Thursday, June 17, 2010

Duthies by Design

On the occasion of the Alcuin Society's AGM, June 14, 2010, a loosely historical, visual telling of Duthies’ long life and love affair with books, fine printing and reading : Duthies BY Design

Thank you to the Alcuin Society and Howard Greaves for inviting me tonight as it has given me an occasion to make another stab at sorting out the haphazard archive of 53 years of Duthie’s ephemera. It is a fitting time, here at the end of Duthies bookstores in Vancouver, the end of the long denouement from 1999.

My father Bill Duthie always admired fine design; One of the first things he did when he opened his first store in 1957 was to invite Robert Reid to design his letterhead, and the 1st catalogue of books.

Then along came Tak Tanabe and the bookmarks began.

The early era of Bob Reid, Tak Tanabe, Chris Bergthorson and Hugh Michaelson was clearly a fine era and an era of fine presswork. It was a classic ‘modern’ time with typography and design breaking out in new playful ways ,reflecting more freedom, more international stylistic influence, and a new interest in old printing techniques.

Typographical design, specifically, Bob Reid’s original design of the back to back lower case d and b duthie books led to an amusing letter from Alvin Balkind:

Mr. Duthie: This is a letter of protest! As a guardian of Public Morals you have a responsibility to the people at large & when someone of your stature publicly displays two testicles & a penis over the entrance of your shop, I believe we have a right to protest...

The 2nd decade of Duthie 1967 - 1977 occurred during the happenings of the sixties and the bookmarks reflected those psychedelic times. I think my father was distracted then with more stores, staff and books and he did not have time anymore to devote to commissioning unique, delicate, original, art bookmarks, so he delegated the design and printing of the bookmarks to King Anderson who assembled the Book of Bookmarks: 1957 - 1977 published for the 20th anniversary.

In 1977 Bill had a brain tumour and I came back from Egypt, where I had been studying Arabic - in part for typographical (and calligraphic) reasons, to help out in the bookstore during his convalescence. Almost immediately I took over the bookmark job. A friend of the family, artist Mary Frazee, took me to meet Don Atkins and thus began my 2 decades of printing bookstore ephemera and Don became our increasingly strained, stained and sainted printer.

In 1984 Bill died and Crispin designed and printed a beautiful memorial bookmark with the quote from Virgil (Littera Scripta Manet) that we later adopted as the Duthies' slogan and reproduced on our bags, cash register receipts and 2 cube vans that raced around between our then many branches.

Between the years 1977 - 1999 I commissioned dozens of artists, designers, printmakers and fine presses for 4 sets of 4 bookmarks per year for 22 years (approximately 320) and printing about 10,000,000 bookmarks altogether.

In 1981 we launched a modest magazine of book reviews called the Reader. The first issue - was pretty crudely designed (by me) (looked like a man masturbating - someone commented) but it established the intention of the magazine to review serious good books. Various people contributed, including my mother (Mary Macneill), Hugh Pickett, John Hulcoop, and my dear old friend Jean Louis Brachet.

We were putting it together with waxed type on light tables in long late night hours. I bullied the publishers to advertise books I thought worthwhile and we persuaded other bookstores across the country to distribute it, which they did, but they didn’t otherwise participate in the review process and some years later we relaunched the Reader as The New Reader and distributed it just through Duthies.

The look of the Readers improved steadily; various friends and colleagues worked on the magazine with me, writers contributed reviews, and publishers supported it with advertising. In 1994 we got our first Apple computer and that made producing the Reader much easier - and started me on my lifetime Apple love affair. We published the Reader quarterly for 18 years, sometimes with an extra Children’s Reader.

During the 80’s I fell in with the antiquarian book world in the person of Bill Hoffer - and he introduced me to the world of fine art printing and broadsides. In 1981 we curated a show of broadsides for which I published Taboo Man, poem by Susan Musgrave, graphic by Victoria Oginsky and designed by Robert Bringhurst. and later more sedately - a CP Cavafy poem - printed by Barbarian Press.

Though I had many house designers over the years, 2 of the best were Barbara Hodgins, who designed our classic black Duthie bag with Latin motto, and, in the latter years, Stephen Gregory who did everything - for new stores, lecture series, the Readers, newsletters, on-line design (the first real graphical-interface online bookstore --Litterrascape --launched 1994) ads, promos, a veritable blizzard of printed ephemera.

In 1997 Duthie’s celebrated its 40th anniversary with a real gala gala doo at the big store on Georgia and Granville. IT was quite a party, we had the HP Lovecraft band in bug costumes, food by all the best Vancouver chefs, way too much booze - as always, a Duthie tradition. For the anniversary I engaged Bob Reid, just returned to Vancouver, to design a history/album of 40 years of Duthie Books in Vancover. But in 1998 began several years that were certainly 'annus horribilis' and the book, though nearly finished did not get published. Duthies came under increasing pressure through 1998 and 1999 from Chapters Indigo and then with the loss of the BC ferry contract to Pattison, Duthies restructured radically to just the 1 store at 4th ave. The beginning of the long end.

In 2007, happily, The Alcuin Society published Duthie’s Bookmarks, designed by Bob Reid, assembled by Howard Greaves, and a very handsome book it is. Tonight I would like to say, formally, to the Alcuin Society, to Howard and Bob and everyone who helped on the book, thank you for making this wonderful book.

PS Thank you to Bob Reid for printing a lovely booklet of some of the pages from my blog.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

More future please

This is the long-time-coming moment of a near total transformation of the distribution of news, information, entertainment and education. What we know of as books.

The book becomes virtual, fluid, a platonic ideal of book with the infinite perfection of its aspiration and immateriality. Weightless, portable; the contents commentable.

Now the book comes unbound, deconstructed (and reconstructed instantly over millions of criss-cross strands around the earth) Content is number sequences on ibooks, the Gutenberg Library and the myriad of libraries posting their holdings in the public domain, all now easily accessible on more and more gizmos.

How it will play out, with old infrastructures breaking down - bookstores disappearing - publishers wondering what they will do when their authors go direct on their own websites or to the likes of Amazon. Price point seems a petty issue with the entire future so uncertain but it seems likely that the big operators, Amazon, Apple and Google, will be even bigger; they will distribute everything - every e-thing.

Why I am so exhilarated by all this - other than awe at the vastness of the future? I believe that in the long run this will be a huge boost for education, civilization and humanity -- instant global access to all ‘the greats’ and ‘up-to-dates’. Let the great skimming begin.

“Gradually... and then suddenly.”

Gradually and then now.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

book hunger

Reading the reviews of David Shield’s much touted and discussed new book ‘Reality Hunger’ I’m sadly reminded that now that Duthie’s is gone and my rare priviledged life of free and current books over, I will have to ‘buy’ it in book form or download it or wait for the library to get it.

Checking out prices in the enemy camps, it’s new at Chapters - $19.10, ebook $17.39, at Amazon $16.47 US kindle edition $11.99 US and even used for $14.37 I go to David Shield's home page ( and read all the reviews and free excepts and watch the you tubes of his talks. I want the book even more now. I read that he likes my favourite author of the moment, Geoff Dyer, and a past favourite - Roland Barthes. He writes in snappy aphorisms - a manifesto for a new artistic movement , a manifesto for movement, meaning and affirmation in art. I really want to read this book!

“An artistic movement, albeit an organic and-as-yet unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s Super-8 film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real." from Reality Hunger by David Shields, published by Knopf, 2010

I consider writing to him at the contact page of his website to request a review copy. I assure him I will by all the means of media at my disposal promote his book, his ideas, his impressive far-ranging refernce bank and his clear and articulate style. This may be the theory that liberates us from deconstruction. Or is it just another but much more readable deconstruction? I will have to read it to find out. I might just have to buy it.

Monday, March 29, 2010


Here in the last three days of the last Duthie bookstore with the sad staff diaspora and the final dispersal of effects, discussions often turn to the future of the book, sparking messianic futurisms, dogmatisms and ‘anti-new’ ‘we will never switch!’ attitudes. Relax, no-one is going to take away or burn your books; reading will not cease. Though Duthies is now gone there are still a few independents left, and librairies and book clubs and the amazing internet -- global public access to almost everything and much of it free!

Books will not stop being published though maybe publishers will become more discerning about what is published in hard copy. Millions of units of books are shredded every year, textbooks are quickly out-dated, read-once-only magazines go to recycling and papers for firestarter.

There will be lots of very cheap remainders soon.

The Kindle is becoming more noticeably ubiquitous but I am waiting for the ipad. The Kindle’s grey background looks grubby, even if they do say it’s easier on the eyes. I read some Proust, Dumas, and even Lucy Maud Montgomery, on the iphone while travelling last year; they were instantly downloaded, completely legible, read-in-the-dark, saves-your-place, complete books with classic Apple fine design for page layout and navigation tools. The pages actually turn and rustle!!! The ipad will be the book killer app. I embrace it enthusiastically.

Max and the White Phagocytes by R.B. Kitaj 1932

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Robin Blaser

The most beloved customer at Duthie Books was the poet, Robin Blaser.
Sadly he died last year and while everyone mourned the passing of a great poet, Duthies lamented the loss also of a great customer.

Through his 33-year career as a professor and poet he collected books -- many of which were purchased at Duthies. (His collection is now housed at SFU library.) In the latter 10 years he bought books as if he alone could keep Duthies going. We adored him. Michael Varty was his dear friend; they lunched regularly and Michael sat vigil for him in the last weeks.

Robin’s partner David said it was ‘probably good that he died last year; the news that Duthies was closing would have carried him off.’

Friday, March 12, 2010

Red Snow

This is a tribute from a Vancouver author, whose horrific Olympics scenario (Red Snow) did not, fortunately, come to pass.

Dear Cathy & Celia,

It's with a heavy heart that I hear the news that Duthie Books is closing shop. I was there in 1957 when the doors opened, and spent every Saturday for years standing under those Paperback Cellar glass squares in the sidewalk above, choosing the perfect mystery to buy for my 35 cents.

Every Saturday, after the movies, I haunted Duthie Books. The legendary local booksellers Bill Duthie and Binky Marks were my literary gods. The week I finished Volume One, I waited till Bill was free, then I slapped 13 TOMBES down on the counter and said, "Mr. Duthie, I've written a book." He called Binky Marks up from the Paperback Cellar to see my work, and they asked if I'd leave it with them for a week to read.

The following Saturday, I returned, heart in my throat, to get my first review. In the interim, they'd taken my pages to a bookbinder and had them put into hardcover with the title and my name in gilt on the spine. I was stunned. Bill handed it to me and said, "It's in a limited edition of one copy, but here's your first published book. Promise me that one day your novels will be for sale in my store."

I promised.

And they were. 

It's no overstatement to say that Bill and Binky created Michael Slade (though both might feel like Victor Frankenstein if they saw their Monster today.)

The only time I was ever threatened with contempt of court was when a provincial court judge refused to adjourn a trial so I could attend Bill's funeral. I told the judge that I was leaving anyway, and he could do what he wished, but that he should think long and hard about the fact that I expected mourners from the Court of Appeal would be there. He relented.

Fifty years have passed since Bill and Binky encouraged that young writer (do you think that goes on today in the big box stores? Ha!)

Best of luck in the future. All good things must come to an end, and yours was a fine run indeed!


Thank you to ‘Michael Slade’, one of surprisingly and disappointingly few authors!! or publishers!! to pen a fond farewell. Ingrates.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

I Sat Down and Wept

In the 4th Avenue store dozens of small paintings of authors by Shirley Legate, Cathy’s mother-in-law, and atmospheric black and white photographs by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward of Brian Moore, Elizabeth Smart, William Gibson and others. The store was designed and well-lighted by Bruce Haden, (winner of the Governor General’s Award 2008), whose architectural hand was present in 10 different Duthie bookstores over 17 years. Frank Brzek of FB Interiors built and rebuilt bookstores over 30 years with Duthies and constructed kilometers of bookshelves. When the books were all gone, the fixtures looked in pretty good shape after 16 years of use. They’re going to a 2nd hand bookstore in West Vancouver and to Oscars and other stores. Everything will be gone by the end of this month. The staff at 4th at the end: Cathy Legate, Michael Varty, Ria Bluemer, Nick, Alex, Jane, Susan, are all going somewhere else too. Good-bye and good luck to everyone.

Elizabeth Smart, author of By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, photograph by Alex Waterhouse-Hayward