In the glorious sunshine of an early Spring, I tripped down Barrington Street in Halifax with my family. We left the Discovery Centre–the Grossology exhibit was a hit with my son–and moved toward the historic sandstone building occupied by John W. Doull, bookseller. Doull’s is the largest used bookstore in Atlantic Canada, a place where I’m sure to lose hours in mesmerized browsing. It is a ritual for me, a Halifax liturgy I would never skip.
On this day, however, I move toward Doull’s with concern. I’ve heard rumours that they might be moving–or closing! The death of downtown Halifax began–for me, anyway–with the disappearance of Sam the Record Man, and then the year-by-year gutting of mercantile brownstone’s all along the slim grid of Halifax’s waterfront. To lose Doull’s would be desperate for bibliophiles, but just another casualty in the battle for Nova Scotia downtown culture.
As I reached the corner of Barrington and Prince I breathed a sign of relief. I could see through the storefront windows that the shelves were still overflowing with books. As I walked tentatively through the door, I was relieved to see that book-lovers still grew old in the mouldering stacks and escape routes were still blocked by new acquisitions in this emporium of lost stories. My liturgy was safe.
Or so I thought. I noticed a woman packing boxes with a kind of wayward anticipation. I enquired, and found that the rumours were partly true. Doull’s would be moving to an abandoned electronics warehouse in Dartmouth, Halifax’s gang-ridden sister city. The evacuation was not precipitated by a lack of sales, but by steep hikes in rent. Like Nicholas Hoare’s famous stores in Montreal and Ottawa, the cost of doing historic business in historic buildings is just far too high in most cities. For half the cost, John Doull could house double the books.
With a lump in my throat, and a warning that some sections were already packed up, I double checked the store map and headed through the labyrinthine paper corridors toward my two favourite sections: children’s literature and theology.
When I say the store is like a maze, I am not exaggerating. Twice I lost my family among the layers of improvised shelving, though I must admit that I didn’t really want to be found. This store is really about the journey, rather than the destination. Still, I soon discovered that the entire children’s library was already evacuated. Perhaps this was a cosmic hint that I really didn’t need any more children’s books.
But I did need theology books–who doesn’t? And this precious store didn’t just have a “religion” section, or a “philosophy” section with rejected Deepak Chopra hardcovers, but a theology section proper. I moved passed the science fiction books–of the writing of fantasy there is no end (Ecclesiastes 12:12), but my wallet has a sure and finite limit–military history, hunting books, Shakespeare–where I snagged a $2 Julius Caesar–and Doull’s special wall of Penquin Paperbacks. I turned the corner, and to my dismay, the entire theology wing was packed up. Unless I resorted to tearing up their hours of careful organization, I had absolutely no access to the Maritime mecca of used Christian books.
Shoulders slumped, I wandered back through the waves of bookshelves to find my family, who I’m certain were long finished their browsing. My eye was caught by a section on Islam. I knew most of the books they had–I suspected there were more in the section on the Middle East on the second floor, or in Empires in the corner–but as I was browsing I found an entire shelf of “Christian Writers” who had been exiled from their theological compatriots. My heart leapt as I browsed an everyman’s saint list of Christian literati. Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Merton, Anne Lamott, Kathleen Norris–I was thrilled to find, almost by accident, exactly what I was looking for.
In the end, after much negotiation with myself about responsible spending habits and the future prosperity of my family, I widdled my purchase down to three books about C.S. Lewis, plus the $2 Shakespeare.
The first find was a Fount Paperbacks edition of C.S. Lewis: A Biography by Roger Lancelyn Green & Walter Hooper (1974, 1979). Mariner has re-released it in a revised edition, but this is the original. This “official biography”–as it calls itself on the back cover–is written by that intrepid Lewis secretary, Walter Hooper, and one of Lewis’ students and fellow inklings, Roger Lancelyn Green. I’ve heard almost nothing about this book, but Green was there in the days of Narnia’s formation–he’s reputed to have “named” the series “The Chronicles of Narnia–and although he’s controversial, no one knows more about Lewis’ inner workings than Walter Hooper. I look forward to reading it, and feel good about the $8 price.
A second biography is written by novelist, journalist, and professional biographer, A.N. Wilson. There were two copies available of his risky title, C.S. Lewis: A Biography–I chose the $7 softcover (Flamingo, 1990) over the hardcover re-release at $15. If it is anything like Wilson’s biography of the apostle Paul, which I read carefully, it will have $7 worth of historical data, $15 worth of entertainment, and a priceless amount of theoretical conjecture. I already know this one has received some criticism, so until I get a chance to read it, I’d recommend Arend Smilde‘s substantial review, “Sweetly Poisonous in a Welcome Way“–or pick up your own cheap copy.
Finally, because I’m a sucker for edited volumes, I chose C.S. Lewis Remembered: Collected Reflections of Students, Friends & Colleagues, edited by Harry Lee Poe & Rebecca Whitten Poe (Zondervan, 2006). This beautiful hardcover cost me the most, $12.50, and appears to be a fond collection of memories much like a book I stole from a church library recently, In Search of C.S. Lewis, edited by Stephen Schofield (Bridge, 1983). The bulk of the essays are from Lewis’ students, who, like Dr. E.L. Edmonds in the Schofield volume, tell the stories of their encounters with Lewis and what he taught them–lessons that went beyond the tutorial material. I look forward to a fireside treatment of this book, but will also benefit from the topic essays that fill the pages.
Alas, there was so much I left behind, but I suspect other pilgrims will come to Doull’s behind me and find pages of their own to keep. I don’t know how long used and independent booksellers will last, but I appreciate this last trip downtown to Doull’s for the nostalgic liturgy, and for lightening my wallet and lengthening my reading list.