When I lived in Hamilton and Toronto, one of my favourite things to do was to visit bookstores, both new and used. The hours scanning the shelves of the many book shops that used to line Queen Street was time well spent. Sadly, they are all gone now, and Toronto has nary an independent bookstore left standing. So, when I was on the West Coast recently, it was an absolute delight to find two impressive owner-operated bookstores alive and well in Victoria, British Columbia.
Munro’s Books is on Government Street, not far from the Empress Hotel. It is housed in a 1909 heritage building (formerly the Royal Bank of Canada) and looks so impressive it could be described as a temple devoted to books. Inside, it is just as awe-inspiring with a soaring coffered ceiling, colourful wall hangings, and gleaming wood shelving stocked with the latest in new books.
I spoke with a shop assistant who told me that the owner was Jim Munro, who had owned a bookstore in Victoria since 1963. But in 1984, he bought and refurbished the old bank building, winning two heritage awards for his efforts.
(A literary tidbit: Jim’s first wife was Alice Munro, the Canadian novelist who just won the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature. She had worked in the bookstore and started writing because she thought she could do better than some of the authors on the shelves.)
A few streets away on Fort Street, Russell Books is described as one of Canada’s biggest new and used bookstores. When I walked through the doors for the first time, I stopped in my tracks and was utterly agog. Thousands of books were displayed on bookshelves that rose from floor to ceiling eleven shelves high. It was a book lover’s paradise!
Reginald Russell had got into the book business with a store in Montreal, and opened a branch in Victoria in 1991. Although he passed away in 2007, members of his family still run the store, which now offers 16,000 square feet of new, used, out-of-print, and antiquarian books, on three floors, as well as at Books on View, another location several streets away.