Jim Munro, co-founder of Munro’s Books, dies at age 87

Jim Munro, co-founder of Munro’s Books, a cultured, gregarious and dapper man-about-town, has died at age 87.

“He was at home, in his favourite chair, with his daughter Sheila and wife Carole by his side,” says a posting on the Government Street store’s website, signed by his longtime staff members.

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Munro retired from the bookstore in 2014 but was still a regular visitor.

On Monday, he went downtown for his regular lunch with Doug Koch, a store employee and friend of many years. Munro died later in the day.

Customers said they were saddened to hear the news but full of admiration for Munro’s accomplishments.

“He’s left a hell of a legacy,” said Gord Roberton of Comox, browsing at the store on Tuesday. “The store itself, the building, are just fabulous.”

Passionate about music as well as literature, Munro hired a quartet of classical musicians to serenade customers with Christmas music from a niche over the store’s entrance — a tradition that will continue this year, said Carol Mentha, one of four long-time employees who now run the store.

“Everything about it is amazing,” said Pauline Goertzen, who was visiting from Burns Lake on business. “I’ve been here for, like, two hours. You just want to be here.”

“I love this store,” said Stacy McFarlane of Saanich, who noted her father had laid the floor. “It’s an institution. I’ve been coming here since I was little and now I’m 32.”

Munro was appointed to the Order of Canada in 2014 for “his championship of countless Canadian writers and for his sustained community engagement as an independent bookseller.”

In 2014, he handed the store he co-founded with former wife, literary giant Alice Munro, to employees Jessica Walker, Sarah Frye, Ian Cochran and Mentha. “I have to tell you, I’ve been in the book business for 51 years,” Munro said at the time. “It’s time to go.”

Jim and Alice founded the first incarnation of Munro’s in 1963 on Yates Street after Jim spent 12 years working for Eaton’s. They carried the “in” poets, such as Leonard Cohen, and Munro’s was the first store in Canada to carry the City Lights Books that had taken off in San Francisco.

The first book he sold was Sheila Burnford’s The Incredible Journey, he told the Times Colonist in 2001.

After relocating to Fort Street for several years, Munro’s moved in 1984 to its current location, a former Royal Bank of Canada building constructed in 1909.

Jim Munro bought the Government Street building for $360,000 after it had been “hideously” modernized and on the market for years.

The building has 24-foot coffered ceilings, marble and hardwood floors, and is decorated with colourful banners designed by textile artist Carole Sabiston, Munro’s second wife.

After he and Alice divorced, they “remained very, very close and spoke on the phone regularly,” said Mentha, now the senior bookstore buyer.

Jim is survived by wife Carole, three daughters, Andrea, Sheila, Jenny — who accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature on Alice’s behalf in 2013 — four grandchildren and a step-grandson.

In the 1980s, before the era of big-box bookstores, Munro’s became one of the largest bookstores in Canada and prompted considerable skepticism about how it would manage to stay in business, Mentha said.

Munro treated the staff of about 22 mostly full-time people like family, Mentha said. “He could talk to anybody and always made everyone feel welcome at the store. I’d really like to emphasize what a generous man Jim was . … He was personally modest, without pretension, but was very appreciative of the praise and support for the store from the community.”

“He was a sweet, sweet man,” said Howard White, founder of Harbour Publishing, but “also a good businessman.”

White and Munro met in the mid-1970s, when White first called in to see about selling books at Munro’s. “He was a beacon of literacy and appreciation of good literature,” who always gave local and Canadian writers “pride of place,” White said. “Certain other stores you could name, you would have to go to the back of the store.”

Jim Munro was born in October 1929 in Oakville, Ont. and met Alice in the library of the University of Western Ontario. They married in 1951. Jim’s father, once chief accountant at the Toronto Eaton’s store, was shocked that Jim would give up secure work to sell paperbacks in Victoria.

Author William Valgardson said on his Facebook page that he got to know Munro and his wife Carole when they came on a cruise of the Baltic that he was leading as a fundraiser for UVic. “He said then that the best decision he ever made was to buy the bank building that then housed Munro’s books. It allowed him to weather the storm when Chapters appeared. If he’d been renting, he'd have been driven out of business.”

Kerri MIlton, executive director of the Downtown Victoria Business Association, said Munro’s is a destination for locals and tourists alike and a testament to what local business owners can accomplish. The store is “absolutely gorgeous,” she said, and importantly, an anchor for downtown.

A book of memories for his family is at the front of the store and the public is invited to sign.

Munro’s community spirit included staging an opera in Beacon Hill Park to celebrate the store’s 25th anniversary. “It rained but we all loved it just the same,” said graphic artist Arifin Graham, who was there, and has known Munro since first entering the store the year it opened.

“Dear Jim,” said a note signed by Graham in the book of memories. “What a lovely man he was and what a lovely sparkle in his eye. That’s what I’ll remember about him.”

kdedyna@timescolonist.com

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