Of Hero’s Quests And Yellowed Pages: My Life In Used Bookstores

Even when I was a kid, I loved used bookstores. I loved them in part because I’ve always loved stories, and storytelling. They are integral to the human experience. But I also loved them for the quest.

As we’ve learned from Joseph Campbell by now, so many of the stories we love share the same patterns. We can even pick them out as we read them. Yet they still seem to retain their power. We can all relate to the idea of the quest. I suppose that’s because, in the end, that’s what life actually is.

Buying books and comics is a pretty straightforward exercise these days. But those interested in the quest don’t much care for the straightforward. For me, the quest is where the magic can be found. I want the objects, sure. But as a kid and even now I wanted the adventure of finding them, too. In this way it’s not just about collecting objects. It’s about the idea that there is a hero locked inside everyone and that the purpose of life is to set the hero free somehow.

All of this wasn’t something I could put into those terms when I was in elementary school, learning to ride my bike, and then becoming curious about the world around me. But I understood it, and I aspired to be a questing hero anyway.

My steed

I learned to ride a bike late-ish, at age seven or so. But once I got the hang of it, I wanted to explore. I felt the call to adventure, you might say. I wanted to get out there and see what was around me that had been inaccessible to me so long as I was still on foot. My bike set me free. It set my Dad free too in some ways, my partner in the quest that defined a series of chapters of my childhood that helps to create an image of my father in my mind even now. Riding bikes meant that we could venture out together, he on his bike, and me on mine.

My bike was a one-speed Raleigh, bright red. It was not the flashy chopper style bike with the coveted “banana seat” that was a mainstay of those times. It was a simple steed of a more traditional design where applying the brakes meant pedaling in reverse. At that time, there were no such thing as bike lanes. And if there was such a thing as a bike helmet, I never saw any kid wear one. We didn’t know what we know today about bike safety and taking precautions to protect ourselves. My friends and I, along with my Dad sometimes, just picked up and shot away, off to the woods near our house, trundling over twisting dirt paths and gnarled tree roots that sometimes put us in the dust. We rode wrapped in green shadows, careening though leaves dappled with sunshine, imagining ourselves to be heroes on epic adventures. I never really got anything worse than scraped knees, and too many mosquito bites. I suppose those are trials and tests enough for a suburban kid with a hero fixation riding on a basic red Raleigh bicycle. But my quest really hadn’t started until we heard about Treasure Island Books.

The journey

Treasure Island Books was a used bookstore on Kerr Street, a slightly low-rent (at that time!) light commercial main drag in another part of the town of Oakville where I grew up. They sold comics and paperback books, a lot of those being highly coveted science fiction and fantasy novels. I knew I wanted more of what I had already read about to add to what already lived in my imagination; Tarzan, Pellucidar, Sinbad the Sailor, Greek myths like Theseus, Perseus, and Jason and the Argonauts, and superheroes (merely Greek myths in colourful costumes in the end). That was before Star Wars came along. When it did, I completely got it. It was just another very exciting quest myth, as old as the dawn of history and as new as childhood wonder itself. Love of stories themselves was a call to adventure for me, and continues to be. But where to find them? How could I move from imagination to action?

To get to Kerr Street where Treasure Island could be found at that time, one had to ride down sixth line, and go underneath the noisy eight-lane Queen Elizabeth Way on a path under the overpass, then ride along Lyons Lane near the cemetery before going down a truly steep and not very bike friendly hill at Cross Avenue where it turned into Speers Road. It was a terrifying descent into the underworld, wind whipping through my hair, cars whipping past me on the left as I gripped the chrome handlebars for dear life. I kept my eye on my Dad who rode ahead and who never questioned my safety. It was something of an ordeal, that hill. But when a hero descends into the underworld, that only means they’re closer to the prize.

New worlds

For me, Treasure Island Books was my first used bookstore. It was contained in a single and standalone post-war storefront with a mysterious upstairs apartment where patrons were not permitted. In my mind today, it’s every used bookstore, like some kind of archetype that lives in my imagination. The spirit of it still lingers every time I visit one to this day. Treasure Island was a mishmash, cluttered, and chaotic. It was cozy and crowded with not a bare surface to be found on shelf or wall. It smelled of aging paper. It sounded like the settling of dust as drowned out by a tinny AM radio. The shelves were a riot of colors and textures, some sun-faded and some exotically lurid. They all ignited the imagination. It was a step out of my ordinary world and into a new and mysterious one. Or maybe like C.S Lewis’ Wood Between The Worlds, it was just a resting place where one could dive into a world of one’s choosing that had the power to transform.

And comics! So many titles for which I hadn’t even known. So many stories, some from years and years ago. So many heroes and horrors. So many ways to express the idea of the quest. The only thing for it was to begin the search for some Holy Grail or Golden Fleece, or whatever great elixir one could find in that world that seemed to assail the senses. The stack of books would thicken, accompanied by gasps of delight at our discoveries; Edgar Rice Burroughs, Gardener Fox, Ray Bradbury, Franklin W. Dixon, The Justice League of America, House of Mystery, Brave & The Bold, Jonah Hex, The Witching Hour, Dracula, Power Records Presents…, and other titles to numerous to name here.

Beginning of a great adventure

My Dad and I made numerous trips to bookstores and pretty much any place that sold comics on a routine basis. It became a weekend activity of bike rides, lunches out, and delving into milk crates, paperback racks, and dusty wooden bookshelves. Treasure Island was the first, but was by no means the last place we would haunt. I realize that all the while as I searched for stories about questing heroes, that I was on a quest myself toward maturity and toward the man I wanted to become. Because it was through those stories that my own moral code was formed; that those who possess strength, smarts, and skills should defend those in need in whatever form that takes.

Here in New West, I recently popped into Renaissance Books who have recently moved from their original Sixth Street downtown location to one that’s uptown, just above Seventh Avenue on the west side of Twelfth Street. I had been a semi-regular visitor when they were downtown, getting the same kind of vibe that I remembered when I first stepped into Treasure Island. This time, there was no leaning a red Raleigh bike up against the side of the building. As it turns out though, a hungry imagination remains to be a constant in me, just as it was when I was an elementary school-age kid rocketing down the terrifying hill on my bike thinking about carrying a stack of paperbacks and comics back with me.

We need stories

Stories are important. They are a necessity, in fact. It’s through stories that we understand ourselves and others. It’s through stories that we understand how our world is, and how it could be made better. Stories are tools to self-discovery. The inspiration found in stories old and new have the power to change us from the inside out, to help us become the best versions of ourselves.

We just have to find the right ones for us. How’s that for a worthy quest?