Urban Landscape

The Word Bookstore
A Tribute

The Word Bookstore, 1975.

With a day-long open house on Saturday, March 18, 2000, The Word marked its 25th birthday. Writer Ian McGillis reflects on this much-loved Montreal landmark.

"When I first moved to Montreal, I was very lonely and homesick. Someone said there was a couple on Milton Street, running a bookstore out of their living room, that I had to meet. It took me a while to gather the courage, but finally I set out one day, walking up and down the street until I saw a wall of books through a window, which was right off the sidewalk. I went inside, and we started talking about books. I had the immediate sense of a homecoming, a shelter. I felt I had met people who would be part of a community."

--Sheila Fischman, award-winning literary
translator, on how she first got The Word.

The cross on the Mountain, the Big O's tower, the dome of St. Joseph's--they're all fine and good, but the real soul of a city resides in smaller, neighborhood-scale landmarks. One such is The Word Bookstore.

On March 18, 1975, Adrian and Luci King-Edwards moved their "quality used books" business from their apartment at 477 Milton into the vacant Chinese laundry next door at 469. It was a time when, as Luci says, "The McGill ghetto was mostly rooming houses, a little seedy, and things were cheap enough that you felt you could do what you wanted. We borrowed a thousand dollars from Adrian's parents to start up the store. It's amazing when I look back on it."

"The rent for our old apartment, a 4 1/2, was a hundred dollars a month," recalls Adrian. "Things were definitely looser then. A lot of our customers would come in without shoes on. It was that kind of time. They'd come in not just to buy books, but to get advice generally."

The neighborhood, and rents, may have changed, but the King-Edwards haven't looked back since the day Luci realized that the store was supporting the family to the point where she could quit her PhD studies at McGill.

I should say that this is not an objective article. I worked at The Word for a year, from the summer of 1998. It was my first Montreal job. It didn't take long to figure out that I had stumbled (well, not exactly stumbled: I did have to pass the legendarily demanding Test, matching authors with titles in all the categories sold in the store) into not just any used bookstore, but a place that has become, for many local book lovers, a touchstone.

I learned to recognize the look. Someone would come in, take a few steps, and stop cold, looking around as if haunted, before saying something like, "This place hasn't changed at all!" Then they'd tell me how they used to shop at The Word in 1978, or 1985, or 1990, before moving to Toronto, or Vancouver, or London. Back in town for a conference or a wedding or a funeral, they seemed almost tearfully grateful that part of their Montreal had survived intact.

"They've definitely got the best used poetry section in Montreal," says poet Michael Harris, a longtime customer. "I've got three thousand books at home, and most of them were bought at The Word. And for all its conviviality and hominess, it's an extraordinarily efficient shop."

Adrian King-Edwards, 1975.

Indeed. Adrian's system, honed to perfection, ensures the kind of turnover the megastores can only dream about. People who've sold to The Word more than once know that only the best books, in good condition, will be bought. (Others, of literary merit but in poorer condition, will go on the "dollar" bench and shelf, and eventually to the 50 cent ledge outside the window; whole libraries have been built from these sources.)

Employees are quickly inculcated into the ways of The Word. Every morning, the shelves are "straightened" with remarkable thoroughness. A book sticking out too far, or a dust jacket slipping a few millimetres above its cover, will not be tolerated. Newly bought books are integrated, and unsold books removed, with clockwork precision. When I screwed up--it happened, oh, two or three times--Adrian would let me know, in no uncertain terms. His brand of perfectionism somehow brought out the same previously latent qualities in me. Even now, when I'm browsing in another used bookstore, I have to fight off the urge to straighten the shelves, or to demand why they're charging $5.95 for On The Road when it's quite clearly a $3.95 book.

Adrian's fanaticism is an outgrowth of his passion for literature. He demands punctuality and a strong work ethic, but when I had a chance to interview Mavis Gallant at the Ritz Carlton on one of the store's busiest days of the year, he not only gave me the afternoon off, but loaned me his jacket and tie when I expressed concern that my wardrobe might not be worthy of the venue.

Scott Moodie, something of a local institution himself for his role as a non-musician "onstage instigator" with his band, the Snitches, has worked at The Word for nine years. He's the one most often responsible for the window display, which changes every day.

"This is a place where staff are allowed to keep their own personalities," Scott says. "It allows you to pay the rent without feeling like you're part of the rat race. And apart from what Adrian and Luci have done for the literary community directly, just look at the people they've hired over the years. Nearly everyone has been a writer or musician or artist of some sort. And I have to say, the range of the human psyche that comes through that door has certainly provided them plenty of fodder."

It's true that anyone stepping into The Word--be they hardcore bibliophiles, wide-eyed McGill freshmen, or one of the neighborhood's many "personalities"-- is entering an unavoidably interactive atmosphere. It's a very homey space, as Michael Harris says, the size of an average living room, with no sign outside to draw attention (the original one was stolen, the second ran afoul of the language police, so for years now they haven't bothered, which only enhances the store's cool factor) nor markers inside to guide customers to specific sections. If you want to know where Anthropology is, you've got to either figure it out yourself or ask. What's more, the mechanical white-noise sounds of the modern age haven't penetrated. There's no buzzing overhead fluorescent light, no cash register, no computer, no music (except when one of Adrian and Luci's twin teenage sons is helping out in the overstock room upstairs, likely as not blasting the Wu-Tang Clan). Even the phone is a practically extinct non-touch-tone model, with a reassuringly old-fashioned ringing tone. So there's a silence seldom experienced anymore. A few find it uncomfortable, others find it induces a browsing trance. Many feel compelled to fill it with conversation. The result is a rare intimacy between staff and customer.

Strong bonds form, like the one with the sadly missed widow Mrs. Ramsey, a regular from opening day. In the winter months, when the sidewalks became too slick for Mrs. Ramsey to negotiate, part of my job every Saturday was to deliver a litre of milk and a copy of the Globe and Mail to the tiny bedsit apartment on Lorne Ave. where she lived from 1940 until her death last spring.

For Adrian and Luci, who met in the English department at McGill, it's been a remarkably compact quarter century. They live on Aylmer Street, right around the corner from the store, in a house that doubles as an overstock space/collectibles archive, and were married in the Presbyterian College a stone's throw away on University Ave. It's an enviable kind of rootedness, straight out of an earlier age, but I can't help but ask them if there's a downside. Does doing the same thing in the same place for so long, and working with the person you live with, ever breed restlessness?

"From the outside, it may look monotonous," says Adrian, "but there's always new patterns. Customers change. I find exciting books I've never seen before. In the fall, when the students come back, the whole neighborhood transforms dramatically. In spring, people clean their houses and we get hundreds of new books in. And Luci and I are never in the store at the same time!" he laughs. Many have wondered why The Word hasn't expanded, or opened other branches.

"Neither of us ever saw The Word as a way to make a lot of money," says Luci. "We saw it as a way to make a living, and have a good time. Let's face it, we're faded hippies. We come from a certain era. Expansion, really going after profit, has never been a consideration."

Besides, as Adrian says, it's not as though The Word is exactly the same as it's always been.

"A couple of years ago, we responded to our critics who complain that we never change."

Oh? How was that?

"We made a new bookmark!"

The Word
469 Milton Street
Montreal, Quebec H2X 1W3
(514) 845-5640

© Copyright Ian McGillis 2000