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Robert Wright, President of ABAC on bookselling in Canada

After the completely unexpected death of Michael Park earlier this year, who had served as ABAC President since November of 2015, Robert Wright of Robert Wright Books has taken on the role of Interim President. Mr. Wright spoke to us about bookselling in his home country and where the trade is going.
Published on 18 Sept. 2017
Image : Robert Wright, President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada (ABAC), image by Nigel Beale


1. Mr Wright, please tell us a little about your background and your business? How did you enter the world of rare books?

In the 1980s, there were many antiquarian bookshops in Toronto. I started working in the trade then. I gained experience in ten different bookshops before starting off on my own. I operated two different shops in Toronto, relocating to my present rural location in 1998. A major part of my work now is conducting monetary appraisals for institutional customers. I also have an open bookshop in Tamworth, Ontario, and I enjoy exhibiting at book fairs. I still have some books online, but my personal inclinations towards this manner of bookselling have dwindled... perhaps that is not very modern of me! I have recently been named Interim President of the ABAC after former President Michael Park’s untimely death. Michael was the first President of the ABAC to die while serving his term. He was a very hard working and long serving Board member, and our organization is still benefiting from his many years of devoted work, which included a long stint as Treasurer. His loss has unfortunately upset the balance of experience on the present Board, and we are working at re-configuring that.

Image : Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair, image supplied by organiser


2. You are not only heading the Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of Canada, ABAC but also the Board of the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair (TABF). What would you say to encourage international collectors and booksellers to visit or exhibit here?

At the TABF 2016 many exhibitors reported record sales for their businesses. Potential exhibitors should be aware that the fair is supported by several sponsors, including The Friends of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library and York University Libraries. Representatives from these, and other institutions from across Canada, attend the fair and buy avidly for their collections.

The fair is held in the Art Gallery of Ontario, a remarkable building designed by Frank Gehry. The gallery is a beautiful space and a major tourist destination in Toronto. A great enthusiasm for art and culture is tangible throughout the gallery, and that feeling becomes part of everyone’s book fair experience. The Board of the ABAC believes this is the best possible venue in Toronto in which to hold a book fair.

3. How would you describe the rare book trade in Canada today?

Like elsewhere, high rents and property values have driven many booksellers out of brick and mortar operations. This is perhaps most apparent in Toronto and Vancouver where real estate values are escalating. But there are still vibrant bookselling communities throughout Canada. There are enterprising young booksellers setting up shop in the cities, and figuring out how to adapt to present conditions.

4. Is there formal education for the book trade in Canada? How do you motivate the next generation?

There is limited opportunity for formal education aimed at booksellers in Canada. The University of Toronto has an excellent Book History and Print Culture program and some of our members have audited these courses over the years. We have many members who have some kind of university degree or college diploma. The ABAC currently has applications from two booksellers who have PhDs! We also have many members who could be described as autodidacts, outsiders who felt a strong connection to books despite not having had much of a formal educational. Some members served apprenticeships with established dealers; others just started out on their own with enthusiasm and little else. Our membership includes excellent booksellers from these diverse learning backgrounds.

Aimee Peak, proprietor of Bison Books in Winnipeg, was recently awarded the ABAA's Elisabeth Woodburn Fund scholarship, to participate in the 43rd ILAB Congress. It is incredibly generous of the ABAA to look outside of their own borders to provide a promising young bookseller with such valuable international experience.

I believe it is very important for young Canadian antiquarian booksellers to join the ABAC. Their experiences with the organization will encourage the formation of meaningful relationships within the trade. Membership also fosters an awareness and appreciation of traditional bookselling customs and courtesies. This is important in an era when there are fewer open shops who model or otherwise pass on traditional bookselling behaviours.

Image: Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, image: University of Toronto


5. When visiting Canada, where and how can we trace the history of printing, publishing and bookselling in your country?

I would suggest visiting the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. There usually a major exhibition in their lobby. The Fisher mounts many Canadian themed exhibitions, however currently on display is Flickering of the Flame: The Book and the Reformation, curated by P.J. (Pearce) Carefoote.

Canada is a large country and many of our sixty or so members are widely spread out, operating in distinct geographical areas. We have both Francophone and Anglophone members in Quebec; that bookselling community has tremendous spirit and produces a terrific fair in Montreal each year. There are certainly cultural differences and even rivalries between the Eastern and Western Canada. However, the ABAC serves to unite us in our endeavours, and builds a sense of community by fostering friendly relations and joining us in purpose of cause.

There will be a considerable amount of interesting Canadiana at the Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair. Material offered for sale will include rare books, maps, photographs, prints and ephemera on subjects such as early exploration and the arctic. There will also be important literary works by major Canadian writers including Leonard Cohen, Margaret Atwood, Alice Munro and L.M. Montgomery. Canada has a rich private press tradition, and there will be a good selection of finely printed books represented at the fair. The fair will provide a tremendous selection of antiquarian books in a world class setting, and I encourage everyone to attend!

Robert Wright is the proprietor of Robert Wright Books, President of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of Canada, ABAC and affiliate of the International League of Antiquarian Booksellers, ILAB.
More information about the Canadian association
Contact details for Robert Wright Books
The Toronto Antiquarian Book Fair 2017 runs from 3 - 5 November 2017 at the beautiful Art Gallery of Ontario. All info about the fair, which is the leading event in Canada in the rare book trade, on the website:
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