Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Highway Book Shop – A Literary Legacy - Gone, gone, gone!

I've heard about this place for years and just never got there. It closed, alas, in 1911 and this article byJennifer McCarthy in The Northeast is a memorial to a once great place. 

“It is to be hoped that it shows the firm reality of something unusual which grew where one would not expect it, something useful, something honest, something that might refresh one’s mind, something to which, once they have found it, people continue to return again and again, during all the years of its existence.” –Lois Pollard on the Highway Book Shop

The Highway Book Shop is probably one of Canada’s most important cultural icons you’ve never heard of. The Northern Ontario bookstore and publishing house, founded in 1957 by Douglas Pollard, was in the business of books for more than fifty years before closing in 2011, a product of the changing economy and the owner’s passing in 2009.

In 1981 Toronto Star readers voted Highway Book Shop Canada’s best bookstore. The Globe and Mail called Highway Book Shop the “largest and arguably the best book shop in Canada.” Local news station CFCL TV produced a documentary about the store. 

Profiles appeared in both Quill and Quire and Publishers Weekly. CBC Radio occasionally broadcast on site. Owner Douglas Pollard—known for his neat grey suits, glasses, cane, and signature fedora—was awarded the Order of Canada for his role in promoting Canadian culture in 2008. 

At one time, recalls the late-owner’s wife Lois Pollard, the bookstore didn’t even need to advertise. “It could sell itself by the very strangeness of its location, and the friendly personality of its service,” she writes in her history of the business. The shop saw more than 100,000 visitors annually and had an inventory of more than a quarter million titles. At its peak, the company was the second largest employer in the area after the mining industry, with sixteen staff members—each of their schedules adjusted to the timetable of the local bus that stopped in the store parking lot.

Today, however, the building is abandoned—hundreds of thousands of books remain sealed inside. Ninety-five miles north of North Bay on Highway 11, just shy of the 49th Parallel, the remote Highway Book Shop remains much as it did on the day it closed. The windows are boarded up and the front door locked. The massive parking lot that served as a turn around for truckers and a gathering place for pigeon racers is empty. 

The store’s red masonite “Bookshop” sign is still bright against the building’s white paint and a ripped Canadian flag tops the flag pole. “I didn’t want things to come to an end,” says Lois, who is now 93, “but my husband had passed away and it turned out in the past year, or a year and a half, he had been a bit less of a businessman than he had been before.” 

Despite her best efforts to reduce stock before the inevitable sale, the building remains full of books. Many passersby still stop and hopefully rattle the doors, eager to reminisce, according to its new owner. One of Canada’s largest independent bookstores, and one of its earlier publishers, is now largely forgotten by the public. But its literary legacy remains.

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