percentage of humanity generally classified as assholes, a group that never diminishes and where the old finetuned arrogance is not only needed, but is permissible to enjoy. I get to do that once or so a week now. That can be very pleasurable, especially when you’ve spent fifty years dealing with assholes, which hones my natural talent. But mostly it no longer bothers me, most of those assholes are petty and irrelevant (except to themselves – and I guess to their underlings who they get away with bullying).

But, I still enjoy talking with the nice ones, the enthusiasts – no matter how ignorant –  and the curious. And especially the young ones – those I still spend a lot of time with and they more than make up for the rude boorish assholes who all small business people have to deal with.

And I still love what has always been one of my greatest pleasures: to sit in my shop, preferably alone, and just look around, to look at my books. What I have created by my vision out of my passion these fifty years, what has been the core of it all (excepting always, what’s inside those books). When I do this, everything becomes clear. I am, and was born to be a bookseller. Like all real booksellers I have done it as I should have, my way – what suited me, what pleased me.  I never wanted to be one of the kind who aimed to sell the million-dollar books, I just wanted to be a real bookseller, selling the valuable five-dollar books too. That’s why it’s so painful now that I can no longer afford to give space to them.

It is changing now in front of my eyes and I am attempting to come to terms with that, I think reasonably successfully; or at least a bit better every day. Debra has mostly taken over and she is in the process of molding it into conformity with the kind of bookstore she envisions and will soon have. And necessarily so. Even after thirty years working and being taught by me she is a different kind of bookseller than I am. As she should be.

I’m trying to adjust my mindset to a new reality, which is my knowledge that most of the most admirable bookselling firms I’ve known in my time simply evaporated when the founders died. Even the few exceptions (rare) where spouses who’d worked alongside or children took over, or valued employees inherited. These places survived but inevitably changed with new owners. Just as mine is doing now.

So, even as I see my imprint fade, beginning to merge with what will be a very different David Mason Books, I still have the pleasure of knowing what I started will continue. And that is no small pleasure. And I sit amongst my books absorbing the memories they bring back. I’ve been saying goodbye to many colleagues, clients, and old friends also in the last few years as well. The sadness is not bitter, but sweet. Just as my business is changing in front of my eyes so is the world and while there is much of the new I despise that’s how the world works, as it should.




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