Mel Bolen and Jim Munro built monuments to the written word.
IN 1963, Jim Munro was managing the fabric department of an Eaton’s department store in Vancouver. A mundane job. But he had a secret dream: to own a bookshop.
“He was not really a team player, and he did not play golf, so he really wasn’t going to advance very far at Eaton’s,” his daughter Sheila told the audience gathered at Jim Munro’s memorial service, held on February 20 at Alix Goolden Hall. “His friends told him he was crazy, there was no money in books, Victoria was a backwater, and so on. But it made no difference. One of my father’s great virtues was that he didn’t necessarily pay attention to the advice of others.”
Victoria lost two pillars of its literary community late last year, when Jim Munro, the founder of Munro’s Books, died in November at the age of 87, and Mel Bolen, the founder of Bolen Books, died just before Christmas at age 72. Though their obituaries have been written, their legacies endure, and it’s worth reflecting upon how their unique personalities and shared determination helped make Victoria the city it is today.
As Sheila said in her tribute to Jim, “All the things he loved came together in his bookstore.” Jim grew up in Oakville, Ontario—not a place famous for aesthetic interests—but rode the train into Toronto to attend art college, and travel around town with his grandfather, a United Church minister who taught him to appreciate grand architecture and a good argument. At age 14, Jim was so moved from hearing The Magic Flute on the radio that he started collecting records and inviting friends to listen to them. “When he discovered something he was passionate about,” Sheila said, “he had to share it.”
At the University of Western Ontario, Jim met Alice Laidlaw, an aspiring author, and they married in 1951. Jim started working for Eaton’s (his father was chief accountant for the company), and they moved to Vancouver where he often entertained their three young daughters so Alice had time to write. But Vancouver’s book market was dominated by the local Duthie chain, so Jim decided to build a store in Victoria, and he and Alice established Munro’s Books on Yates Street, across the street from the Odeon movie theatre. Their shop, known for its hippie decor, was a success, partly because it was the only one in Canada to stock the work of the Beat poets, which Jim got from regularly visiting Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s bookstore in San Francisco.
Alice Munro won the Governor General’s award for her first collection of short stories in 1968. She and Jim separated in 1972, but they remained friends, and he persisted with his dream. In 1984, he chanced on an art show in a former Royal Bank on Government Street that had been “hideously” renovated with linoleum floors and dropped ceilings concealing the building’s neoclassical columns. He haggled with the owners for two years, bought the building for $360,000 (it’s now assessed at $4.1M), and his second wife, the fabric artist Carole Sabiston, designed the store, turning a bank—as Pacific Opera Victoria artistic director Timothy Vernon told the audience—“into a temple to the life of the mind.” In 2015, National Geographic Travel named Munro’s one of the Top 10 bookstores in the world.
Jim was also a great citizen. He was one of the founders of POV, and once financed an opera performance in Beacon Hill Park. Passionate about local history and politics—longtime Victoria councillor Pam Madoff said Jim was her “barometer” for the mood of Downtown businesses—he served on numerous City committees and the Provincial Capital Commission, and was instrumental in getting Ogden Point cleaned up to welcome cruise-ship passengers. Dave Hill, a manager for 40 years at Munro’s, said one of Jim’s favourite tasks was polishing the brass nameplates outside the store, because regular customers or total strangers would come up and chat with him. “Jim enjoyed people. That’s part of what made him a great businessman.”
MADELINE “MEL” BOLEN also came from an unlikely background for a bookseller. She grew up in Saskatchewan, only received a Grade 8 education, and worked in a bakery. She got into the book business when her husband took over a small bookshop in Hillside Mall in 1975. But they split up soon afterward, and Mel had to take over the business to raise their two children, putting in long hours to make it succeed.
“People loved her work ethic,” said Mel’s daughter Samantha, in her office at Bolen Books. In the 1970s, banks wouldn’t give loans to single women, but the manager of the mall was so impressed by Mel’s determination that he co-signed a loan so she could expand her store, which she did several times. Today, at 20,000 square feet, Bolen Books is one of the largest independent bookstores in Canada.
One would think a mall would be an unusual place for a thriving bookstore, but as Samantha told me, Victorians are unique in our support for independent businesses, and our tendency to shop in our neighbourhoods instead of driving across town. Unlike most malls, Hillside is also surrounded by houses, so it serves as a kind of community centre. “We also have a college and a university nearby, and Uplands. That’s diverse. You’ve got students who want to get a coffee and look at books, you’ve got people who have more money, and right behind us, you’ve got working families. This could not be a better area for a bookstore.”
Mel made it work because she knew her customers, and she took chances. “She was very daring, she would order 50 or 200 copies if she saw a book she liked and knew it would do well,” Howard White, the founder of Harbour Publishing, told me. “She would really get behind it, she’d put the author out in the concourse of the mall with a big stack of books, put ads in the newspaper, and really push it.” While Munro’s tended to host book signings by politicians (Brian Mulroney, Jean Chretien) or literary authors (Margaret Atwood, Michael Ondaatje), Bolen celebrated popular writers in a wide variety of genres, whether it was comedy (Charlie Farquharson), gothic erotica (Anne Rice), science fiction (William Gibson), or sports (Ken Dryden).
“The experience at Bolen Books taught me what people really read,” said Robert J. Wiersema, who organized many of those author events, and now is a successful novelist. “When you work in a bookstore you see the value that whole genres of books that are often disparaged hold for people, and why. As a writer, that was really valuable. It doesn’t have to be Can Lit, or literary fiction—what’s important is the connection the book makes, and the effect it has on the reader.”
Mel and Jim’s instincts were so refined that they also knew when it was time to pass their businesses to another generation. Mel retired and sold Bolen Books to Samantha in 2010, and Jim turned Munro’s over to four senior employees in 2014, the same year he was named to the Order of Canada.
Asked then what advice he would’ve given his younger self about getting into books, he replied, “Don’t do it, too uncertain…It’s a tough time for the book business.” But as he noted, it’s often been tough.
Book publishing remains strong: The industry is still worth almost $1 billion in Canada alone. The current challenge for bookstores comes mainly from online dealers, which account for half of all books sold. But even Amazon is opening bricks-and-mortar stores (in Seattle, Portland and San Diego, and six more coming soon), perhaps realizing that many readers still crave the tangible pleasures and communities of learning that surround real, physical books.
Mel Bolen and Jim Munro built monuments to the written word, and made Victoria known as a place where it is celebrated. Now it’s up to us to see that their legacies continue and thrive.
Ross Crockford is a journalist, former editor of Monday Magazine and author of Victoria: The Unknown City.