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In Memoriam: Victoria bookseller Mel Bolen

Mel Bolen

(Bolen Books)

I met Mel Bolen 20 years ago this spring. Already a bookseller, I was hoping to work at Bolen Books, her celebrated store in Victoria’s Hillside Shopping Centre. Rather than meeting in her office as I had expected, Mel and Samantha Bolen – who worked with her mother in the day-to-day running of the business – took me to lunch.

It was the strangest job interview I’ve ever experienced.

I’ve been thinking about that lunch a lot since I received the phone call from store manager Colin Holt telling me that Mel, 72 years old, had passed away at home the previous day, Dec. 21, surrounded by her family.

Over sandwiches and coffee, Mel and Samantha told me the story of the business, how, in the wake of her divorce in the mid-1970s, Mel was left with two small children and a struggling bookstore. It would have been easy, and expected, for Mel to close the business. But Mel, as I quickly would learn, rarely did what others might expect. Despite a business climate that was actively hostile to women, she built the bookstore, day by day, nurturing relationships and reaching out to the community. The store expanded, and Mel became a larger-than-life figure, respected not only in Victoria but across the country as a powerful business owner, a bookseller of the highest order, an institution.

Leo MacDonald, senior vice-president of sales and marketing at HarperCollins, first met Mel as a sales rep for H.B. Fenn. “Right away, it was evident that Mel was deeply passionate about bookselling – the business of bookselling,” MacDonald recalls. “She was brave and innovative, always willing to try something new. She once told me her success was based on her ability to listen and accept advice, but she possessed the shrewdness and intelligence to distinguish between an opportunity for growth and an unconsidered risk.”

As the business flourished, Mel became a devoted patron of the arts, developing a close relationship with Pacific Opera Victoria, which included in-store performances and background discussions of new productions as part of the store’s intensive event programming, which featured authors of Canadian and international renown (including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, David Suzuki, Wade Davis, and hundreds of others) and local interest. (Full disclosure: I coordinated that reading series for more than a decade.) Mel also founded – and sponsored – the Bolen Books Children’s Book Prize (a complement to the Victoria Book Prize), an annual award to a local writer for children or young adults.

In 2010, Mel sold the store to Samantha; Madeline, Samantha’s daughter, who shares her grandmother’s name, has worked in the store since 2014.

Despite her high public profile, Mel was a private person, a lover of travel and art, a devotee of books, gifted with a sly sense of humour and an effusive generosity. “I just wish other people could have gotten to know her,” Holt said, in the early days of the new year. “The Mel we knew.”

To me, and others closest to her, she was always just Mel.

Mel was more than a boss, more than a friend. She supported me when I was a young writer, dreaming of publication, and as a young father, struggling to make sense of a confusing new reality. She urged me, during a long-ago BookExpo, to muster up the guts to approach someone at the Quill & Quire booth to ask about the possibility of writing for the publication. She was as thrilled as I was with my earliest bylines, and she was so proud when my first novel was published, sparking an enthusiasm that quickly spread through the city.

But it was more than that. She would likely have shrugged off the idea, but Mel was one of my greatest teachers. I learned to write from the books I read, but I truly learned about books from Mel. She taught me about publishing and bookselling, yes, but she taught me how books are bridges, connecting writer to reader. How a bookseller can build a community. How books – and a bookseller – can change lives.

Mel Bolen gave me a whole world, and taught me how to live in it. I wouldn’t be who I am today, I wouldn’t have the life I love, were it not for her.

I just wish I could have thanked her enough.