Bookshop owner Jim Munro was awakened on his 84th birthday by an early call from a reporter looking for his ex-wife. He had his well-worn quip ready: “Alice doesn’t live here any more.”
This was how he learned that Alice Munro is this year’s winner of the Nobel Prize for literature. Hours later, his staff was opening the doors at Munro’s Books, hastily re-decorating the shop windows and rearranging the shelves.
Alice doesn’t work here any more, but the bookshop that the Munros started together 50 years ago is the closest thing to a public shrine to the hometown star who has won Canada’s first literary Nobel.
“It’s emotional, almost, that she’s won this award,” said Stella Bailey, who was buying a second copy of Ms. Munro’s Dear Life, newly released in paperback. “A local Victorian – a Canadian woman – to win the Nobel.”
Bookstore manager Jessica Walker wasted no time – such an opportunity for Canadian publishers and retailers does not often come along.
“I heard a little blip on the news, and I dove for my phone,” she said. After double-checking that Ms. Munro really had won, Ms. Walker called Toronto publishers to order more books.
“It’s going to be an onslaught,” she predicted.
Across the country, bookstores were scrambling. While a Chapters Indigo store in downtown Toronto could cobble together only 13 copies of Alice Munro books for a display, the Victoria bookstore she helped open was in far better shape.
Because of her long-time connection with Munro’s Books, the shop is poised to capture some of Ms. Munro’s new glory. But the award is good news for Canadian book stores in general. “I think people who read Alice Munro stories are more book people than iPad people. Mainly, it’s about people reading, but I think for something like this, people want to own the physical book,” Ms. Walker said.
Last month, Munro’s Books marked a half-century in business. “This is about the most lovely icing on the cake that you can imagine,” she added.
While Mr. Munro fielded media calls in his office at the back of the former bank building, with its stately columns, stained glass and gilded ceiling, the clerks were ringing in a brisk business and navigating around cameras. The telephone was ringing constantly. A Swedish television station was the first to get through – wanting to track down the elusive Ms. Munro.
Jim and Alice Munro got into the book business in 1963, well before the rise of online shopping, big-box retailers or electronic books. Their marriage is long over, but they remain friends – he was one of the first to offer his congratulations. “She’s quite dazed by it,” he said. “She had forgotten she was in line for the prize.”
Mr. Munro still works five days a week, although he took time to dine with his ex-wife a few days ago at their favourite spot, the Bengal Lounge at the Empress Hotel. “We discuss books. We usually like the same books and hate the same books.”
If her literary success gives the business a shot in the arm, it is well-timed.
“The big battle is with cyberspace,” Mr. Munro said. “We were able to overcome Chapters coming here, we seemed to be able to deal with Amazon quite well. But then downloading came along – it’s a real challenge.”
Ms. Munro’s latest collection came out in paperback on Tuesday. “Talk about fortuitous. We’ve got lots of copies of them; I expect we will sell them.”