Bankers and fathers - sometimes they have difficulty understanding that a young man's gotta do what a young man's gotta do.
At least that's how Mel Hurtig was remembering it the other day while on the telephone from his home in the Point Grey district of Vancouver. He's 74 now but on this afternoon he was thinking back, way back, to the summer of 1956 when he was 23 and living in Edmonton and in the grip of what he thought was a great notion: He wanted to open a bookstore - a stand-alone, independent bookstore in the bustling heart of the Alberta capital that would sell pretty much nothing but that - not the stationery, pens, loose-leaf binders, greeting cards, magazines and typewriter ribbons that had traditionally subsidized the book trade until then, just books.
There was only one hitch - besides, of course, the utter radicalism of his vision: money. Hurtig, who'd just recently left a job with his father, a furrier, barely had $500 in savings and he figured he needed $10,000.
Undaunted and reasoning that banks are supposedly in the money business, he drew up a business plan and made an appointment to meet the manager of the main branch of the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. The reception was not welcoming. "Hurtig," the manager snorted, "why would you want to open a bookstore in Edmonton? There are no bookstores in Edmonton."
Well, replied Hurtig, all the more reason then for Edmonton, with long winters, a population at that time of 225,000 and growing, a large civil service and a university that had been thriving for more than a half century, to have one. Hurtig himself had become a serious reader only a few years earlier, thanks to a fateful encounter with Camus's The Plague. Before that, it was pretty much "music, girls, sports, whatever."
The manager paused, then said he'd authorize a loan - but it would be for $3,500 and Mel's father, Julius Hurtig, 65, would have to co-sign it. Later, Julius Hurtig stared in disbelief at his son: "Mel, why would you want to open a bookstore in Edmonton? There's not a bookstore in the whole city." Still, the deal was inked and a few months later, on Oct. 4, 1956, Hurtig Books opened just north of Edmonton's main thoroughfare, Jasper Avenue, in a former pet store. From there, Hurtig would launch his smooth-talking self into a successful and variegated career as retailer, publisher, nationalist, politician, pundit, author, officer of the Order of Canada and creator of The Canadian Encyclopedia.
Last night, friends, business associates and relatives gathered in Edmonton to mark the 50th anniversary of the store's founding. Among the celebrants were former Conservative MP and UN disarmament ambassador Douglas Roche as well as author Peter C. Newman, with whom Hurtig helped found, in 1970, the Committee for an Independent Canada, and who, earlier in the day, delivered the first annual Mel Hurtig Lecture on the Future of Canada at the University of Alberta.
Hurtig Books proved virtually an immediate success, the only full-service, independently operated book retailer between Toronto and Vancouver. Within a decade, it was being hailed by many as the best bookstore in Canada and, after a couple of moves to ever-larger premises as well as the opening of two satellite outlets, had become one of the biggest book retailers in the country, perhaps even the biggest. "We created almost a bit of an intellectual community centre, too," Hurtig recalls, by serving free coffee at the back of the store, setting up chairs and tables with chess sets and GO boards, and occasionally sponsoring readings, book signings, plays and lectures.
Myrna Kostash, the well-known author and journalist, remembers that, "If you were a hippie with a leftward tilt in 1967 in Edmonton, Hurtig's bookstore was where you wanted to be, either as a customer needing a paperback history of Vietnam or as an employee needing some dollars before moving on to Toronto. I was both those things over the winter of 1967-68, and I could not believe my luck in having such a cool job when steady work was considered anything but cool."
According to Kostash, "All the hipster grad students and young professoriat would eventually make their way to the shop, and there I would be right at the front so they'd be sure to ask me where to find the new Norman Mailer."
It wasn't all do-your-own-thing grooviness, however. Hurtig had an office in the back of the store, equipped with "a large window through which he had a view of the business below" and a microphone and loudspeaker that he didn't hesitate to use. "One morning, forgetting I could be seen - I was stamping a large stack of brochures with the store stamp - a task I found trivial, tedious and way beneath my credentials (halfway through an MA!). My stamping grew more and more untidy as I turned my attention to friends yakking. Suddenly, Mel's voice boomed down from the heavens: 'Myrna, please come see me here in the office.' When I opened the door, I was told, with a smile, that a job worth doing is worth doing well, and that I need not continue my employment with Hurtig Books."
Ten years later, Kostash says, laughing, Hurtig Publishers, which Hurtig started in 1967, "became the publisher of my first book, All of Baba's Children," a pioneering study of Ukrainian settlement in western Canada.
Ted Bishop, now a professor of English at the University of Alberta and author of the best-selling, Governor-General's Award-nominated Riding with Rilke, says that Hurtig's store on the University of Alberta campus "changed [his]life" when he was a student in the late 1960s and early '70s. "My father said he'd pay for my university books but he got tired of me asking for money all the time and so he said, 'Why don't you just open a charge account at Hurtig's and I'll pay the bills?'" Now, Bishop observes, "I know, intellectually, that books cost money but, emotionally, I can't really believe I'm going to have to pay for them, and am always a bit hurt when the bills come in."
In 1972, Hurtig sold his stores to Vancouver book wholesaler Julian "Buddy" Smith to allow him to concentrate more on his publishing business and a growing interest in politics. Indeed, in that year's federal election, he ran as Pierre Trudeau's standard-bearer in the riding of Edmonton West, losing by 8,000 votes to Tory veteran Marcel Lambert.
The bookstores, meanwhile, were renamed Julian Books for a couple of years until Smith hit hard times and he sold the operation to Hurtig's former chief clerk, Audrey Whaley, in partnership with her husband Ewart and Ammon Ackroyd, an Edmonton lawyer and bureaucrat. Christened Audreys Books, it continues as a thriving business, located now in a 1906 heritage building just a few blocks west of Hurtig's original outlet. Ackroyd remains as partner, but since 1988 the active proprietorship has been maintained by two former book publicists, Steve and Sharon Budnarchuk.
Indeed, it's the Budnarchuks who hosted the anniversary bash at their store . "When Mel mentioned [the anniversary]in passing during a phone call earlier this year, I don't think I hesitated a second and a half before I said, 'Let's celebrate that,' " Steve Budnarchuk remarked. "Something as historically significant as the founding of Hurtig Books, who wouldn't want to be associated with that?"
No doubt Mel Hurtig paused for at least a few seconds on Audreys' lower level during the party. Some of the plywood shelving he installed in his first, 40-square-metre store in the fall of 1956 is still in use. "Since I am to carpentry as Jean Chrétien is to syntax," he once wrote, he and his wife at the time, Eileen, "got help from a carpenter friend.
"But we did all the painting and staining ourselves."