Born in Clinton, Ontario, in 1942, poet Nelson Ball began his life as a bookseller forty-four years ago in Toronto in a flat on Bathurst Street shared with his wife, the artist and writer Barbara Caruso (who died in 2009). Ball’s bookselling practice – which specializes in Canadian literature – migrated to several other locations, including 686 Richmond St. West and a coffin factory on Niagara St. before the need for more space and less overhead led him and Caruso, in 1985, to the 9,000-square-foot former gypsum factory in Paris, Ontario where he still lives and works. (The De Stijl-inspired building also houses Caruso’s studio and a substantial body of her completed work.) Today, Ball still sees the occasional (serious) visitor by appointment, but does the vast majority of his selling online.
Jason Dickson: You were a writer before you were a bookseller. Tell us about those years.
Nelson Ball: My ambition to be a writer began while I was in secondary school in Seaforth, Ontario, where I grew up. My mother was a reader. I liked twentieth-century poetry, especially short, imagistic works by E. J. Pratt and e. e. cummings.
I had a summer job as chauffeur for James R. Scott, the National Organizer of the Liberal Party of Canada, in 1960. His home was in Seaforth. He was a published author and book-review editor of the Toronto Telegram newspaper. It was during our travels I learned about the wonderful activities that took place in Toronto. Seaforth is 120 km west of Toronto. I spent two years in grade thirteen and during this time I went to Toronto by bus as often as I could. I stayed in a rooming house on Gerrard St. West, near Martin Ahvenus’ Village Book Store. The VBS opened in 1961.
In the summer of 1962 I worked as a filing clerk in the CBC Radio archives. I hung out at the VBS, where I browsed and bought current poetry and literature. I went to poetry readings and folk music nights at the nearby Bohemian Embassy, which had opened in 1960. My clearest memories of the Embassy are of hearing Al Purdy read in his big voice and Bonnie Dobson sing in her crystal-clear voice.
I took a year off between 1964 and ’65 from my studies at the University of Waterloo, lived until February 1965 above the Limelight Cafe, worked in the rock-and-roll section at A&A Books & Records on Yonge Street, and in my free time wrote poems and hung out at the VBS, where I was beginning to meet other poets my age and older, including Victor Coleman, Bill Hawkins, Al Purdy, and David Donnell, all of whom appeared in a poetry magazine I co-edited while at university called Volume 63.
JD: You became a publisher in that time too, didn’t you? How did that come about?
NB: I married Barbara Caruso, a visual artist, in 1965, and the same year established Weed/Flower Press. I wanted total independence as an editor, which I didn’t have with Volume 63, where I had a co-editor and we depended on the university’s funding. I published poetry chapbooks by numerous authors, and the poetry magazines Weed and Hyphid. Barbara designed many of the covers.
JD: And you became a bookseller too at this time?
NB: I ended WFP in 1974 because I preferred being a bookseller to becoming a full-fledged literary press. I had to devote my time to one or the other in order to earn a living.
When we moved back to Toronto from Kitchener-Waterloo in 1967, I immediately found employment as a library technician in the technical services department of the University of Toronto Library. I was not a librarian and the pay was not excessive.
I continued to visit the VBS. [Artist] Elizabeth Cunningham and [book scout]Mitch Cadeau worked there when Marty needed help in the store. Marty began issuing catalogues of his stock. He offered me part-time employment to catalogue his poetry and literary periodicals because of the rudimentary cataloguing knowledge I’d gained from working at U of T Library.
I worked at the Library until 1971 and part-time at VBS from 1970 to ’73.
JD: When did you end up bookselling full-time?
NB: I began my own bookselling business in 1972 with Marty’s encouragement and support. He sold me a lot of Canadian poetry at or near his cost to help me get started. I stopped writing in 1972 and didn’t resume until 1987. The bibliographic research involved in bookselling satisfied my creative urge.
I drifted into bookselling. In retrospect, it appears to have been due to a convergence of related interests and activities.
JD: Who were the booksellers at the time that helped get you started?
NB: My mentors in the book trade were Marty, Peter Howard of Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California, and William Hoffer from Vancouver.
My primary apprenticeship was under Marty. He was generous in sharing his knowledge of books and his bookselling insights. An important part of this was watching him deal with customers. I was shy and didn’t converse easily with people. I had (and still have) a tendency to be too blunt. I learned from Marty to be more relaxed and tolerant with customers. Marty would sell even rare books for a marginal profit rather than wait to obtain a higher price.
I became friends with Peter Howard and Bill Hoffer by the mid 1970s. I learned from them to bring discrimination to pricing, to pursue elusive items, and to price scarce and rare books aggressively. Peter said if one priced scarce books high they will breed. It works. One accumulates a shelf of really good books that eventually begin to sell for substantial prices.
Peter identified committed booksellers by their answer to the question “Would you rather go book buying or stay home and have sex?” I answered honestly and Barbara, standing nearby, smiled. Barbara frequently came with me on book-scouting trips.
I seemed suited to a practice midway between Marty’s laid-back and generous approach and the greater assertiveness of Howard and Hoffer.
I always felt I was a rather poor bookseller. I lacked a broad knowledge of books and bookselling. I had little interest in making a profit. I wanted just enough to live on and buy stock. Barbara and I continued to live cheaply, like students, throughout our adult lives.
JD: Did you develop a specialty at that time?
NB: My primary interest as a bookseller was Canadian poetry.
bpNichol was a friend and the poet who most interested me as a bookseller. We had been friends since 1965. Nichol sold me his entire inventory of Ganglia Press and grOnk publications around 1973. It was massive (relatively speaking). Eleanor Nichol sold me more material in 1989 following bp’s death. Ganglia Press, grOnk publications, and other works by Nichol have been my sub-specialty. I had published three Weed/Flower Press books by Nichol and he one of mine as a Ganglia Press chapbook.
My interest in Nichol’s work culminated in the Coach House Books 2004 edition of his Konfessions Of An Elizabethan Fan Dancer, for which I wrote an introduction and extensive bibliographic aftermatter. There had been two distinctly different earlier editions from Bob Cobbing’s Writers Forum imprint in London, England (1967), and my WFP (1973) in Canada. The 2004 edition combined them.
JD: Was it just bpNichol?
NB: I developed an interest in Canadian mass-market paperbacks published prior to 1960. I intended to compile bibliographies but never had enough money to buy the time for that. My collection of News Stand Library books (published 1948–51 by Export Publishing Enterprises in Toronto) was near complete after twenty years of gathering. I sold the collection to Jim Fitzpatrick in Nova Scotia and added duplicates to my listings on Abebooks. I compiled and issued a checklist of the NSLs I had collected in 2007. Fitzpatrick has completed the collection and writes about the books and their authors.
JD: Did you ever consider opening a shop?
NB: Yes, I had an open shop in Toronto 1981–82. I was uncomfortable with strangers coming in and I paid Barbara to sit in the store. It didn’t work out. I reverted to having visitors, mostly writers or collectors, come by appointment. I hadn’t become a bookseller with the intention of having a general stock. There was a strong overlap among my activities as a writer, my small press publishing, and my bookselling practice. I used my catalogues to advocate for certain authors and small presses.
JD: What were some of the highlights of your collecting at that time?
NB: Among highlights of books acquired and sold were several of bp’s “Tonto Or” publications, produced by Nichol in 1966, partially printed or blindstamped at Coach House Press or photocopied or rubber stamped, and partially hand-drawn. The editions varied from nine to thirty copies.
I had two copies of E.J. Pratt’s rare first poetry booklet Rachel (privately printed, 1917, in New York in an edition of perhaps two hundred copies). I purchased one from Jerry Sherlock and the other from Pratt’s widow, Viola.
I had several copies of the first issue (fifty copies issued) of Isabella Valancy Crawford’s Old Spookses’ Pass, Malcolm’s Katie, And Other Poems (1884). One was inscribed by Crawford to Catharine Parr Traill. I purchased it from Guy Andrus in Kitchener. Guy was a retired executive who became a bookseller. I bugged him for a year or more about buying the book from him. He finally sold it to me when he wanted to purchase a new suit for his son.
JD: Evaluating this kind of truly obscure material is a real challenge. Did you do appraisals too?
NB: I did monetary appraisals of numerous literary archives from 1989 to 2005. They were primarily of donations or sales to university libraries and LAC. I think my experience as a writer meant I was less likely to dismiss some writers or certain aspects of writers’ personal archives. Among the writers whose papers I appraised were major figures including Margaret Atwood, George Bowering, Frank Davey, Robertson Davies, Margaret Laurence, Dennis Lee, Daphne Marlatt, bpNichol, Michael Ondaatje, James Reaney, Raymond Souster, and Jane Urquhart. I was thorough in my examination of the material and invariably I spent more time on each appraisal than was reasonable in relation to the compensation received. Janet Inksetter (Annex Books) and I often worked in tandem.
JD: How has your bookselling business evolved over the years?
NB: My business was called William Nelson Books from 1972 to ’84 and Nelson Ball, Bookseller after moving from Toronto to Paris, Ontario in 1985. I issued 118 catalogues of various lengths and numerous very short lists from 1972 to 1996. All were mimeographed as had been the case with WFP books.
Janet Inksetter convinced me that I had to learn to use a computer and sell books on the internet. She gave me an old computer and lessons. I was a slow learner. The computer failed and she gave me another one. I began selling on AbeBooks in the year 2000.
One of my first internet customers was Thurston Moore, co-founder of the band Sonic Youth. He collected small press and underground material. Thurston told me he had been collecting WFP books for years. I traded with him a copy of my book With Issa for Sonic Youth’s CD nyc ghosts & flowers (the title of which makes reference to books and other mimeographed underground publications and their publishers including WFP).
I participated in antiquarian book fairs in Toronto and Ottawa from 1975 to 1990. My sales were always modest. I probably sold more Stephen Leacock books than those of any other author.
JD: What are some of your best scores?
NB: I purchased the stock of Sol Sniderman’s small bookstore in Stratford. In the process I acquired around four hundred books of American poetry that I didn’t want to keep. I traded them to Peter Howard for a rare book by A. M. Klein. I was happy. Peter was happy. That’s my best bookselling story.
At the end of a book fair, Peter would sometimes leave his Canadian literature with me on consignment. Peter was supportive. We traded books, bought books from each other, and he took Barbara and me out to dinner. He purchased a few pieces of Barbara’s artwork, which he resold in his bookstore.
JD: Anything else?
NB: I bought large lots of Canadian literature. Marty and I purchased (from Waterdown, Ontario bookseller Craig Fraser) and divided between us a large collection of nineteenth-century poetry. Later I bought massive amounts of poetry (from Marty in 1979 and from Dora Hood’s closing sale around 1980) and fiction from Bela Batta (1981–82). The last was my final large purchase. Since moving to Paris in 1985, my purchasing has been modest. My best ongoing source of scarce items was [bookseller]Bill Matthews while he was in Fort Erie.
JD: Have institutional sales been a big part of your business too?
NB: I quoted and sold large numbers of books to Canadian libraries until that market died out, around 1990. I had sold a lot of poetry to McMaster University Library and fiction to the University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Library. Periodically, I had substantial ongoing sales to a few libraries in Europe and the United States and a scattering of private collectors.
I had two substantial and satisfying sales of small press publications during 2015 to the special collections of a university library in England. They bought each of Barbara’s Seripress titles, each of the WFP books, and a large number of jwcurry’s Curvd H&z publications. The material has been added to the library’s small press and private press collection – the first Canadian presses added to that collection. The librarian in charge delivered a paper on Barbara and her Seripress at a conference in Wales. Seripress was Barbara’s small press and was in operation during the 1970s. She printed using serigraphy (silkscreen). She and bpNichol collaborated on several Seripress publications, including their remarkable The Adventures Of Milt The Morph In Colour.
JD: What are some of your own latest publications?
NB: Since receiving the OAS and a reduced CPP, I’ve given more time to writing and less to bookselling. I’ve recently published three books with Mansfield Press: In This Thin Rain (2012), Some Mornings (2014), and Chewing Water (2016). A book of rhymes for children titled A Vole On A Roll is coming out, with drawings by JonArno Lawson, in July 2016, from Shapes and Sounds in Dundas, Ontario. A selected poems titled Certain Details, with an introduction by Stuart Ross and an afterword by me, is due in 2017 from Wilfrid Laurier University Press.
—From CNQ 97, the Fall Issue, September 2016