Wonder of Thunder Bay: Look inside a gallery of overlooked books
A shop specializing in 'nutbar' titles is a national treasure waiting to be found – or lost forever, writes Mark Medley
Photography by Lindsay Lauckner Gundlock for The Globe and Mail
This story was originally published on Jan. 22, 2016.
Before it became "the grotto shrine to the fetish object formerly known as the book," as it's often described by its unlikely proprietor, Letters Bookshop was a karate dojo, of all things. The store is located on a desolate strip in a sketchy part of Thunder Bay, across the street from a bakery and the train tracks. From the sidewalk it appears to be abandoned, the kind of shuttered business blighting small towns all over the country; the windows have been boarded up, although an attentive passerby might notice the plywood has been painted with scenes from the prehistoric Lascaux cave walls in France – some of humankind's earliest stories. There's little indication that what may be Canada's most unusual collection of books is housed inside, carefully curated, over the course of five decades, by one of the more unusual personalities the Canadian book trade has ever produced.
What's most fascinating about Nicky Drumbolis and his one-of-a-kind collection isn't its value, which he estimates is in the millions, or its size – although it includes roughly 50,000 titles, and fills the building, floor to ceiling – but the focus. He has devoted a great portion of his life and livelihood to work that, as he describes it, "slips through the cracks." Pamphlets and hand-sewn chapbooks that were produced in minuscule print runs; novels and poetry collections published by the most obscure of presses; the work of authors whose names the world has forgotten, if it ever knew them.
Mr. Drumbolis describes himself, as do many others, as an outsider, and he has devoted himself to the literary equivalents. Walking into his bookstore is to be exposed to an alternate history of publishing, one in which the likes of Blew Ointment Press and Ganglia and grOnk are just as celebrated as McClelland & Stewart or Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
"He's a remarkable person," says Anne Dondertman, director of the world-renowned Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. "You have to admire someone who's that single-minded. He's given up everything to do this."
His is a collection "that only speaks to people who are interested in the obscure, the oblique, the esoteric," Mr. Drumbolis says. "There never was and there never will be" another like it – which is why its fate is of interest to so many, from authors to fellow booksellers to librarians, who understand its importance to our collective cultural history.
They also wonder how it can be saved from being dismantled, or, worse, winding up as landfill – considering that Mr. Drumbolis was forced to retreat north in a last-ditch bid to preserve his life's work, a tactic he now fears has only delayed the inevitable, as there is no white knight in sight.
Besides being a bookseller and de facto literary conservationist, Mr. Drumbolis is a historian, writer, editor, bookbinder, gallerist, typographer, detective and storyteller, who claims he'll "talk forever if you want to listen." But he doesn't get many opportunities these days; since moving here from Toronto, he estimates, no more than 50 people have stepped inside the store he purchased five years ago this month. Letters Bookshop is like a treasure buried just below the surface, either waiting to be found – or lost forever.
'I've never owned anything in my life except books'
A little more than a year ago, I ran into Nick Mount, who teaches English at the University of Toronto and is writing a book about Canadian literature in the 1960s. I asked how research was going. He'd just returned from Thunder Bay, he said. Did I know Nicky Drumbolis?
I remembered his small, crowded store in Parkdale, in Toronto's west end, where the aisles were so tight in places you could barely squeeze by, with boxes upon boxes wedged three and four rows deep. But like many second-hand antiquarian bookstores in the city, it had disappeared, and I figured he was out of the business. Prof. Mount smiled when I said this, and his eyes grew wide. Mr. Drumbolis was still very much in business, he said.
Nine months later, I was in the home of the Sleeping Giant.
Although he doesn't own a car, and had repeatedly been told I'd gladly take a cab, Mr. Drumbolis is waiting for me at the airport, waving a copy of Crad Kilodney's Sex Slaves of the Astro-Mutants over his head like a welcome banner. (Mr. Kilodney, who died in 2014, was best known for selling his self-published books on the streets of Toronto – exactly the sort of author Mr. Drumbolis has championed.)
He is 67 but looks a decade younger, and is wearing a black fleece jacket over a blue T-shirt, baggy black jeans, black sneakers and a black beret with "Euskal Herria" embroidered on one side. (It's what the Basques call their homeland and he's Greek.) His goatee is more salt than pepper, and he wears his hair in a ponytail that falls to his shoulders.
On the bus ride downtown, he tells me about his move to Thunder Bay in 2011. He grudgingly returned to his hometown after being priced out of Toronto, an increasingly common fate for booksellers. He searched the province for suitable alternate digs, from Wingham, a few hours outside Toronto, to tiny Red Lake, several hours north of here. "I didn't care where I lived," he says. "As long as it had a beer store and a post office, I was cool."
A friend loaned him $70,000 to cover the cost of the building ($45,000) and the move. It's the first place he has been able to call his own: "I've never owned anything in my life except books."
A lot of books. It took him a year to box them up for the move. Charlie Huisken, former co-owner of This Ain't The Rosedale Library, the iconic independent bookstore, recalls coming out one weekend with other members of Toronto's literary community to help pack up the store and the contents of a dozen-odd storage units Mr. Drumbolis had filled over the years: "There was so much stuff that the trailer was starting to rest on the tires rather than on the suspension."
Once everything had been shifted 1,400 kilometres to Northwestern Ontario – courtesy of two big trucks, one an 18-wheeler – Mr. Drumbolis needed a year to unpack, and then, once he'd built the shelves, another year to organize the collection. The Parkdale store, at 77 Florence St. (also near the train tracks), had soaring 14-foot ceilings but only about 500 square feet of space; he now has more than 3,000 square feet devoted to books, although even this "is hardly big enough." There are still boxes on top of almost every bookshelf, and the old dojo change rooms are now devoted to overflow. The building has no basement and rests on stilts; Mr. Drumbolis wasn't sure it would support everything, so he consulted an engineer and researched how best to distribute the weight. He now figures it will hold. The roof needs replacing, though.
It wasn't always a dojo; the building dates from the early 20th century, and in past lives has been a general store and a post office. An imposing black safe from the period sits in the front room, near the entrance, as does a glass counter that used to tempt the neighbourhood children with candy but now tempts me with a copy, among the many books on display, of Gregory Corso's first major collection, Gasoline, which happens to be inscribed to the Beat poet's friend, Allen Ginsberg, who wrote the introduction and signed it as well.
"Johnny Depp collects Beat stuff, right?" asks Mr. Drumbolis. "If he wants it for seventy-five hundred beans, I'll fly over and put it in his back pocket for him."
The shop is, in fact, four connected buildings. The book collection, divided into various categories, takes up the front half, along with a small workroom for repairs, a bathroom and storage space. The back half has been turned into an apartment, with a modest kitchen, bathroom, a personal research library and office, and two bedrooms, one of which is devoted to the books he has written and published under his own imprint, and where he sleeps on an air mattress.
He describes Letters both as a "shrine" and a "museum," and it's hard to argue with him; it's unlike any bookstore I've ever visited.
'A contributive bookseller'
Nicky Drumbolis says his life has been "a novel, not a story." If that's the case, the prologue begins just across the street. Outside the store, he points east, to an overgrown lot beyond the rail tracks where a two-storey house once stood – and his father was born. His life, in a way, has come full circle.
The path to becoming "probably the most remarkable bookseller Canada has produced," as Toronto rare-book dealer David Mason called Mr. Drumbolis in his 2013 memoir, The Pope's Bookbinder, actually started across town. He was born in Port Arthur (amalgamated with Fort William in 1970 to form Thunder Bay), the oldest of six children. Despite being selected for a city-wide advanced-learning program, he didn't finish high school, and even though he later managed to enroll at both Lakehead and York, he didn't finish university, either.
"My education was largely one at rummage sales," he says. "I'd find a book and go, 'This looks neat,' and I'd take it home and read it. And I particularly loved nutbar books."
His life has been immersed in "nutbar" books – books that struggle to find a readership, that don't appear on bestseller lists, that are overlooked for awards, that most people have never heard of. He has spent his bookselling career trying to introduce these works to a larger audience, trying to salvage them from the remainder bin that is time, and, if no one is interested at the moment, ensuring at least one copy survives, just in case a future reader stumbles across it, as he did, and finds some kind of joy. "It's bringing these people back to life," he says.
By the mid-1970s, Mr. Drumbolis was living in Toronto, where he managed a successive string of second-hand bookshops around the city, including Olympia Books, on a seedy strip of Yonge Street, where he was first introduced to the rare and antiquarian trade; and the adult-oriented Reid's Bookstore, also on Yonge Street, where, after being hired, he "started writing [small-press publishers] around North America," imploring them to send their newest titles.
Some publishers were perplexed. "I thought it was a strange place to sell this stuff," recalls Marty Gervais, who had founded the influential Black Moss Press in 1969, and would drive up from Windsor, Ont., with a carload of chapbooks and literary magazines to drop off. "Right beside a vast array of grotesquely large dildos was the poetry I was publishing by the likes of bpNichol and Al Purdy. It made me wonder what his clientele was taking home with them. Living out their sexual fantasies alongside lyrical recitations, maybe?" (According to Mr. Drumbolis, "all that stuff sold. Why? Because these people would come in to buy porno and then they'd always take something to cover it up!")
The first of his own stores, Acme Book, opened in 1978 in the west-end Toronto apartment he shared with his wife, Susan Fritz, the same year he co-founded a magazine-distribution company. He'd drive down to New York to pick up porn, but also avant-garde literature and underground magazines – he says he was the first to bring Art Spiegelman's Raw to Canada. Those trips served a dual purpose: "On the way back, I'd stop in every fucking small town and scout rare books."
In 1982, the first incarnation of Letters opened on the strip of Queen Street West once known as "booksellers' row," where up to 20 bookstores operated at any given time. It was the golden age of bookselling in Toronto, although Mr. Drumbolis set himself apart from his colleagues, as he still does.
"There's two types of booksellers," he says. "There's the distributive bookseller – the guy who just sells whatever he can fucking get – and then there's the contributive bookseller, which is me, who emplaces the kind of book that I think needs to be read.
"As a contributive bookseller, the important thing I felt that a bookstore ought to represent was a depot for the work, a hostel to house people if they needed it – a place to crash or a place to come and hang out – and then a forum, a place where they could exchange ideas."
Letters was all these things. It was somewhere that writers could hold readings, "basically to give these people a forum where they were at the centre," he says. It was a gallery, with display cases housing the best in what Mr. Drumbolis terms "the book arts." It was a publishing house, with him releasing his own work (often using the pseudonym Arthur Cravan, a nod to the Swiss Surrealist poet) and that of other writers he admired under the Letters imprint. It served as a crash pad, not only for writers but for Mr. Drumbolis himself, who slept in a sleeping bag in a back room after his marriage dissolved.
And, perhaps most important, it was a bookstore that was decidedly democratic in how the shelves were stocked – he'd sell almost any book that he deemed worthy. "It wasn't a cabinet of curiosities, but a collection of literary wonders," says Mr. Huisken. "It wasn't just an accumulation, it was a creation."
There's a photo of the old store at 452E Queen St. W., a modest three-storey brick building, with the front window full of what looks to be chapbooks and the front door almost entirely papered over with posters. Mr. Drumbolis stands out front, wearing oversized glasses and a multicoloured checkered sweater, his hands jammed in his front pockets, a thin smile on his lips. It dates from 1988, and was taken by Stan Bevington, a friend and the founder of Coach House Books, perhaps the most important publisher to emerge from the Canadian small-press boom of the sixties and seventies.
The following year, rising rents prompted Mr. Drumbolis to move to Florence Street and take a job with Coach House, where he worked as a bookbinder, off and on, for the next two decades. "Everyone," he says, "saw me as a binder at Coach House, a menial, and didn't know I still had the store."
Mr. Gervais recalls visiting the stop late one night, and being shown early Black Moss titles, some of which he'd likely dropped off amid the sex toys and porno mags years before.
"It was so neat, just being in this place, really quiet at night, and there he is, living in and among his own collection. Many of us have a love for our work, but we go home, as well. But his home was where his books were."
'I hate my existence up here'
And yet his new home isn't such a happy one. Almost no one in Thunder Bay – almost no one in Canada – knows what he is doing.
"I hate my existence up here," he says. "It's done a number on my soul and, believe me, I don't believe in souls." He's lonely, bemoans the lack of good coffee shops and the fact he's so far away from his friends, that he can't go out any given night to a poetry reading. He's angry, frankly, that he had to leave in the first place.
"Toronto lost a huge resource," he says. "I resented the fact that there wasn't enough space on the postage stamp for just one more little guy. So I've got to play out the string up here."
Living on a modest pension (he has repaid all of the $70,000 loan), he spends his days working on his own books, which range wildly in subject matter from lunar iconography to Shakespeare, and which he uploads online, and researching the titles in his collection. "Every book has a story," he says, and he's driven, in part, by finding out what the story is and then sharing it with the world.
Mr. Bevington describes the store as "a retirement home for books," which is probably the most accurate description I've heard. The 50,000 or so volumes it houses don't include the impressive array of art and publishing ephemera Mr. Drumbolis has accumulated. And for the first time, all his books are out on display, which makes the fact that hardly anyone has seen them that much more depressing.
"All of this is my memory," Mr. Drombolis says. "Every single thing in here has some memorable factor about it, and every piece in here was scavenged from some experience. And that experience is still pregnant in these things. This is all the inside of my head, in a way."
Walking through the store is an overwhelming experience. Everywhere I look I spot something I've never seen before and will probably never see again. I could have picked a single shelf of a single bookcase and spent my entire visit studying its contents. Not that Mr. Drumbolis would have let me do that. As we amble up and down the aisles, he is constantly narrating, constantly picking out items at random and telling their story – how he acquired it, or who published it, or whatever happened to its author – which often leads into another, entirely different story, and another book, and so on, until I can't remember which book started the conversation in the first place.
He throws around words like "shit kicker" or "heavyweight" to describe books he particularly loves, his voice growing progressively louder and more animated, the longer he talks. He pulls out a first edition of Leonard Cohen's 1956 debut Let Us Compare Mythologies, part of what is probably the most extensive sampling in existence of Montreal's legendary Contact Press, which helped to launch Margaret Atwood, Irving Layton, Raymond Souster and others. Now here's his Franz Kafka collection, and over here Ezra Pound, and Charles Bukowski, and a few remaining titles from his collection of William S. Burroughs, most of which he sold years ago to David Cronenberg around the time the director was adapting the Burroughs novel, Naked Lunch.
"Henry James," he says, tapping a shelf filled with first editions of the American master. "The guy I wanted to read cover to cover before I died. I don't think I'll get to it now."
His words are tinged with melancholy, not just about James, I think, but about the whole store. After spending a lifetime collecting and preserving these books, there's not enough time in the world to actually enjoy them, let alone sell them. "I'm going to die with more shit than I'm going to fucking sell," he tells me. When I spot a first edition of Joe Gould's Secret, Joseph Mitchell's 1965 book about a man who spent his life working on an oral history of the modern world, I can't help but draw a line between the Greenwich Village writer and this Thunder Bay bookseller.
At one point he stops, mid-sentence, and looks around, in what seems like awe. "I have so much shit," he says, as if to himself.
Part of the reason is that he just doesn't sell many books, at least not any more.
"He's sold everything he's ever sold reluctantly," says Mr. Mason. "Try and buy a book from him. It's not going to work."
Prof. Mount gave it a shot, and was rebuffed – but in the end was given one for free. I was sent home with a suitcase filled with books, too, despite the fact I hadn't asked for any.
For instance, his Queen Street store featured a lending library. He can rattle off titles borrowed years ago and never returned, or titles that came back not in the same condition as when they left. He shows off a first-edition copy of In the Heart of the Heart of the Country, a short-story collection by William Gass; it's stained with what looks like tea, returned that way, he says, by literary icon Alice Munro, once a regular customer. "This was a rare book," he says.
He describes himself as a "cultural mediator" who is "simply a custodian of a shared resource."
"I don't see all of this as 'mine' or 'yours.' I see this as 'ours.' This is history," he says. "I have temporary custody of the book. That's all. It's going to be here after I'm dead."
Or will it?
'When I drop dead … it's going to the Sally Ann'
I was in Thunder Bay for two days, sleeping overnight at the store and speaking to more than a dozen of Mr. Drumbolis's friends and acquaintances. In every conversation, the question as to what will happen to these books was just below the surface. Mr. Drumbolis, for his part, refers to the store as his "tomb." The priority is to ensure the books aren't buried with him.
"It scares the hell out of me thinking about it, because the word 'landfill' keeps coming up," says Steven Temple, a rare-book dealer based in Welland, Ont.
"It should be preserved somewhere, somehow," says John W. Curry, an Ottawa avant-garde poet (as jwcurry) and friend whose small-press collection is one of the few to rival that of Mr. Drumbolis. "There is not another repository like that. It should probably just be turned into a museum."
Says Mr. Huisken, "What we have to do is create an institution to take care of that collection. It's not going to happen on its own."
Mr. Drumbolis has a daughter, a social worker in Sudbury, but doesn't want to burden her. Part of the problem, he says, is that "it's now up in Thunder Bay where, when I drop dead of an aneurysm, it's going to go to the Sally Ann.
"I held onto this stuff, to the detriment of my health, against all odds, in the hopes of seeing it go somewhere," he says. "Nobody wants it, at any cost."
It's more complicated than that. Ms. Dondertman, of the Fisher library, says part of the problem is the size of the collection. "There aren't a lot of libraries who can cope with those numbers, no matter what the books are," she says. "It's a huge, huge challenge."
Mr. Mason maintains that it "won't end up in the dump. There are now enough people in the book trade who know how important what he has is, that that will not be allowed to happen."
That said, what the shop contains "is less than what he has in his head, which is the part that's going to disappear, sadly," says Mr. Bevington. "I don't think that there's any way that you can collect the amount of information that he has in his head."
Poet Cameron Anstee agrees. "It's not just that he has books no one has, but he knows things about those books that no one else knows. The amount of knowledge that he possesses as a result of his life's work – it's not really reproducible.
"Whoever picks up that tradition from him, it's going to be a huge task," adds Mr. Anstee, a doctoral candidate at the University of Ottawa writing about postwar bookselling in Canada. "A hugely important task."
'What would you say about this place?'
On my second morning in Thunder Bay, while drinking lukewarm coffee at his kitchen table, Mr. Drumbolis asks me a question I've been trying to answer ever since: "If I died, what would you say about this place?"
The best answer, I think, is found in 77 Florence, a poem in Phil Hall's 2011 Governor-General's Award-winning collection, Killdeer, inspired by the store "where pilgrims arrive in bewilderment."
This is what Mr. Hall sees when he looks at what Mr. Drumbolis has accomplished:
This recent April flames engulfed Baghdad's National Library/ destroying manuscripts untold centuries old
Almost nothing remains of that great library's tens of thousands of/manuscripts – books – & Iraqi newspapers
In light of such atrocities – Drumbolis's preservation instinct/ means – to catch the glowing ashes – & save them – so the world-/as-book can be – if not rebuilt – at least remembered – intensely
Mark Medley is books editor of The Globe and Mail.
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