The Secret Door
It was four months in Halifax before I really ventured out into the city. I was living as a boarder in an old couple’s home; I had a computer, but there was no internet connection. I had a bookshelf fashioned by my father’s hands: old plywood hammered together at the last minute in the garage. It swayed when empty. When I arrived at medical school, I did what all the medical students did in their first few days: I went to the University bookstore and bought every text I could that seemed relevant. I bought Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, and Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine (can’t recall the edition, but it was blue, with red lettering). I bought Dean Ruedy’s On Call, and the awful Merck Manual. I bought both anatomical atlases at the time, Netters’ and Gray’s. Two is clearly so much better than one. I carried those books the twenty-minute walk to my room, big heavy books in plastic bags straining to burst, and I recognized the genius of my father: there was space for regular-size books on the upper shelves but the bottom shelf had space enough for giant medical textbooks. I put the textbooks there with feelings of newness and fear and overwhelmed ignorance. I remember taking the atlas (Netter’s; the ones we love, they get the most damaged) that was to become formalin-stained, even shit-smeared, down from the shelf and looking at intricate depictions of the broad ligament. I thought: I need to know this.
But it was four months before I spiritually left the room on the upper floor. I walked to school; I walked home. I had just left New Brunswick, and in a hurry- I didn’t finish my undergraduate degree. I had never lived away from home before, and up to that point I lived in a part of the word that wasn’t cosmopolitan. I didn’t know how to travel. Still don’t.
But then there came along a girl; and she asked me, innocently, if, when I went to a new place, I explored that place. If I walked the streets, and got my bearings, if I got lost and had to find my way back. If I discovered that place. If I learned how it worked.
A little time passed. She watched as I walked the same route to school, and the same route back, and the same path to her door. She took me in hand and we walked the streets of Halifax; we started on Spring Garden Road and moved to Barrington. When the downtown was more or less conquered, I ventured down Quinpool with her. She was interested in the clothiers, the knick-knacks and antiques, the restaurants; but as we walked around the city, I took note of only two things: the magazine shops and the new and used bookshops.
The magazine shops I recall fondly: there was The Daily Grind on Spring Garden Road. It had the distinction of being one of two places in Halifax which would carry the Telegraph-Journal, my provincial paper, with its weekend insert The Reader. I loved The Reader. After having read it for years, it published my first poem, and I remember showing that poem to this same girl, with the paper bought in this same magazine shop. The poem wasn’t very good, as I recall; and I rather expect that she thought so too. But it was a start, and I started just as I wanted to: a poem about New Brunswick published in the paper I read growing up. The problem with The Daily Grind was that there wasn’t much in the way of little poetry magazines to be found. So, my girlfriend and I looked for other places to go.
The other magazine shops in Halifax were just as vigorous, though further from the medical school. There was Atlantic News, all one could want in a magazine store: a vast selection, wide aisles, generous hours. I’m sure they returned the poetry magazines they stocked. Nevertheless they continued doggedly stocking them. There were journals from across Canada and the US, both famous and obscure; I used these magazines to gain a foothold in publishing poetry in Canada. I learned more from them than just where to submit – but that’s another essay.
I remember Blower’s Street Paper Chase. It was closer to the action of Halifax; Atlantic News was more safely tucked away, but the Paper Chase was close to the bars and pizza shops. As I became more familiar with the city, on my way to these more popular establishments, I would regularly duck in to the Paper Chase and see if a new issue of a poetry magazine were stocked. It strikes me now that the magazine I looked for the most closely was Canadian Notes and Queries, back in its John Metcalf-edited, Porcupine’s Quill-published days.
Yet the magazine shops, bright and much-frequented and up-to-the-minute, were really only a preliminary for what I’d dedicate myself to that year. My girlfriend and I were walking to the end of Barrington one day, about to tip into a gross highway interchange, about to reach into the polluted harbour, when we discovered John W. Doull’s bookshop. That girl, she changed my life; but this bookshop revolutionized it.
We walked in and wandered around. As I recall, the place was crammed with books. It was not a precise operation, to my admittedly untrained eye: there were books arranged on shelves, but there were unbrowsable piles of books around the store. There were books on stairs. Books were everywhere. Books like tribbles. We went to the textbook section; there were some old medical texts, though I had no idea of the history of medicine at the time, and if any of these texts were valuable or important. I wish I could say that I spotted Osler’s The Principles and Practice of Medicine and knew immediately that it was something to own. But I didn’t know. Though later that night, when I was in my room, and looking at my bookshelf, I wondered if any of these texts would end up in an old bookshop.
I’m the kind of person who never asks directions. So I didn’t discover where the poetry section was that particular day; but you can be sure I went back, this time by myself, and I looked hard for it. I believe I found it on an upper floor. At the time I was becoming familiar with the history of poetry in Canada, though it was a very gradual process, having had no formal education in literature. When I say “becoming aware”, it is very much like… leaving my room, after a long residence. Wandering around a city in a different province. Refusing to ask anyone for help. Then having the self-satisfaction and pride to find my own way back, no matter how far I went, or how many turns Unwilling to use a map.
I bought a few books from Doull’s that day; can’t remember the titles, alas. They were inexpensive, and they were rather damaged, as I’d come to learn. Like most people I knew that a book could be binary: in good condition or not good condition, but I had yet to learn the niceties of “near-fine”. It all came in time, as I came back to this bookshop often. Emboldened, I scoured the downtown for its competitors: Attic Owl, Schooner Books, and a few other shops with less sophistication but greater potential for a find.
I’m not sure when it happened, exactly. I had been going to Doull’s every week; I was buying books with regularity, and they were always poetry titles. The guy behind the counter recognized me one day. He said: “You like poetry?”
I was twenty years old, in my first year of medical school. I was studying hard, though I left my room more often now, both to be with my girlfriend, but also to be with books. I said, “Yes.”
He then left the counter. He navigated past the piles of books and led me to a wall. He smiled, and pushed a magic lever that entered into a secret room of books.
I thought immediately of Scooby-Doo, of how dreams can come true, I thought of heaven. He then said, “You can go in and see if there’s anything you like.” He left me in there, unchaperoned. The books in this room were different: they were meticulously arranged. It was clear that they were meant to be found. I browsed books that were in much better shape than the fare to be found in the general stacks. The Canadian poetry was sublime: I still remember the feel of Alden Nowlan’s hardcover Under The Ice. I pulled down a beautiful Heaney Nobel Lecture issue that retailed for almost $500. I put the book back on the shelf. I traced the cover of Joyce Cary’s The Horse’s Mouth. I got out of there in a hurry, spooked, like Velma saying “Jinkies!” Though I thanked the man at the desk, but not properly- I don’t think it would have been possible to thank him properly.
Out of respect, I stopped going to Doull’s to just browse. I went there like a lot of collectors do, when they know a store’s inventory: I went to buy. I don’t think they would have let me haunt the secret room anyway. They soon took my name and called me when certain firsts got catalogued. Thrilled at the prospect of better, rarer books, I went back to the other used bookshops in Halifax and asked to be let into their secret rooms. They all had these secret rooms, though none were as truly Scooby-Doo as Doull’s (Schooner, for example, had a basement which was plainly accessible through a red door.) My education in poetry deepened, as did book collecting; I didn’t pick up books to “just see”, as a fan might, to be awed by the presence of the poetry. I was a fan, and I was awed. But I had too much respect for the book itself to risk damaging it, to downgrade its condition. I only pulled out the books that, should they be in good enough condition, I would buy.
So went my student loan money, a better investment than my medical school colleagues who splurged on vacations abroad. I had a boarding room and modest habits, except for the extravagance of books. The medical textbooks, they occupied the bottom shelf. They were the foundation, the ground floor. But up above was the literature.
I walked through the secret door as if I were through the looking-glass. A life that seemed to be dedicated to books, to reading, to writing… became true. In the fifteen years that’s passed since then, I haven’t looked or checked to see if Doull’s is still in existence. I haven’t ever gone back, even when in town on business. I’ve left the place alone and perfect.
Shane Neilson is a Canadian physician, author and poet. Born in New Brunswick, his books of poetry include Meniscus and Exterminate My Heart. In 2010, Neilson won Arc Poetry Magazine’s 15th annual Poem of the Year contest. Complete Physical, his latest collection of poetry has just been shortlisted for the Trillium Prize. He currently has a medical practice in Erin, and lives with his family in Guelph, Ontario