Register Sunday | September 19 | 2021

John Lamont George (1923-2006)

Montreal Loses the Doyen of Booksellers

He was "Mr. George," even to his closest friends, and until mid-January he could still be found sipping tea, savouring whippets and talking literature with the regulars at Argo Books. On March 14, however, John Lamont George succumbed to esophageal cancer. He was 83.

A tall and gentle man with wispy white hair and near-Dickensian features, Mr. George presided over Argo Books for forty years. His tiny shop, currently being run by long-standing employees, looks as though it was pulled out of a Victorian novel. Uneven floorboards cover the narrow space between the floor-to-ceiling shelves, which are crammed with quality-if slightly dusty-new books. A clunky-keyed cash register announces sales with a bright ker-ching. In the little office at the back, a pendulum clock ticks away softly, chiming politely on the hour.

Born in Winnipeg and raised in Moose Jaw and Saskatoon, Mr. George worked briefly for an insurance company before undertaking a Bachelor of Arts degree. He initially planned to switch to medicine, but the sudden influx of returning WWII vets made enrollment difficult. Instead, he opted for library science. After graduating from the University of Toronto, he worked as a librarian in Baltimore, Ottawa, Toronto, and England, and then went on to volunteer with UNESCO, helping to restore the book collections of shelled-out libraries in Dunkirk and Vienna.

On his return from Europe, Mr. George stopped in Montreal, where he learned of the death of his father. After a brief trip home, he set off in search of the ideal location for the bookstore he had decided to open with his inheritance. He visited Australia, New Zealand and Italy before returning to Montreal. A few years later, while the city was preparing madly for Expo '67, Mr. George quietly opened Argo Books at 1915 Sainte-Catherine West.

Although Mr. George had no children of his own, his great capacity for listening and his low-key generosity attracted many people in need of a dose of paternal counseling. When his niece Donna MacLean, who lost her own father as a little girl, struggled with life's hardships, he warned her against pills-and began prescribing her good books. She was not alone in benefiting from Mr. George's advice. "As an angst-ridden young adult during the late sixties and through the seventies," remembers John Kozakiewicz (a.k.a. John the Bookman), "I regularly found a welcome refuge in that store. Speaking now as someone who lost his father at a very young age, I would have been exceptionally proud to have had him as my father."

From the obscure to the local to the out-of-print, Mr. George stocked titles that chain stores wouldn't touch. He had a reputation for being able to track down any book-even if the customer didn't really know what they were looking for. Barry Lazar, author of Tea with Mr. George and Other Adventures in Montreal-a collection of local stories taken from his column in The Gazette-would visit Argo after reading a great review of a book, having forgotten both the title and the author. "In less than twenty questions," he recalls, "Mr. George could come up with both. Nine times out of ten he had a copy in stock, and the remaining one in ten he'd order it straight in."

Writer Jon Paul Fiorentino recalls warm conversations with Mr. George on his Saturday visits to Argo, when he was a Concordia student living a block away. "We talked about the prairies, libraries across Canada and family. He always had a vivid recollection to share with me about growing up in Saskatchewan." As Fiorentino began to publish his own work, Mr. George would clip reviews. Sometimes he'd present those clippings to the new author; sometimes he'd display them in the store.

Simon Dardick, founder of Véhicule Press, recalls starting out in the early seventies. Lacking professional distribution, he would walk into Argo with a bag of poetry books. Mr. George would lavish praise on them all before graciously buying a few. "The best part of the visit," Dardick remembers, "was being invited to the back room office, which was crowded with papers and packages of books, for a spot of tea and literary talk."

Mr. George believed strongly in the value of community, and encouraged co-operation among neighbouring booksellers. After a fire gutted Simon Levine's Stage Books, Mr. George invited the displaced bookseller to operate from Argo while he looked for new premises. For seven years, while working for Mr. George, Terry Westcott sold his own second-hand books on the sidewalk in front of Argo, eventually saving enough money to open his own place a block away.

Another Argo alumnus, Andrew Macfarlane, took a leave of absence from his job at Westcott Books to care for Mr. George during his final weeks. Most of their days were spent working through the Times Literary Supplement, just to keep current. Macfarlane also read aloud from books such as Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (a lifelong favourite-Mr. George's father had read Oliver Twist and The Old Curiosity Shop to him as childhood bedtime stories) and Letters and Notes on the North American Indians by George Caitlin (the bookseller was passionate about Canada's potential to balance US-dominated global politics). Fifty hours before his passing, Mr. George asked Macfarlane to read from D.H. Lawrence's Apocalypse, requesting a passage that compares the soul-nourishing effects of reading great literature to a religious experience. This was the final text Mr. George ever heard.

Argo Books was flooded with cards and phone calls after news broke of Mr. George's death. It soon became clear that the intimate room chosen for his memorial service could never contain all the mourners, so it was moved to a much larger auditorium. Even then, those who came to pay their last respects found themselves crammed in like the books on Argo's shelves.

After the service, attendees moved on for fiddle music, wine, tea and whippets back at Argo. "If Mr. George were with us here to see all these people today," noted Argo employee John Wyse, "he would probably be very embarrassed."