25th March 2004: Strictly Cash

I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned before about all the time travellers around in Montreal.

They’re easy to spot. They got their clothes from a box marked “1970-2030” or sometimes “1950-2050”. They wear shoes that don’t quite look like any shoe you’ve seen before, with flared trousers and a jacket, shirt and bowtie. Or they might sport a brand new t-shirt declaring “US Troops Out Of Indochina Now!”, under a coat entirely inadequate to the weather. Their hair doesn’t look quite right, close, but not quite right. There’s usually one thing that draws attention, and then all the other little things that don’t quite add up. I generally see them on public transport, where you get time to look, as long as you don’t get caught. What really makes me sure they’re time travellers is that glorious enthusiasm they have for everything, the way they look at ads and stroke the seats of buses with an almost palpable glow of nostalgia. “Yes, this is how it was!” they seem to be thinking, or “My goodness, people really did this. I’m really here!”

Teresa mentioned on Making Light a while ago that she’d seen some in New York City. They’re probably everywhere, but there are a lot of them here. It just makes me hope nothing awful is going to happen to the city.

They don’t bother me at all. We get tourists from all over because Montreal is cool. It seems a perfectly reasonable thing to do. rysmiel once saw a couple on the metro who looked just like us, only twenty years older. We think we’d come back to eat at some restaurant that will have gone out of business by then. If I’m going to do it myself, how could I possibly object to other people doing it now? (My clothes won’t look wrong. I’ll still have the same clothes. I have a sweat-shirt now that I’ve had since I was eighteen. I was wearing it on Monday. I’ll still have the same hair, too.)

Anyway, a couple of these guys, father and son, or maybe the same guy at two different ages, have started a new second hand bookstore up on Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke West and either Wilson or Harvard. They’re not stupid, they don’t have any stock from the future — in fact they’ve been really extra-careful and they don’t have any stock older than about 1964. What they do have is a lot of stuff — a lot of stuff — that you never see any more.

Gothics. Westerns. Ace Doubles. Old green Penguins. Most of all, those ancient American paperbacks with terrible covers and yellow page-edges that were the first paperbacks there ever were, the mass market paperbacks that led to the current system where mmpbs are pulped. They are pulp paperbacks.

Oh, you see them. You see all those things. I own some of them. But you don’t see huge honking expanses of all of them unadulterated by anything new. You don’t see the short stories of Noel Coward on paper that could have come from an old Galaxy, or Wuthering Heights with a clinch cover. They have a lot of old books of the kind that aren’t valuable, that you used to see second hand and you stopped seeing because they fell apart.

Books are published, and people buy them, and then lots of people get rid of them, and the books as physical objects circulate in the current of thrift stores and used bookstores and for a while they’re common and then they become rare and if there’s a reprint that releases more into the wild. If you consider a best-selling in their day author like Nevil Shute or Georgette Heyer, whose books sold in the millions, and who wrote lots of books, at one time you’d have had no problem finding everything they ever wrote second hand in a big city like this. Even now, it’s possible to pick up most of it just by looking, persistently, for a long time, going to Hay-on-Wye, keeping your eyes open.

But what you see easily, in big piles, are the newer authors, today’s bestsellers, the ones whose books have just started to pile up.

The older ones vanish because people buy them and keep them, or because they just naturally disintegrate, they’re not always being looked after. I’ve never had a mmpb I bought new fall apart on me, but not everyone is as fortunate.

I go to a lot of second hand bookstores. It’s not exactly a hobby, it’s more, as carbonel put it once as we both turned together towards a stall, a tropism for books. I notice this kind of thing because of that. To someone less bookstore accustomed, or even to me before I got used to the way books are here, different from Britain, it probably wouldn’t seem as odd, and I didn’t notice right away.

This bookstore doesn’t have any of the newer ones you’d expect, and it has large piles of the older ones which would naturally have disintegrated and be consequently rare. They probably picked it all up in 1960, and another load in 1994. Anything newer must be trades people brought in since they opened. We spent fifty dollars in there the first time we went in, bought about as many books as we could carry and picked up some interesting things — nothing I desperately needed, as it happens, but some interesting things. It wasn’t until the second time I went in there that I spotted what was odd. It wasn’t that they had or didn’t have any particular book, but the whole demographic of the place.

It didn’t even strike me as weird, the first time, that they sold records. Vinyl records, you remember them? I have lots of them myself. You used to see them in bookstores, sometimes. There are a lot of places up in the Plateau that are Francophone used bookstores that also sell CDs. CDs. Vinyl records are sold these days only in really impressively large music specialists or in thrift stores. And this is a brand new store, it only opened about a month ago.

Having been tipped off to their time-travelling nature, I looked closely at the guys. Their hair wasn’t right, but otherwise they’d done a good job with the clothes. They’d have got away with it entirely if it wasn’t for the slightly smug and very pleased expressions, the expressions that said how interesting ordinary things were here, and which has that indefinable certainty that they knew how things were going to come out.

I didn’t confront them. What would have been the point? It’s not as if they’re doing any harm — the opposite, in fact, running a second hand bookstore is a service to humanity, and I said, I quite like time travellers. And if anything awful is going to happen to the city, well, they’ll know, and as long as they’re there, we’ll know it’s still safe.

Posted in Whimsy