Peter Gray is the owner and proprietor of Renaissance Books in downtown Victoria, British Columbia, Canada just a short walk from the picturesque inner harbour. The shop itself is tucked away in an alley (the poorly-named Commercial Alley - Gray's is the only shop there) off a courtyard of shops and restaurants called Bastion Square. Somewhat hidden from sight, Renaissance can be tricky to spot if you don't know to look for it, and Gray misses a lot of foot traffic as a result, despite having posted signs outside the alley. Gray has been a member of the AbeBooks bookselling community since 1998, just two years after AbeBooks' inception. He remembers talking with the founders about their idea, before the web site ever came to pass.
We took a field trip to Renaissance, to tour the shop and see some beautiful books. Gray was kind enough to tell us about being a bookseller in his own words, and about his rarest finds (signed Langston Hughes, or one of George MacDonald's scarcest titles The Tragedie of Hamlet, prince of Denmarke which is warmly inscribed and signed by the author), most longed-for finds (a signed first edition copy of Joyce’s Ulysses) and his favourites in his personal collection (some Cormac McCarthy first editions that McCarthy graciously inscribed when visiting Renaissance). The shop itself is pleasing - full of enough books to be exciting, but organized enough to be comfortable. And it has that good book smell. Read on for all about being a bookseller, in Gray's own words.
See our video mini-tour of Renaissance Books and some of its treasures. › Play Video
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My first full time job was in the acquisitions department of the Carleton University Library in Ottawa. I got to open the parcels coming into the Library and into Special Collections, and process them. I’ve also been a carpenter's helper, a gardener, a deckhand, a letter carrier - and one of the interesting jobs while living in Wells, BC was working as an assayer of gold. Oh yes, and while living in the north I also had a job organizing an archive. I have dabbled pretty seriously (if one can dabble seriously) in books my whole life, so buying a bookshop was the obvious thing to do when I needed to earn a living to support a family. In previous years I had been a bit of a 'dealer' and bookscout, and had some knowledge of the book trade.
Renaissance Books came to exist for me on January 27, 1988, when I handed over the money I had borrowed from all my friends to buy the shop. The store had actually been started by Laurence Eddy sometime in the 1970’s. So there has been a Renaissance Books in Victoria for about 35 years, making it one of the longest running shops on Vancouver Island. I mention the date I bought it because it was the same date my first child, Adam was born. My wife, Jen and I both 'gave birth' that day.
In terms of genre, Renaissance is a general bookstore with a wide range of subjects. I specialise in literature, art, history, and First Nations subject matter. I have an extensive poetry section. I also have a surprising selection of children’s books. I am not an antiquarian specialist, but sometimes turn up remarkable items.
A lot of my inventory comes from estate sales and people walking in off the street. Several bookscouts bring things regularly. I’ve always been a book magnet. Whenever I go anywhere, I seem to attract books. I also haunt thrift and junk stores, though these sources are drying up.Buying books is what I love to do. I sell books so that I can buy more. I enjoy some of the conversations and exchanges with people who share my love of books. I also get to read things before shelving them. The biggest challenge is making a living. The book business is changing rapidly. Print on demand books, kindles and downloading of so many books has reduced the numbers of people who take the time to shop in bookstores. Finding the patience to deal with people looking for “nice green books” or “brown books” to look nice in their den is not easy. Similarly I have had to refuse to sell books when I discovered that they would be torn apart for the prints they contained.
Really, there is no typical day. Well - coffee first – fortunately there is a good coffee bar next door. If I have time before opening, I will either answer email, check a few thrift stores for hidden treasures, or do the chores such as cleaning the shop, banking, or getting some books packed for shipping. A day in the shop involves dealing with customers, phone calls and internet orders. Perhaps the most problematic times are when several people bring in books they want to sell all at the same time. Sometimes with an open shop, you are dealing with buying, selling, and talking on the phone all at the same time. It's not a matter of sitting around reading books like most people seem to think. At the end of the day I mail the day's internet book orders, and try to find some time to spend with my wife Jennifer.