Munro’s Books celebrates a half-century of challenges

Munro’s Books — poised to celebrate its 50th birthday — is a bookstore you must visit before shuffling off this mortal coil.

So decrees the website BuzzFeed, a viral-content vacuum that groups Munro’s Books with other international entries in a list of “16 bookstores you have to see before you die.”

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No one would deny Munro’s Books, housed in a converted 1909 Royal Bank on Government Street, is jaw-droppingly splendid. Journalist Allan Fotheringham (remember Dr. Foth?) once declared Munro’s to be the “most magnificent” bookstore in the country.

The ceilings are 24 feet high in this neoclassical shrine to the printed word. The floors are marble and hardwood. Richly coloured banners by fabric artist Carole Sabiston span the walls. The staff are knowledgeable and friendly in a non-pushy way; the stock is well-displayed and up-to-date.

In a world of Honey Boo Boos, twerking and other unrelenting vulgarity, Munro’s Books offers a calm oasis of civility and grace.

Half a century of existence is a remarkable achievement for any retailer — especially an independent bookstore. Munro’s Books has survived the economy’s ups and downs, the arrival of a Chapters Indigo big-box store and Amazon.com’s global tentacles.

As for its future, the bookstore’s owner, Jim Munro, cannot predict with certainty. He says the growing popularity of the e-book is the inky cloud on the horizon. “The challenge is the threat of cyberspace, that is, the non-book,” is how he puts it.

Munro, who turns 84 in October (“Talk about geezerhood,” he jokes) is a dapper fellow with a fashionable striped summer jacket and a neat white beard. Next Saturday, his store celebrates its birthday with cake, live music and a book signing with television’s Red Green, a.k.a. Steve Smith. Later there’s a private party, for which attendees are encouraged to dress in black-and-white a la Truman Capote’s legendary 1966 shindig.

It seems Victoria institutions such as Munro’s Books have always been here, along with the Fairmont Empress, the mountains and the sea. Yet as Jim Munro tells it, luck played a part in its creation.

Munro opened his first bookstore on Yates Street, near the Odeon, in 1963. It was mostly paperbacks. On its first day, the store made a whopping $153. Helping out was Munro’s then-wife, Alice Munro, who became one of the world’s best short-story writers.

Munro recalls that reading the store’s less-distinguished products spurred Alice into getting serious about her writing. “She said, ‘What am I doing selling these crappy books?”

As the 1960s blossomed into grooviness, Alphonse Mucha and psychedelic posters appeared on the store walls. Munro’s was the first bookstore in Canada to stock City Lights books from San Francisco. Jim Munro remembers giving beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti instructions on how to ship to Canada.

Flourishing, Munro’s Books moved to Market Square. And then one day, Munro visited an art show on Government Street in a former bank. The grand old building had been “hideously” modernized with dropped ceilings and an orange carpet. Through a space in a ceiling panel, Munro spied a corinthian column.

“I thought, ‘Oh boy, I wonder what’s up there?’ ”

This was the early ’80s, during a recession. The building had been on the market several years. There was a lowball offer on the place. Munro, tipped by a realtor pal, made a slighter higher bid. Nothing happened. Victoria’s then-mayor, Peter Pollen, told him he’d already told the Royal Bank that Munro would be a good purchaser. Pollen instructed the bookstore owner to put his offer in writing and provide a downpayment with a cut-off date for purchase.

It worked. Munro acquired the jewel of Government Street for a bargain $360,000.

“Peter, he knew his stuff. They never even questioned the price,” he said.

Munro, then in his early 50s, was excited by what some viewed as a risky purchase.

“So I went down [to the building] early one morning. I recited Tennyson’s poem Ulysses ... a wonderful poem about setting out after all these years. I thought, ‘OK. Maybe I’m like Ulysses in a way.’”

Munro, chatting in a small, wood-panelled office at his bookstore, was silent for a second or two. And then he smiled.

“Buying this building regenerated me,” he said. “I felt gung-ho and everything.”

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