Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Funeral for a Friend

I've said many times that the best thing I ever did as a reader was to develop an appreciation for crime fiction. It's less given to the fashions of the day, less politicized around awards time, (that matters for booksellers) and much less of the stylistic stepchild than in days past.
The only reason I morphed into a genre fan was due to the influence of a remarkable reader and friend named Chris Brett-Perring.

In simplest terms, Chris was a better reader than many inside the book trade and in my mind, unsurpassed outside of it.

He read everything of quality in crime fiction, militaria and many works of historical study.
He could remember it all, and his love for the stuff he considered great was limitless. I remembered all of it, indeed I regularly enjoy turning people onto his some of his favourites.
I damn sure read them.

We met in the early 9o's when I was working in the used book trade. The store at the time was a pretty poor mix of old magazines and paperbacks, and the staff were only starting to make strides toward making the shop anything close to decent. In a lot of ways, it was Chris who lit a fire under a few of us to put our mark on the place. His enthusiasm was infectious and immediate.

Of course the staff were readers at the time, but he knew so much and was so generous with his time and opinions; it made us want to earn praise from him. His derision was both acidic and eminently quotable. He quickly became a fixture in the bookstore, a sort of bookseller emeritus.

Outside of that, the two of us were salting away gems to sell on the emerging World Wide Web. Through our interest in collecting modern first editions, we quickly amassed an enviable collection of the gems of the day, and soon started exhibiting at book fairs around Toronto and elsewhere. Whatever else the Internet has done, it has largely taken the fun of the hunt out of book collecting. When everything is available, the subtler pleasures are entirely removed from the equation.

We both immensely enjoyed our endeavours as early booksellers, loved kibbutzing with other dealers at these shows, and Chris' acumen and ability to forecast with uncanny ability what would take off in value made us (briefly) the equal of many more established dealers in the modern first trade. Chris especially loved watching the faces of some of the more condescending dealers (you know who you are) change to grudging respect.

Alas, cash flow proved largely unsurmountable, but for a few years, there wasn't a much better reason to get up in the morning. It's a truly wonderful thing to be young and have something to look forward to every day.

The smallish empire Chris, my partner Theresa and myself made was Under Wraps Books. It lasted for a good five years, and selling on the upstart Advanced Book Exchange was a great deal of fun, but by then Chris was more than content to play a pivotal advisory role. The loss of his father around this time hit him fairly hard and I'm not sure he was the same person afterward. I had the opportunity to meet his parents only occasionally, but they were both the very picture of charm, dignity and warmth. I suspect his father had the good grace to throw a game or two to a clearly inferior chess player, and it's clear that Chris' love of books came from both his parents. Lots of people say they have a lot of books. These people were hard core.

Chris lived hard in his youth and indeed, he was a joy to be around because he was a kind of Keith Richards who just happened to have read everything and lived a few blocks away.
He resumed some of those habits a couple years back and while it's pointless to connect the dots; Chris died last week of a heart attack at a very young sixty years old.

He moved out of town a few years back, and I didn't keep in touch as well as I should have.
It will be a great regret for a long time, as when I was a younger man, he was my best friend for the better part of the 90's.

As I said earlier, he was one of the best readers I've ever seen, and even though he never worked in the trade as such; he was the consummate bookseller. It should be said, especially as it's been very much on my mind that last few days, that Chris made me a much better reader, and to the extent that I have any chops as a bookseller, much of it is due to his influence.

He had friends from all walks of life (the diversity of the assembled mourners at the funeral this afternoon bears this out in spades) and his generosity and loyalty to those he cared about were legion. He was there for myself and Theresa, my partner of almost twenty years, and to people close to me in a very real and demonstrative way time and time again, and was classy enough to never remind me of it as, to my very great regret, I kind of slid out of view in later years.
I will miss him a great deal, and for a very long time.

R.I.P. Chris, (1947-2007)

The obituary from Oct 1 is here.

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