Al Purdy, Bookman
(Delivered at the Al Purdy Memorial at Harbourfront, October 2000.
Published in Descant 118, Volume 33, No. 3 Fall 2002.)
I have known perhaps six writers who could be called book collectors, and one of them was Al Purdy. I first met Al in Marty Ahvenus’s famous Village Bookstore on Gerrard Street West in Toronto in the late sixties, when it was about the only bookstore anywhere that gave serious consideration to Canadian poetry. Visiting poets came there to sell their mostly self-published books, to meet each other, and see what the competition was up to. People like Al and Milton Acorn and bp nichol would write poems on the bare walls of the store while Joe Rosenblatt favoured drawings, and visiting poets took to adding their contributions. But they weren’t the Group of Seven and their art didn’t save the Gerrard Street Village; or the Bookstore, which eventually came down with the rest of the street to make room for a hotel.
My office was on the third floor above Marty’s, and Al was often there when he was in town. We got to know each other at the Thursday night gatherings, which had begun informally for no other reason than that it was the night the Village stayed open late. These gatherings are now starting to appear in the literary memoirs of the period, such as Doug Fetherling’s Travels By Night: A Memoir of the Sixties. On those nights writers, booksellers, librarians, collectors and every imaginable type of eccentric gathered to drink and discuss any topic that might arise. Al loved to be in the centre of it all, and his being naturally ungainly, it was often hard to tell if he was knocking over piles of books from over-excitement, awkwardness, or perhaps a touch of excess. As anyone who really knew Al is aware, Al’s reputation as a prodigious wild drinker was largely invented. He did like to drink away from home, and being curious and gregarious, he could make a whole day of it with the excuse of new or old friends. But people I knew who visited him in Ameliasburgh tell me that a couple of beers was the usual when he was home and working.
Al was what was known in the trade as “a signer.” He would sign his books even if he wasn’t asked to, probably a reflection of his own love for signed books, and it became a joke amongst the dealers that the unsigned Purdys were the ones that would be valuable one day. But Al truly loved books, as objects as well as for content, and it was not surprising that he started buying the works of other writers and shamelessly chasing them for inscriptions to him. Al ended up with a huge collection of books inscribed to him which eventually he sold to a patron, who gave it to an institution, and I’m happy to say Al did all right.
I expect that there’s hardly a writer in Canada who hasn’t been badgered by Al into inscribing their books to him. However, his main passion was for writers he loved, primarily D. H. Lawrence, a passion I shared; and when, some years later, I broke up a fairly large Lawrence collection, Al got his share. You notice I didn’t say he bought his share. Al didn’t buy much, at least from dealers he knew well: he liked to trade, and a very tough, shrewd, horse trader he was too. He started to see himself as a bit of a scout and it wouldn’t have surprised me if Al had eventually become a bookseller. A move not without precedent as you might imagine. The novelist Larry McMurtry, for instance, has been a bookseller for some thirty-five years, and a well-respected one too. In fact, it is pretty widely known that Al had a business card printed up reading “A.W. Purdy, Bookseller” with which he used to get the customary dealer discount when he travelled to the U.S. I have one of those and several of my friends do too, because Al took an almost childlike delight in showing it to us to demonstrate how clever he was. It was clever and we admired his chutzpah, but the irony escaped Al. For what he really didn’t realize, and I for one didn’t tell him, was that most booksellers, and every good one that I have known, was brought to bookselling by a love of literature, and a respect for those who create it: a love so compelling that they are forced out of the real world into that very marginal activity. So our amusement at Al’s cunning reflected our dealer’s knowledge that had Al told them he was a writer and in fact a poet, a real poet, he would probably have been given much more generous treatment than he ever got trying to pass himself off as a mere bookseller.
One of my book-buying deals with Al included one book that mystified both of us, something about atomic energy. It was a pamphlet but rebound in half-leather, and the original wrappers were gone so that we couldn’t tell what it was. I finally gave him ten dollars for it, telling him that if it turned out to be something I would give him more later. In those days I had a rule, a rule I still recommend to young dealers, never to price a book until I had properly researched it and knew what I had. With the wrappers missing on Al’s book and my inexperience, it took two years to ascertain that what we had was the first edition of the original government report issued by the U.S. printing office in 1945 on the atom bomb, a document that announced a major change in human affairs and that could eventually be seen as being as important as the discoveries of Galileo or Darwin. When I found out what it was that I had, I promptly sold it for a few hundred dollars, the missing wrappers of course detracting from the value, and then I sent Al a cheque for $200 with an explanation of the windfall. The next time I saw him I found that he didn’t even remember the book, although he didn’t feel that that was any reason to refuse the $200. Some time later, in an interview somewhere, he told that story in an amusing version that reflected great credit on me. Unfortunately, it didn’t do me much good, because he neglected to mention the name of the bookseller who had sent him the unexpected extra money.
The next time I saw Al I took him to task. “Al, that was really clever not giving us the name of your nice bookseller. What were you afraid of? That someone might come in and buy a book from him?” Al was mortified. After all, you don’t spend years hanging around with Milton Acorn without developing an acute radar about other people’s sensitivity to slights. For years after that, Al never missed an opportunity to tell the story, always being sure to mention my name. I missed the tribute given to Al in Toronto at Harbourfront in 1996 and when I asked someone later how it had gone he said “great” and told me that Al had mentioned my name, although my friend couldn’t quite remember the context. But I knew what it was; it was Al still trying to make amends.
William Burroughs came to Toronto in 1979 and a signing was arranged at a bookstore. My friend Nicky Drumbolis was waiting for Burroughs to appear and chatting with Purdy, who was also there to get his copies signed by Burroughs. Suddenly, a taxi pulled up and a young woman got out with a pile of Burroughs books in her hands. She ran straight up to Al and gushed “Oh Mr. Burroughs, I love your work so much. Will you sign my copies of your books for me?” “Of course I will,” said Al suavely, without missing a beat, never a person to refuse such a request, especially one from an attractive young lady. He wrote nice inscriptions in all of them and carefully signed each one “William S. Burroughs” and sent her off beaming with pride. I only hope that if that lady ever wants to sell her Burroughs collection she brings it first to me because that way she will at least learn that while they are forgeries, they are not just any old ordinary forgeries, but genuine Al Purdy forgeries.
I was very moved to read an interview with Al shortly before he died in which the interviewer mentioned that Al had proudly brought out some of his beloved D. H. Lawrence first editions to show her. Most people would hardly have noticed that, but we booksellers did. Probably, for most of you Al will be remembered as a great poet and perhaps as a friend, for he was a man you couldn’t help liking and he must have had a lot of friends. But for the book fraternity in Canada he will be remembered not just as a friend and a poet, but as one of us, a true bookman. And his passing leaves us all diminished. Bookselling in Canada won’t be quite as much fun without him.