Richard King remembers being bored out of his mind when he shocked his university-educated parents and dropped out of high school after tenth grade.
Who knew that he would go on to become a pioneer in the business of books in Montreal with Paragraphe and Books and Breakfast? Richard was the “class clown” at Montreal West High, totally unmotivated. He spent summers among left-leaning high-achievers at summer
camps, but was getting next to nothing from his formal education.
After a string of office jobs, starting at a prominent law firm in Place Ville Marie, King returned to school as a mature student at what was then Sir George Williams University, where his curiosity was piqued and intellectual energy channeled.
King completed a B.A. there in history. “My experience at Sir George was the exact opposite of high school. I loved every second of it.”
He followed one of his professors to the University of Rochester, completed an M.A. in modern French history and began researching a Ph.D. in Paris. When he returned to Montreal, he channeled his love of books into learning the ropes of bookselling at Classics Bookshops. That experience was the beginning of his career in books. It was the start of a great awakening for King: now distanced from his post-graduate university environment, he discovered his new passion as a bookseller.
“I quite liked the book business. … I liked the product, I liked the people. Classics, for bookselling, was the Harvard of the business!”
He was promoted manager at the Place Ville Marie store, then of
Classics Little Books, at 1327 Ste. Catherine, which at the time became the place to browse and buy books. For King, whose reading interests included fiction and non-fiction, it was a good fit.
“I liked reading Frederick Forsyth (a popular thriller writer) and history books so there was a wide range of books I could discuss. I was able to sell books to customers and it was something I enjoyed.”
He was promoted to supervisor over a territory that included stores in Ottawa and New York City. Then the option of becoming a book
entrepeneur presented itself. In the early 80s, he and a colleague, Jonathan Penney, decided to take the leap by taking over the failing Mansfield Book Mart, located in a semi-basement just south of Sherbrooke.
It was a helluva gamble. The first referendum on Quebec sovereignty in May 1980 had been defeated, but the future of English-speakers in this city looked bleak. Major head offices had departed, business was in the doldrums, and professionals were heading down Highway 401.
Renamed Paragraphe, it was more than just a bookstore. It is believed to be Canada’s first bookstore café. It opened in 1983, a perilous time for the English-speaking community when the watchword among many local anglos, he recalled, was “see you around, pal.”
But the two entrepreneurs pegged their venture on a marketing strategy. “There were no bookstore cafés in Canada of the kind we wanted to open. There was one in Guelph, but the café was separate from the bookshop.”
King got the idea from seeing one in the Shaker Heights neighbourhood of Cleveland, and hearing about another in Texas. “We know in the book business that the longer you can keep a customer in the store, the better chance you have of making a sale.”
With the success of Paragraphe, King emerged as something of an unsung hero in building a pillar of English literary culture in Montreal.
At the time, there were three rules in the store, King recalled: “No stealing, no spilling coffee on the books, and you have to be polite.”
To counter the spillage issue, customers could not take a book into the café until they had purchased it. To counter shoplifting, Paragraphe was equipped with the same 3M Security system then installed in public libraries. “You have a magnetic strip in the book, and I worked one summer putting those strips in books at McGill,” he recalled.
King also had the idea of making Paragraphe the English bookstore for francophones, who would be served in French. But the main goal was to turn the store into “a cultural centre for English writers in Quebec.” The Aislin cartoon of William Shakespeare engrossed in a book entitled, The Right Stuff, became its trademark and helped cement that image. Paragraphe became the venue for book launches, and remains a favourite to this day.
The first years were not easy, and competition was stiff with the three established bookstores, Classics, W.H. Smith, and Coles. “We had to steal customers from Classics!” It was accomplished, he said, by offering “better service.”
“Never say ‘no’ to a customer. If the book is not available you offer something else.” That job became easier when Classics, which had labour issues, sold to Smith, which then sold or closed all the stores in Canada.
Then, entrepreneur Lawrence Stevenson bought Coles and W.H. Smith and created Chapters, a challenge for Paragraphe, forcing them to expand or close. They countered with a move to its current location, McGill College, bringing it even closer to the prime McGill market.
“We more than doubled our space and got out of the café business, handing that off to Second Cup. It was really a positive move.”
Paragraphe was still in the original location on Mansfield when King started Books and Breakfast, which became an institution for writers and remains strong to this day. “There had been book trade shows for publishers and retailers but we decided to do it for customers.”
In 2000, Paragraphe was sold to Quebecor’s Archambault subsidiary, and the idea was to use the firm’s managerial skill to open Paragraphe stores and expand across Canada, selling books and music.
After buying Videotron, Quebecor did not have the funds to carry out the expansion, but “they were stuck with me — I had a three-year contract.”
Paragraphe later was sold as part of the Archambault group to Renaud-Bray, but the store’s traditions continue. King, meanwhile, continues his love affairs with books.
Shortly after the store opened, King began doing book reports (King makes the distinction between “reviews” and “reports” and says it’s more the latter that he offers his listeners) for CBC Radio and still contributes to the afternoon show, Home Run, where he discusses a handful of books, succinct and broad ranging, usually on a related topic.
About 20 years ago he began writing mystery novels, the first titled That Sleep of Death, which includes a bookseller and a cop who is called in to track down a shoplifter, later retitled A Death at the University, followed by two others, all with “death” in the titles. They are published as e-books.
King is now working on a series with new characters, and seeking a publisher. Meanwhile, he is now in his tenth year at Home Run. “I’m telling the host, Sue Smith, what she needs to know about the book so she’ll know whether she wants to read it or not — the same thing I used to do at the bookstore.”
One of King’s mystery novels, set at the emergency ward of a major hospital, was sparked by his own experience ten years ago at the Jewish General ER where he met a sympathetic nurse who helped him through a trying time. “These amazing nurses perform miracles of care and compassion.” He continues to volunteer in the ER once a week.