The owner of one of Vancouver’s best-known and oldest bookstores might be writing its final chapter as an almost decade-long dispute with the Vancouver Fire Department nears resolution.
Don Stewart, proprietor of MacLeod’s Books in the heart of downtown, told the Straight that he has been notified by the VFD that he “must remove 75 percent of the books we have here”.
“Here” is a century-old leased building at 455 West Pender Street that is as famous around the world for its rare and antiquarian books and collections as it is for the manner in which they are presented to the browsing public: in huge, teetering stacks piled on tables and on carpeted floors, along winding aisles, and in almost floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on the ground floor and in the basement.
If Theodor Geisel had illustrated a bookstore for one of his Dr. Seuss books, it would probably have looked like MacLeod’s.
Although the sheer number of volumes (at least 100,000 titles) is a contentious issue that has seen Stewart and the fire department butting heads since about 2011, when the VFD increased inspections of commercial and industrial buildings, he said he has always been given time to clear aisles and reduce the notorious clutter of books in seemingly (but seldom actually) haphazard stacks.
“This place is awesome if you’re a digger!” one Yelp reviewer wrote about MacLeod’s approximately 3,000 square feet of bound history arranged by author and subject. “Tons of piles and piles on piles.”
Indeed, the variety of tomes at MacLeod’s—ranging from philosophy to Canadian history to travel to classics, art, photography, children’s books, Indigenous studies, and much more—often has rapt grazers surprised by the 5 p.m. closing call.
“You could say we have a lot of everything,” Stewart muses in a phone interview, “perhaps too much of everything.”
“They claimed a safety issue,” Stewart said about what the VFD refers to as his “fire load” and what most everyone else calls “books”. He described the rules being enforced as “well-meaning protective regulations that make it difficult for older businesses in Vancouver”.
Ironically, it was a fire that led Stewart to his present location, where he has been selling books since September 1982. After purchasing the business in 1973 from Van Andruss—who had bought it from founder Don MacLeod a few years after its 1964 opening at the southeast corner of Pender and Homer streets—Stewart moved to a larger leased location near the intersection of Hastings and Cambie streets in 1981.
The next year, he lost everything in an arson fire that targeted a next-door business. “I lost an awful lot of my interesting stuff, many years’ worth, and I had to start from scratch.”
Stewart, 69, sounded resigned when he said he would comply with the VFD order, “certainly by next spring”. He said that reducing his volume of volumes involves, essentially, “a boiling-down process, systematically reducing portions of our stock”.
“We’re putting stuff into storage and selling as much as we can.”
Unfortunately, he noted, COVID-19 restrictions hamper his ability to quickly move inventory. ”You can’t advertise a big sale because you can’t have the people.”
In terms of the winding down affecting the shop’s financial viability, Stewart said, his business had been weathering the global pandemic and virtual shutdown of international tourism satisfactorily (overseas collectors and browsing visitors make up about half his business).
“We’re still running at 60 to 65 percent of normal, which is pretty good,” he said. “Even during COVID, there are still people turning up from here and there. We get lots of Europeans, and many from China, in particular”.
He said that booksellers on the Internet (“the great leveller”) and the advent of ebooks didn’t have a significant effect on his business—“In terms of sales, it has held steady over the years”—but international sales are down. “Now what we are more or less dependent on is being a good book shop.”
Nonetheless, Stewart said, the question of whether or not MacLeod’s survives in some form well into the 2020s might hinge on external factors far more relentless than a global pandemic, technological innovation, or even the redoubtable Vancouver Fire Department.
“Around us, things are being knocked down or slated to be knocked down and rebuilt,” he said, with perhaps a touch of weariness. “I think that this area is going to be under enormous development pressure over the next 10 years.”