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Remembering Jim Munro: “He believed that books could change the world”

Jim Munro (centre) surrounded by Munro's Books staff (photo: courtesy Facebook/Munro's Books)

Jim Munro (centre) surrounded by Munro’s Books staff (photo: courtesy Facebook/Munro’s Books)

Walking through the front doors of Munro’s Books on Victoria’s Government Street is always a transporting experience. The soft baroque music filling the high ceilings of the neo-classical building lends an air of significance to the occasion. One is entering, it seems, a temple of the book.

This morning, however, there is an added sense of solemnity. To the left of the doorway there is a condolence book in which visitors can pay their respects to James (Jim) Munro, who founded the store in 1963 with his then-wife Alice. Jim Munro passed away Monday at his home “in his favourite chair, with his daughter Sheila and wife Carole by his side,” according to a release from the store. He was 87.

“It’s been a hard couple of days,” says Jessica Walker, one of the quartet of longtime staff to whom Munro famously gave the store upon his retirement in 2014. “The public response has been overwhelming. Positive, but overwhelming.”

That response is well-deserved. Not just a bookseller, Munro was a civic powerhouse, instrumental in Victoria’s heritage community and a keen patron of the arts. A long-time supporter of Pacific Opera Victoria, his contributions were crucial in some of the company’s leaner years.

Munro was an avowed bibliophile, and a dedicated supporter of Canadian writers, an undertaking which began when Alice, during the store’s early years, decided she wanted to write, rather than sell other writers’ books. Though the couple later divorced, they remained close, and Jim was one of Alice’s most ardent admirers. He maintained relationships with generations of Canadian literary icons, and was particularly supportive of those who worked with him: Deborah Willis completed her debut collection Vanishing and Other Stories while working at the store, and has written of Munro’s “tireless generosity.”

A robustly public figure, Munro was well-known for greeting even first-time customers as if they were intimate acquaintances, and in the days leading up to the store’s 50th anniversary, he referred to the festivities as for “our friends.” It was an approach that spanned generations, including the morning he dressed up as Ollivander to hand out wands to hundreds of eager Harry Potter readers during the launch of one of J.K. Rowling’s novels.

Munro’s energy was familiar to Hal Wake, artistic director of the Vancouver Writers Festival. “I never saw him without a smile and a funny story to tell,” Wake recalls of the 10 years he spent hosting events at the Manulife Financial Literary Arts Festival, for which Munro’s was the bookseller. “He loved chatting with writers about their work and was genuinely curious. I think he believed that books could change the world and that we are involved in a noble cause to spread the word about how literature can inform and enrich our lives.”

It was that energy and seemingly boundless curiosity that saw Munro’s store through its difficult early years, through the Chapters’ assault, and to its current position of global esteem. Earlier this year, Munro’s Books was named one of the top 10 bookstores in the world by National Geographic, and the store served as a focal point for the international attention that followed Alice Munro’s being awarded the Nobel Prize in 2013, a half-century after she and Jim opened the store. “That openness and generosity filled the store and is part of the Munro culture,” says Wake.

It is also helping the store’s staff in the days following Munro’s death. As Jessica Walker notes, the staff are prepared for the public side of their mourning, listening to customers recount their memories of Munro, and of the store. Their private mourning will come later.

“But we’re all together,” says Walker, gesturing around the store. “In his place.”

In Jim Munro’s place this week, there is a lineup at the condolence book, customers at the tills, and people intently studying books on the shelves, leafing through pages and loading up their arms.

One suspects that’s exactly how Munro would have wanted it.