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Book lovers find bliss by a B.C. beach

Here, in this coastal Western Canadian town, it's all about the books — thousands of them scattered throughout 12 stores.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Here, in this coastal Western Canadian town, it's all about the books — thousands of them scattered throughout 12 stores.

New books and rare books. Paperbacks and hardbacks. Children's books, classics and mysteries. Cookbooks, gardening books, even comic books.

For two days, I was in literature bliss, not knowing where to start, losing track of time, and eventually being asked to leave one store because it was closing time — almost like a bartender cutting me off.

Within seven blocks, I could find just about everything from the latest best-selling mystery by writer Michael Connelly to rare finds by 18th-century writer Sir Walter Scott.

These books quickly engage the senses and don't let go: Feel the raised letters of a copy of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." Smell the old paper from the pages of "A History of Egyptian Mummies" from 1834. Listen to the bookstore owners talk about their collections. Watch a new title unexpectedly catch someone's eye.

Literary mania is a year-round preoccupation in this seaside town of 11,000 people, who live about 20 miles from British Columbia's capital, Victoria. Wherever you are, there's a store on the next block. There's one next door. There's another a few doors down. And there's one around the corner. There's even one underground.

English town provided inspiration
Sidney is billed as Canada's only booktown, a place that emerged from the blueprint of Britain's Hay-On-Wye booktown on the English-Welsh border with 1,500 people and 30 bookstores.

The books sit on tables, in bookshelves, and behind glass to preserve pages and bindings that survived a century-long journey to this particular shelf.

Some books get stacked along side bookcases already teeming with so many titles there is no room even for a thin paperback.

The overflow reaches the top of shelves, putting some books slightly out of reach unless you find a stepladder.

Some books still sit in boxes waiting to be unpacked and sorted. Sometimes store clerks are too slow for impatient customers, so it's not unusual to find a book lover begins wading through a new batch before it's on the shelves.

Portions of the bookstores look more like a person's office, where books accumulate and await someone to come in and start reading.

And somewhere behind every stack is someone eager to talk books.

Owner delves into visitors' background
Start with Clive Tanner, who has a stake in five stores and started Sidney's booktown in 1994 after visiting Hay-On-Wye. He can be found roaming from Paperback Writer to Country Life Books to Time Enough for Books to Beacon Books. Tanner wants to know as much about readers — where they are from, how they got here and when they are coming back — as they do about his town.

Or go visit Odean Long, who owns The Haunted Bookshop. One tableau underscores her love for British literature: a painting of Sir Walter Scott, famous for "Ivanhoe" and "Rob Roy." Long refuses to stock books found on wire racks in local pharmacies. But she will have anything from a paperback of classic literature for a few bucks to a first edition of "The House at Pooh Corner," which can fetch as much as $1,000.

From there, walk few doors down into Galleon Books & Antiques where Rod Laurie and Brian MacLean own a shop with second-hand books shelved amid the decor of a genteel private study, surrounded by art, antiques and table centerpieces. The two men stock mostly nonfiction replete with titles on First Nations, Canadian history, antiques and art.

Or sit down with Fred Gordon, a Scotsman who co-owns The Book Cellar, an underground bookstore with maps and more than 5,000 titles depicting the world's military history. Gordon opened the store with Tanner and sits ready to discuss his collection of Winston Churchill's works.

Used books, hidden gems
If you're not browsing, buying or sitting along the coast getting lost in your latest discovery, chances are you're thinking about what's missing from your shelves.

But it isn't always the book you're looking for. Rather, it's the one next to it or the one on the shelf below that catches your eye, allowing you to discover new titles in ways that searching the Internet would not.

And because the books are used, you can't help but be curious about their pasts. I'll look at a copy of Mark Twain's "Roughing It" and wonder: Who was this book's first owner? An adult? A child? A teacher? A writer? How many owners have there been altogether? Where was this book first sold? How did it get to this store? Why would the owner give up this copy?

"Roughing It" is a favorite of mine, and I'm always looking for different editions. This time, as I perused the shelves of a store in Sidney, another title emerged: "Selected Shorter Writings of Mark Twain," a collection published in 1962.

It cost $5. I wouldn't sell it for $500.