The University of Manitoba | The Manitoban | January 15, 2003
Old books, new ideas
Exploring the best of Winnipeg’s used-bookshops
I had not anticipated how cold it would be when I set out to find the best bookshops in Winnipeg. For that purpose I needed criteria to judge the bookshops I visited. As I jammed my hands into my jacket pockets, I discovered a paper beer coaster, which confirmed that I had thought about these criteria well outside of normal working hours. In some hotel lounge I had written this coaster list the night before: cleanliness, substantive and exterior quality of books, and organization of stock. Most of the shops I visited had their stock alphabetized by author and divided into sections such as history or fiction. Some had their books in stacks on the floor. There are those who enjoy digging through piles of used books in order to find some jewel of a book. I am not one of those people. The well-organized, clean bookshops were much more appealing than the book salads. The substantive quality of books is here my own arbitrary judgment of what makes a book good or bad. I have no intention of discussing the qualitative differences of books, fiction or otherwise, so I will leave my definitions of good and bad books fairly broad: romance novels and anything written by Danielle Steele are bad books; classic literature and anything by Orwell are good books, as are reputable histories and political studies.
Based on these criteria, there is no better shop to start with than Borealis Books, located at 468 Main St. Clean and well-lit, Borealis Books offers a huge, organized selection of titles. Books are divided into discrete categories such as Marxism and Judaism. (Try finding a section on Marxism at Chapters). Borealis has also a vast theatre section, the largest in Winnipeg. Though Borealis carries a remarkable collection of fiction titles in English as well as smaller sections of French and German literature, fiction is not the focus of the store’s stock. “We specialize in non-fiction,” says owner Richard Orlandini. “We’re trying to get out of fiction.” Anyone with an interest in the Spanish Civil War should visit Borealis books: Orlandini has multitudinous histories on the Spanish war of 1936–39. And Orlandini knows the substance of these books. I urge anyone who is a reader of Orwell or Hemingway, who were both in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, or even those who love the work of Picasso, who painted his magnificent Guernica in commemoration of the destruction of that town by fascists, to visit Orlandini’s shop and ask to see the Spanish Civil War books.
The store itself is spacious and there are several reading tables and chairs, making it all too tempting to spend an afternoon leafing through art books or novels. Hard-to-find books can also be ordered via the Internet.
Burton Lysecki Books, located at 527 Osborne St., advertises over 80,000 books in stock, 20,000 of which are catalogued. The shop specializes in history books and boasts a marvelous collection on Canadian history, as well as subsections on Manitoban and Canadian military history, including regimental histories. Despite the enormous quantity of books in the shop, there is plenty of walking space between shelves, and sections are clearly labelled. I also found staff helpful: I was asked whether I was looking for anything in particular and I said that I was looking for anything by Blaise Cendrars, a fairly obscure French writer of the early 20th century. Within 10 minutes I had the first edition of the English translation of Sutter’s Gold in my hands. Fantastic. The store is divided into two basic sections: fiction and non-fiction. Hard-to-find books can also here be ordered via the Internet. The store is a collector’s utopia: valuable books are kept in pristine condition in plastic slipcovers. Burton Lysecki Books has a collection rivalling that of Elizabeth Dafoe Library, but, being dead, Dafoe was unavailable for comment.
Or was she?
Questions of existence and afterlife floated about my mind as I entered Black Letter Books & White Light Psychic Readings, located at 1170 Main St. Not seeing any psychics upon entering, I asked the man behind the counter where they were. “They won’t be in ‘til one,” he said. It was 12:30. “Would you like to make an appointment?” I considered, but decided that Dafoe would probably not want to be bothered and so contented myself with a perusal of Black Letter’s stock. I found about half a dozen books I wanted but settled on two: Mark Twain’s book on Joan of Arc and Elaine Pagels’s The Origin of Satan.
Having thus explored the darker side of religious literature, I felt I should counterbalance the book on the occult I bought with something on theology. Aqua Books, home of Aslan and Frodo’s, seemed the perfect place to find such a book. (Aslan is the lion in C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia; Lewis has also written extensively on theology.) The store was originally dubbed “Aslan and Frodo’s” by owner Kelly Hughes. “I changed the name to Aqua Books to make it more accessible to the general public,” he says. “Some people told me I was stupid for changing the name, so I made it ‘Aqua Books, home of Aslan and Frodo’s.’” Presumably these people are devoted fans of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, fans who in my own experience are rabid defenders of those two authors whenever they perceive a need to defend them. Though modest in space, Aqua Books offers an eclectic mix of titles including cookbooks, which are kept in an old fridge. I was also delighted to find a section of children’s books labelled “Children’s Poetry.” Aqua Books will be moving from its current location to a more spacious location at 89 Princess St. on March 1/03.
So why shop at used-book shops? Consider this: of the nine books I bought in the bookshops mentioned above, four were not listed at all on Chapters Online, and all but two were listed as unavailable. I spent $61.25 plus taxes on nine books, four of which are hardcover. If I had purchased the same hardcovers and paperbacks new from Chapters — provided those books listed as unavailable were made available — I would have spent $113.14 plus taxes, a difference of $51.89. And aside from the economics involved, used-bookshops are much hipper places to be than big box stores such as Chapters.
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