A look inside Letters Bookshop, formerly of Parkdale, Toronto, now of Thunder Bay. By appointment only. pic.twitter.com/NsPNbWFbJI
— Nick Mount (@profnickmount) September 17, 2014
Mark Medley’s well-researched and illuminating article on Nicky Drumbolis was wonderful reading for Nicky’s friends and acquaintances, even though we are all aware that the publicity will almost certainly not benefit Nicky himself. He has in fact made a career of avoiding any profit from his collecting and bookselling.
For the most part Medley has done a good job of describing Nicky Drumbolis, but there are a couple of deceptive minor errors that I wish to correct.
First was the use of the term “nutbar”: a misnomer amplified by its use in the heading, although Medley cannot be faulted here as it was Nicky himself who used it to describe his books. Nutbar is a term that has precise and specific meaning in the book trade. It is used to describe those classes of books that can loosely be described as weird: books on the occult, astral projection, previous lives, aliens, UFOs, etc. All those otherworldly subjects which are generally viewed as the opposite of scientific subjects. It is also the term booksellers use to refer to the kind of wild-eyed, unblinking people who enter used bookstores seeking those subjects.
Nicky Drumbolis has been a dear friend of mine for many years and is highly respected in the trade for his encyclopedic knowledge of modern literature, especially modern Canadian literature. His large and extremely valuable stock of books can in no way be described as “nutbar.” It is, in fact perhaps the most comprehensive and important stock of modern literary books in Canada and one of the most important in North America.
What Medley does not mention (perhaps out of misplaced discretion) is that, a few years ago, Drumbolis sold a stupendous collection of Canadian literature in small-press and obscure but important editions, which he had amassed over forty years, to the University of Toronto.
Dear friend that he is, I would, and have, described Nicky Drumbolis himself as a “nutbar,” but his collection certainly isn’t. Eccentric Nicky may well be, for he has spent his entire life avoiding anything that could possibly profit him economically. It took Thomas Fisher Associate Librarian Anne Dondertman some three years or so to wheedle Nicky’s Canadian literature out of him (despite the handsome terms she was offering).
Although Medley’s piece implies a bit too much that Nicky’s collection is the sort a collector would amass, it is in fact a bookseller’s stock. That it is difficult to buy anything does not change that fact. I have bought from and sold to Nicky many treasures over the years. Perhaps the most important, if not my personal favourite, is the paperback version of a biography of Kat, the saintly heroine of Leonard Cohen’s Beautiful Losers. This insignificant paperback bears Leonard Cohen’s signature and address, denoting that it is the copy he used for his book. It would hardly be anybody’s idea of a “nutbar” book.
I have been trying for years to get Nick to give me some of his reminisces to publish, as has Dan Wells, the publisher of Biblioasis and CNQ magazine. Nick is too busy doing his own work, writing scholarly books. It is near-impossible to pry any of Nicky’s treasures from him as both Anne Dondertman and U of T professor Nick Mount have learned. His stock of books will not end up at the Sally Ann or as landfill because Nicky’s many friends (like myself) who are aware of its importance would never allow that to happen.
It is unfortunate that those Canadian billionaires who fund building construction or scientific research could not be persuaded to place Nicky’s collection somewhere safe so its research value could one day be utilized. But unfortunately literature is not a subject that attracts the wealthy the way art seems to.
To my mind, however, far more important even than the conserving of Nicky’s books is conserving what is in his head: a knowledge of Canadian literature and the history and minutiae of its publishing history, which has no parallel in any person anywhere, bookseller or scholar. In my experience, anyway.
Even finding some PhD student with a tape recorder and enough funds to sustain the student – and Nicky – for an extended period while he puts all that knowledge on the permanent record would be an incalculable asset to the history of modern Canadian literature.
In my opinion, and in the opinion of many people who understand the significance of Drumbolis’s stock, the ideal solution would be to move his entire collection to some relevant institution for the benefit of future scholars. Even more importantly, Nicky Drumbolis should be moved with it, ensconced in his library and provided with the space and the means to record what it contains and what his head contains. Before it’s too late.
Were that to occur, which it would in any civilized country like, say, France, Nicky could stop worrying about his books and get back to his work. And his friends could stop worrying about him and the fate of his great collection.
David Mason is the owner of David Mason Books and a regular contributor to CNQ.