Travelling Books

I haven’t found much to write about lately, besides being quite busy. I’ve got a whole list of things I tentatively could blog about, but… I lament the lack of inspiration.

So last Saturday morning, while pondering what I might write about — maybe the amazing sentence structure of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or my secret fascination with Tarot cards of all kinds — I drove my wife to her work in Vancouver near the corner of Broadway and Granville.

I always enjoy that destination. After I drop her off and park her car at the underground parking under a nearby old age pensioners’ apartment building, I can go for my morning designer coffee at Big News right at the corner of this junction of major Vancouver streets. Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s not in the downtown core. But to me this is one of the great city intersections of North America, never mind what metropolis.

aristocratic300hIn the old days the Aristocratic Restaurant neon sign used to be there, a Vancouver landmark, where the Chapters book store is now. There’s a Restoration Hardware store (which I just discovered is an upscale international chain) on one side of Chapters and a Cactus Club restaurant around the corner on the other side. The Cactus Club specializes in stacked waitresses sashaying from kitchen to table in black lowcut sheath dresses. Oh yeah, they have food too.

Then back over on the opposite corner there’s that Big News coffee shop under the clock tower, which is one of my favorite places in Greater Vancouver to sip a latte and read. It’s not a Starbucks which somehow lost out in the corner location wars here, but a small chain (I think there might be one other) run by a Korean family. They’ve got good food, the Korean daughter is charming, the son pours a mean latte, and the place’s got soul.

There’s a Blenz coffee shop kitty corner across the intersection, which in comparison seems corporate, staffed by the unsmiling.

2687611919 47880e07a6 Tourists in the know come here to visit all the private galleries and art auction houses down the street on Granville with at least one inspiring display or two. Turning in another direction along Broadway, in just one or two blocks there’s a Vietnamese restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a Chinese restaurant and one place that specializes in heavy meat eating, the Memphis Blues Barbecue House. I’m talking serious meat intake; no adulteration with vegetables or fruit or any other food group except beer.

In the midst of the restaurants on Broadway is a large Loomis Art Store, where I sometimes hang out, looking for quinacridrone burnt sienna watercolour paint or cheap soft artists pastels.

In the other direction on Broadway there’s a couple of used bookstores, a magazine store and Oscar’s Art Books, a wonderful store full of art books, strangely enough, and where they give you a 10% discount just for submitting your phone number to the old DOS program on their computer.

img 0017Anyway, I’m putting in my order Saturday morning at Big News. There’s a big wooden rack with old magazines on the side and coffee fixings on top in the middle of the entry way which separates the ordering area from seats and a window view on the other side.

On this rack, low down in the midst of old National Geographics, People and Cosmo magazines, there’s a hardback book. I pick it up because the title catches my eye. The Perfect Murder: Five Great Mystery Writers Create the Perfect Crime. Hey, it’s got chapters by, among others Lawrence Block, Tony Hillerman, and Donald E. Westlake. Donald Westlake!

I’m always, in the back of my mind, playing with scenarios for a science fiction story I’m been thinking of for a long time. There could be a murder mystery involved. I haven’t quite decided about the mystery, although there’s definitely murder. But I’m very curious about how to create a good murder mystery, and this is a fortuitous find. Although obviously this must belong to Big News. Maybe as an occasional customer, they’ll let me borrow it… It does look a little battered although it still has the dust jacket.

I open the book, and on the inside flyleaf there’s a bookplate with a painting of a cat lying on books. It reads:

“I’m a very special book. You see, I’m travelling around the world making new friends. I hope I’ve made another one in you. If so, please go to, where you can make a brief journal entry with my BCID number (below). You will see where I’ve been, and my old friends will be happy to know I’m safe here in your hands. Then help keep my dream alive – READ & RELEASE me!”

At the bottom of the bookplate it says “ – the karma of literature – free and anonymous”

2241157038 ce7d62ce52 I like that, “the karma of literature,” so after I finish my coffee I walk out of Big News, taking the serendipitous find with me, not asking anybody for permission and yet not stealing the book.

This is a neat idea. It turns out Bookcrossing was started in 2001 by Ron Hornbacker and his wife Kaori after they tried to imagine a similar project to Phototag, where disposable cameras were sent out into the world. A photo was snapped anonymously and the camera passed on. A return address was included on the camera so it could be returned and processed. Sadly (I suppose with the swift ascendency of digital cameras) this project no longer seems to have a home on the web.

The Hornbackers also liked the idea of Where’s George, the United States currency tracking project, where the serial numbers of bills are registered and their wanderings recorded; and GeoCaching, where Global Positioning System (GPS) units are used to hide and find caches of whatever, and then the experience is reported online.

In the case of Bookcrossing, you can sign up for free and register one or more books. Then leave a book where you will: at a bus stop, a bar, a baseball game, on a bookshelf with the fake display books at IKEA…

Then with the book’s ID number, you can track its travels wherever they lead.

In the case of Perfect Murder, this book was “released” almost two years ago at the same coffee shop where I found it. I am the only one so far to remark upon it, which was kind of disappointing. Maybe no one else even looked at it until I did.

The person who gave up this book to the “wild” as it is termed, calls the book “funny and terrifying. …Well worth the morbid fun.”

On the one hand, choosing the right book to let go at the right place and then to observe its journeys and comment on them could be a lot of fun. Even subversive or satirical depending on the book and the place.

On the other hand, a lot of books may be a bit of a dud, like the adventures of this one so far. And the Bookcrossing site is out to make money, selling premium memberships and leading people to book seller affiliates. I suppose it must make money to pay for its existence, but it seems like it may be a little too commercial for my taste. It’s not just a kind of internet hobby effort. It’s another kind of monetized social interaction site.

They have a store too. If you want to buy their artsy ID bookplates, you’ll have to shell out $80 for 250 of them. They’re nice, but for that price I can make my own.

But I will read The Perfect Murder and give it back to the human jungle, although certainly at another location than where I found it. And I have a couple of books I can do without… amusing to see what if anything becomes of them, out there on the road.



Notes on images, from the top down:

At the Vancouver Neon site, the famous Aristocratic sign as well as other similar city landmarks can be appreciated.

This photographer shows us what at first glance might be a shot of Granville and Broadway from the 50s, but it’s actually more contemporary than that, looking at the cars. The main building seen here is the Royal Bank on one corner of the intersection, which no doubt anchors the area despite being essentially uninteresting.

Like meat? This photo is from a review of that Memphis Blues restaurant on Broadway.

And this photographer has captured a view of the ambience of Vancouver, a little ways down on Granville, between mountains and the ocean you know is there.

Explore posts in the same categories: Cascadia, Culture, Environment, Travel, Writing

4 Comments on “Travelling Books”

  1. suburbanlife Says:

    Ah, Granville and Broadway – always has been a great place, especially in the old days when the Aristocratic operated, and i could get a late night coffee after my shift at the QE Theatre on my way home on the Broadway bus going east. Have never been in the Chapters store there, as i like the old bookstores on downtown Pender. Chapters has no soul nor book smell to me.
    I have acquired recently a Bookcrossing book here in Maple Ridge, “a Sunday at the pool in Kigali” by Gil Courtemanche, which is a fantastic and harrowing read that i was fortunate to catch, and now will release back into the wilds. There have been some wonderful books, which otherwise i may never have come across otherwise and which have broadened my reading horizons. For this i am grateful. If you are interested in reading it next, email me your postal adress and i shall send it to you. G

  2. fencer Says:

    Hi suburbanlife,

    How about that, you know all about Bookcrossing… I never came across it before until I found this book.

    I will take a look at reviews of that book you mention and let you know if I want to read it — thanks!


  3. Hi Fencer,
    Interesting post!
    I’ve frequented that corner of town, Broadway and Granville, many times in my life. I can remember using the table sized juke boxes atht eh Aristocratic, inserting a quarter and getting a choice tune or two. It’s a bit sad when your youthful landmarks are replaced with glass and steel. Maple Ridge has it’s own diner, ’50s vintage decor and all.
    Now that I’m out here, I only go down to B&G when I’m gallery grazing which isn’t very frequent.
    I met a Book Crossing book some time ago – Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. It has now gone on its way. It was a wonderful book.
    When I registered it with Book Crossing, the Maple Ridge person who started a locale for such books in the ACT theatre lobby wrote back with some regrets that she hadn’t kept it and read it herself. More often now, I find Book Crossing books at cafes in our fair city and even in stores, unobtrusively lurking on a shelf, just waiting for a compulsive, light-fingered book lover to come along.
    Everyone of them that i have picked up so far has been good. Mind you, I’ve half a dozen still waiting for me to get bookish again.

  4. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Another Bookcrossing aficionado! That’s great. I like your description very much: “just waiting for a compulsive, light-fingered book lover to come along.”

    I think the actual Aristocratic Restaurant was before my time, or before the time I noticed that location, but the sign was there for years after…

    There’s a lot more going on around that corner than I’ve mentioned of course: all the bus stops, the little cubicle for the transit supervisor to stand in, the guy with his hot dog stand in front of Chapters, the occasional beggar who’s making a steady job of sticking a hat out at you, the hat store, the Filipino money transfer services…


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