I love immersing myself in a good book. These days I read almost purely for pleasure and relaxation and, for me, this mostly means reading mystery novels. A good mystery novel before bed helps me sleep, strangely enough. So the obvious place to start this post on a few of my favourite neighbourhood book stores in Victoria is a shop on Fort Street that is dedicated solely to the mystery novel. (photo above: The gorgeous heritage interior of Munro Books)
Victoria in winter would be a great setting for a noir novel since noir by definition takes place in rain-streaked dark cities. But rather than adding to the gloom, the Chronicles of Crime Bookshop offers a welcome hiatus; the shop is a cozy gathering place complete with comfortable wingback chairs, however, as I was to discover, it does contain a few unexpected twists.
I was searching the bookshelves for my current favourite author: Brad Parks, when I felt a warning prickle on the back of my neck. Something was wrong. I kept calm, took a few deep breaths, and looked around cautiously, deciding that a nearby display of police hats and memorabilia was causing my sudden hyper vigilance. Police and their weapons tend to do that to me, even though I’m completely, absolutely, totally, lily-white innocent of everything and anything. Nothing else seemed the least bit off. Frances, the store proprietor was chatting amicably with a customer about his cat and his curious habits.Neither of them seemed aware that anything was out of place. I realized I was just being silly and went back to my search.
But there it was again, and this time I wasn’t just feeling a vague ominous presence, no — I had the distinct sensation that I was being watched. More boldly this time, my eyes swept the store horizontally and then inexplicably my gaze was pulled up, like a hooked fish being reeled in. And there it was, or rather there they were, the source of my discomfort.
A number of large 3-dimensional black crows that could have starred in a Hitchcock movie, were perched atop the shelves, their attention fixed on me (I’m sure of it), seeming ready to swoop, their sinister presence not in the least diminished by their red striped scarves and reindeer antlers. Why were they there? Hmmm. It’s a mystery…
Chronicles of Crime specializes in hard to find, out of print, used and rare Mystery novels. They also carry some Sci Fi & Fantasy. Frances knows the mystery genre inside and out, and knows her customers almost as well, since so many of them are regulars. As such, she is able to offer excellent suggestions as well as interesting insights into the whole mystery genre — she even offers workshops on writing mysteries. If you do visit, and I recommend it, and you ever get to the bottom of the crow mystery, leave a message and let me know. ✿✿✿
One of the other surprising revelations uncovered during my visit to the Chronicles of Crime Bookshop was that tucked into it’s far corner is another bookstore called Sorensen Books, specializing in art and history books: new, used and rare. The shop also carries old photos, postcards and ephemera. This store has a completely different feel to the Chronicles of Crime Bookshop, its nooks and crannies contain a treasure trove of unique books and paper goods just begging to be explored slowly and attentively. I must admit I half expected to find yet another bookstore hidden within Sorensen Books, but no, this Russian Doll version of a book mall stopped at two stores.
For eleven years, Sorensen Books was located on the corner of Cook and Fort, but had to relocate due to a development being built there. Cathy Sorensen has been in the book business for over 25 years, bringing a wealth of knowledge that she unstintingly shares with her customers.✿✿✿
Continuing on down Fort Street toward downtown, is a bookstore that is simply overflowing with books —all types of books — old, new, vintage, out-of-print — you name it, Russell’s got it. This bookstore is the most exuberant expression of a love of books that I’ve ever seen — and it has been expressing this love for 55 years in Victoria. Books spill out onto the street, having filled the store, upstairs and down, from floor to ceiling requiring the staff to sometimes climb ladders to retrieve them. When the original store became filled to bursting, this family business bought the space next door, allowing the volume of books to continue to expand.
The sales staff are knowledgeable and share the store’s excitement about books. When I asked if I could take pictures for this blog post, a sales clerk on the main floor, eyes gleaming, suggested I visit the basement to see a first edition copy of Kurk Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five. Yes, the vintage and collectible books are housed in the basement — so appropriate to my mind: I picture this store as a Tower of Pisa of impossibly piled books that won’t ever fall because it is so lovingly held and supported by the history and importance of those vintage books in the basement. Love this store.✿✿✿
Walking into Munro’s Books is like entering a divine space, the hushed reverence is so palpable. The walls are about 24 feet high, so high that only the bottom half is used for shelving. Resting on dark shelves, the books,like pilgrims, wait patiently to reveal their stories. Above the earthly stillness of the shelving, the walls continue up and up passing beautifully colourful arched fabric banners by Carole Sabiston, and still the walls reach up, towards an ornate, coffered robin-egg blue ceiling that feels as airy and open as the sky. Originally the ceiling did actually contain a central glass dome and while that is gone now, the ceiling retains the feeling of openness.
The Munro’s Book store was originally the Royal Bank of Canada, designed by Thomas Hooper in 1909, which, I guess, since Canada is a capitalist society, can explain some of the feeling of reverence imbued in the architecture. Jim and Alice Munro, yes, the writer who revolutionized the short story genre, bought the heritage building in 1984 and restored it to its former glory. As I was taking pictures for this post, a woman confided to me that whenever she comes to Victoria, she visits Munro Books. I understand. It’s just that sort of place. ✿✿✿