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by Shaun Hunter
Calgary’s historic main street has been in the news since City Hall began considering a large-scale development proposal that would dramatically change the 100 West block of Stephen and Seventh Avenues. Here’s a look at the writers, bibliophiles and booksellers who have touched down over the decades in three of the buildings in question.
The site of this Romanesque Revival building is stained with printer’s ink. In 1889, in an earlier wood-frame structure, Thomas Braden, co-founder of the city’s first newspaper, the Calgary Herald, launched its second newspaper, the Calgary Tribune. Three years later, the paper and its printing press moved into the loft of the brand-new sandstone Tribune Block.
By 1902, the paper’s eighth owner and editor, William M. Davidson, set the semi-weekly on a new course as a daily called the Morning Albertan. Decades later, he would recall the decision: “The nerve of it, the impudence of the adventure seemed to fit with the spirit of the time.”
Davidson dubbed the press equipment in the Tribune Block “as contrary an old brute as ever did service in a newspaper office.” It operated “in quarters too small, and [was] a nuisance to all the neighbors.”
The equipment also proved a nuisance to Davidson. “The printers knew its ways and would not grind it, and every day we had to go out on the highways and byways and beguile some newly arrived to come in and earn an honest dollar. It took two men and no human team ever came round for the second wrestle.”
The illustrious Calgary journalist Bob Edwards was a good friend of Davidson’s and likely visited the Tribune Block for animated conversation about city personalities and politics. Edwards often hired the Albertan to print his satiric weekly the Calgary Eye Opener.
Davidson moved his editorial office out of the Tribune Block in 1905 and the press equipment a year or so later. As editor and publisher through to 1926, he was a key member of the city’s burgeoning literary world.
The building has also been home to two bookstores. In the early 1890s, local politician J. H. Millward ran his short-lived City Book Store on the main floor. Reflecting his many interests, the shop sold Christian literature, sheet music, musical instruments and “fine wall papers … unsurpassed in the Northwest.” In the 1970s and 1980s, national chain, Coles The Book People, operated a store here.
The site due west of the Tribune Block has been home to bibliophiles since 1882. Building owner Senator James A. Lougheed and his wife Isabella were known around town as booklovers. At their sandstone mansion, they curated a personal library that would grow to 10,000 volumes and be considered one of the finest private libraries in the West. In his law office in the first Clarence Block (built in 1882), the senator housed an extensive law library. A fire on Christmas morning 1900 consumed the building and Lougheed’s entire collection.
The blaze also damaged the Albertan office next door and sparked a sardonic poem published in the paper a few days later, critical of the fire department’s sluggish response. Here’s an excerpt from “The Fire Bell”:
Tinkle, tinkle, little bell
Ring the city’s funeral knell;
Up above the ground so high,
You can’t hear it nor can I.
Lougheed’s law partner and future prime minister R. B. Bennett was also a bibliophile. He arrived in Calgary in 1897 with “one hundred dollars and half a ton of books” a colleague remembered. According to historian James H. Gray, Bennett’s personal library included “the collected works of every major British author from Samuel Pepys to Rudyard Kipling,” and several multi-volume sets of classic works. In the 1920s, Bennett would install his library a block away at the Palliser Hotel in a room next to the suite where he was living.
Before we leave R. B. Bennett, his student-at-law Max Aitken worked in the first iteration of the Clarence Block in the late 1890s. Aitken would later become Lord Beaverbrook — press baron, publisher, and prolific author. Perhaps he talked about books with his boss around the water cooler.
In the early 1930s, Francis Reeve was running a brokerage firm and an oil company out of the Clarence Block when he became entangled in a bookish business. Newly reconciled with his novelist wife, Winnifred (aka Onoto Watanna), he was tasked with retrieving her collection of special editions from the home of his former mistress. The recovery reads like an excerpt from a Winnifred Reeve story.
The 1970s brought fresh and unusual literary flavours to the second floor of the Clarence Block. Surrounded by newly exposed sandstone walls, Calgarians could peruse offerings at One Earth Bookstore. A Herald columnist called the shop “the intellectual headquarters of the local ‘New Age’ movement” and noted the “magnificent brass Buddha” that presided over the space.
In 1979, One Earth co-sponsored a monthly poetry reading series organized by K. G. Higgins. The young Calgary writer edited Vortex, a monthly poetry magazine he typeset with an IBM Selectric typewriter and a glue stick. The readings (admission $1) took place at the Clarence Block’s Ambrosia Restaurant and featured emerging local poets published in the magazine. Vortex folded after ten issues in 1979, and One Earth Bookstore closed a year later.
Winnipeg’s McNally Robinson returned books to the Clarence Block. From 2002 to 2008, their three-storey emporium showcased local and prairie literature. The store’s Prairie Ink restaurant hosted Filling Station magazine’s Flywheel Reading Series and many other literary events.
On the lower level of McNally’s, readers could find Evelyn De Mille Technical Books, the final iteration of the Calgary bookstore founded in 1956 by a legendary city bookseller. De Mille was the first woman in the city to own her own bookstore and the first Canadian woman to start a bookstore chain. She once famously noted, “Bookselling is a disease from which there is no cure.”
Calgary Stock Exchange
Across the alley from the Clarence Block, this landmark financial building also has a literary connection. In October 1914, Calgary’s long-serving American Consul, Samuel C. Reat, opened the short-lived home of the Stock Exchange. In the 1920s, Reat, a one-time journalist and newspaper owner, was part of the city’s literary scene, hosting local and visiting writers at his Mount Royal residence. In the 1930s, Reat’s humorous poems appeared in the Calgary Herald. At the Stock Exchange opening in 1914, the crowd enjoyed Reat’s eloquent speech. There is no record that the American Consul shared his poetry.
These are just a few of the many stories that infuse this stretch of Calgary’s Stephen Avenue. You can find more information about the campaign to protect this historic block at Save Stephen Avenue and the National Trust for Canada.
Shaun Hunter is the author of Calgary through the Eyes of Writers (Rocky Mountain Books, 2018). As the 2020 Calgary Public Library/Heritage Calgary historian in residence, she created a digital literary map of Calgary marking more than 500 sites in the city’s storied landscape. You can find Shaun at shaunhunter.ca.
Feature Image: Eighth Ave looking East, Calgary. Bruce Peel Special Collections, University of Alberta, PC005458.