Meritxell books on Broadway is my kind of bookstore. Wooden shelves sit staunchly along the walls and make up rows along the centre of the store, all completely taken up with books filled with pictures, fiction, fix-it manuals, maps and more. There are books everywhere; some stay in their sections, and other renegades are definitely where they’re not supposed to be. The slight chaos is a sign of real bibliophilia, a love of books that picks them up, holds them, pages through them, reads the contents, wanders with them in hand and absently puts them to rest when another one grabs the attention. Books are picked up, loved, and left for the next lucky reader to discover their stories.
Surrounded by books, Wes Towle isn’t just a story lover, he’s a story teller. When I arrived, late, for our interview, Towle was busy chatting with someone. As they said good-bye, I apologized for my lateness and settled myself on a black stool near the front desk. The stool is a testament to the in-store storytelling that goes on; I’m sure it gets good use most days from the visitors to the store who listen to and tell stories, as well as buy and sell books.
As I was getting out my recorder and pen and paper, the door rang open again, and a man bundled against the weather came in. Before he could say anything, Towle was holding out what he came for, a book of music. The man nodded and smiled and after a few words, was on his way. I had a feeling that many of the people who were passing through might have stayed for a longer visit if I hadn’t been occupying the premier chatting spot right next to the desk.
Meritxell books opened in November 1991, but the Towles had been in Nakusp much longer than that. Before he owned the bookstore, Towle worked for twelve years in outreach helping people navigate through the (un)employment insurance system.
“We helped people get employment insurance because that was what our job was: to help people, but inevitably people thought we were ‘the man,’” he revealed. Although geographically Towle moved just across the street from that job and into the store, the change in personal interactions has been big. Now, he is free to chat with people about any and everything under the sun, instead of having to interview and get answers for a government program.
“I have the best customers in the world. That’s true. I’m not sure if it’s because they’re from here or because they read, but I really like them,” Towle affirmed, “I like it. I’m sixty-five, I’ve got to keep going. Otherwise I’d be there for first call at the Leland at eleven o’clock.”
Behind the desk hangs a Red Sox pennant, a testament to Towle’s unflagging support for his home team.
“Boston had one of the most egregious collapses in the history of the sport last year. It was embarrassing. I was thinking of putting black duct tape over my Boston Red Sox hat,” he said, half-joking. But even after those dire circumstances, he is still a staunch fan of all Boston teams.
“I’d watch any team from Boston. If there were pregnant nuns playing hockey, I’d go for Boston.”
The Red Sox and fried clams are pretty much all that Towle said he misses from growing up in the States.
Growing up in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, he can recall in detail trips to Fenway Park and trucks full of gaping tourists from nearby Salem coming to fill their lungs with fresh country air.
And although he is fascinated by history, he said he’s absolutely not interested in his own or his family’s, even though certain moments in history have become part of Towle’s own too. His personal history has been shaped by the war in Vietnam, for instance.
In order to avoid being drafted to Vietnam, Towle joined the navy and “defended San Francisco against all enemies, foreign and domestic” as well as the eastern coastline from Florida to Nova Scotia
“In the navy I met a lot of people, and the guy who I travelled to Europe with,” said Towle. It was that trip overseas that changed his life.
In Europe he ended up working at a bar in Andorra, and it was there in the early seventies that he met and married his wife Barb. After Andorra, their route led them to Yellowknife, and from there they made the move to here to Nakusp where they’ve now lived for decades.
When he worked in Andorra (which gives you a hint about the name of the shop), Spain was still under Franco.
“Spanish people were all crossing the border to see ‘Last Tango In Paris,’ Towle recalled, a movie he never did see, due to his deep dislike for Marlon Brando: “I can’t stand Marlon Brando. He makes my skin crawl.”
“I have opinions about everything,” Towle told me, a conclusion I’d already reached on my own in the twenty minutes we’d been chatting.
His opinions encompass books too, and Towle recognizes the power that books can have for their readers.
“You have to be careful because there are books that did change people’s lives, and they are books you may think are ridiculous,” said Towle, who now tempers his opinions, or tries to, at least.
Books and their readers have all kinds of relationships, and not all books are for all readers. There are matches that can last lifetimes, others are short-lived, and others that are filled with animosity. Towle sees that just because he doesn’t get along with a book doesn’t mean someone else might not.
“I like history and I read tons of history, but I am a true believer that there’s more truth in fiction in a good book,” Towle said, citing The English Patient as an example. “Good fiction reveals the human condition.”
“War books are very much like that,” Towle added, who named James Farrell, author of The Siege of Krishnapur, as his favourite author.
For his own reading, he reads page 150 and the first sentence of the book as a test to see if he’ll like it.
“It works for me,” he shrugged, although he also admitted that he is unlikely to start liking something if he’s already set his mind to against it.
“I don’t like science fiction, I don’t like fantasy, and I’m an idiot,” he conceded, because he knows it is his own stubbornness that prevents him from reading sci-fi or fantasy books recommended by friends whose literary judgement he otherwise trusts.
“People always think if you have a bookstore you’re smart,” he opined, neatly illustrating his copious store of opinions, “Well, I think the very act of having a bookstore proves you’re not the sharpest tool in the shed.”
Summers are definitely Meritxell’s hot season with out-of-town browsers and buyers making up the lion’s share of sales. Winters are another season, and sales are as slow as the proverbial molasses in January.
“A bookstore in Nakusp – it gets very slow – it’s like a bar without beer,” Towle gave as an apt and depressing analogy.
Still, even in the colder season traffic through the store sees in the neighbourhood of 30 people a day, not bad for a small town bookstore. I am sure that a good chunk of that traffic is due to the quantity and quality of conversation to be had, not just the appeal of the books in store.
“I’m a loquacious person. I like to talk,” Towle stated and followed it up with a comment that he enjoys talking to people but he doesn’t enjoy anything that smacks of work.
Which is why he hires students to organize and alphabetize the books, something he claims he is too busy being sixty-five to do.
He also enjoys the opportunity to talk with a student and find out what young people think about the world. Learning what is on their minds keeps him in the loop, particularly when he feels less and less like that when he’s relaxing in front of the TV.
“It bothers me when I watch commercials on T.V. and I realize I don’t understand half of what they’re selling. The reason is they’re not selling it to me,” Towle noted. Instead, he listed walk-in showers, diapers and Viagra as the list of things aimed at people in his age range.
If there ever comes a day when he feels completely out of touch, surely Towle’s bibliophilia will come to his rescue.
“I’ve never wanted for adventure as long as I’ve had a book,” he stated, knowing books will always reward him with new stories and experiences.