Book Villa

Every weekend when I was young, my brother and I took a bus to visit my grandmother. We did the trip together for a year, and then he had other things to do and I started going alone.

Walking from our house to the bus stop on Lakeshore Road in Burlington took twenty minutes. The ride to the bigger neighbouring city of Hamilton was about half an hour. Then there was another ten-minute walk from the Rebecca Street Go bus station to the city housing apartment on the same street where my grandmother lived. In total, the whole trip took about an hour.

I was about twelve when I started going alone, and continued my visits for a few years. I can’t remember the exact dates but my best guess is the majority of my adventures happened in 1974 or 1975. 

I’d visit with my Gran, watch some TV and eat lunch. Then Helen would give me a little cash and I’d venture out. Inevitably I’d end up at a seedy book store on King Street East known as Book Villa*. Hamilton was pretty rough around the edges in the seventies and Book Villa was too.

In that book store, I would try my best to avoid interacting with any of the adult male patrons. Book Villa had a lot of magazines wrapped in plastic, and there was usually a crowd of dodgy, older men in the narrow aisle. In defence of the place, the majority of the adult magazines were wrapped up tight and displayed out of the reach of minors. In hindsight, they were probably quite tame too, but marketed as XXX back in the 70s.

I’d leave the place with a brown paper bag containing two or three non-pornographic magazines. I gravitated towards scuba diving, photography, model trains, or stamp collecting. On occasion there would be a fantasy, or sci-fi paperback. I loved that store in hindsight, and being there is one of my most cherished childhood memories.

A decade later—in my twenties–I got my own apartment, a few years after my grandmother had died. I started working at that bookstore I loved. Book Villa was open until midnight seven days a week. I’d sit behind the cash register most nights serving customers and receiving books, or packing up returns while the porn addicts came and went. 

It never felt like I was doing something dangerous. Book Villa was a well-loved —albeit tired—shop with a dirt floor basement and not much room to move around between the aisles of paperbacks and a few hardcovers. There were apartments above the place and those tenants often came into the store. One of the owner’s sons—who also worked in the shop—lived up there. The family loved and valued reading.

There was a baseball bat behind the counter that was intended to make employees feel safe. The late-night shift was always a single person job. There never was any real trouble. The cops came in regularly. In fact, the police raided and seized various adult periodicals on occasion. I remember the owner being critical of the cops. She’d tell stories about the corruption and organized crime that had seeped into Hamilton’s finest. There was also a very rough biker bar across the way, and a lot of mean looking dudes often came in wearing colours. 

At some point I stopped working at the bookstore and went to school to study art, only to return a few years later to live and work in the Hammer again but this time at the Art Gallery of Hamilton and HMV, not Book Villa. I played in bands and took photographs. I made things I thought were art. I hung around with a bunch of other people in bands. I drank too much, and learned how to live with people.

In the thirty years since the Hamilton days I’ve become a Torontonian. In this city, I have a career working in the music industry and feel privileged to have a gallery that sells my photography. I’m not taking celebrity shots or portraits of any kind. My photographs never contain people. Most of the time they don’t contain much of anything at all. If I were to name a few of the biggest influences on my work I’d say; Hiroshi Sugimoto, Lynne Cohen, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Walker Evans, Laura Letinsky, William Eggleston and Stephen Shore. It’s nowhere near the whole list, but it contains the artists I think about the most, and who have left a sizable impression. 

I’ve also read a lot. On average somewhere around thirty books a year. I read mostly fiction. It’s either standard mystery novels—and I’ve read a lot of those—very abstract and often plotless fiction, or poetry. I’ve started to read a lot of poetry.

I picked up John Darnielle’s, Devil House at Type, a place in Toronto that’s nothing like Book Villa. It’s the third novel from the Mountain Goats leader. It grabbed my attention. That’s saying a lot, because since COVID, reading has become an issue. I know I’m not the only one suffering with a frustrating inability to concentrate. 

It’s the Darnielle book’s that triggered this story. 

The plot of Devil House is propelled by events that occur at the former site of a sordid little pornography store in a small town in California called Monster Adult X. The location is central to the story. I’d say Monster Adult X is the main character of the book and Darnielle’s detailed description reminded me of Book Villa. It’s been years since I’ve been to Hamilton and for some reason it’s been decades since I thought about Book Villa.

This morning, with coffee in hand, before I started my day job, I Googled Book Villa. I was so captured by Darnielle’s book that I wanted to see the place that I knew so long ago. I looked and looked, expecting to find some sub-par vintage pictures of downtown Hamilton in the 70s and 80s. I looked at street view details of the downtown Hamilton map on Google as well, until I finally decided that Book Villa—once located at 185 King Street East—is gone and nobody cared about it or remembered. Sad, but not entirely unexpected in these days where bookstores have struggled to keep the lights on. There was literally no record of the place.

I kept searching. I really wanted to see that store again. I searched using every combination of keywords I thought would work. I looked for the address after finding an old phone book listing. I kept looking, and finally on the verge of abandoning the search, I stumbled upon a single image. One single solitary image of Book Villa.

But what an image it was. A spectacular photograph, that shows the store perfectly, as it existed in the mid 70s.

I was excited. This photograph captured so much of what I was feeling attached to and started to remember. It’s a colour image that was taken in 197?. The exact same period I would have been in those tween or teen years visiting my grandmother. If the photo was taken a few hours later in the day, I could have been inside the store holding a copy of Photography Today, or some weird paperback.  I imagine I saw the photographer and their tripod set up across the street. Maybe they went into the store later in the day and were looking at Photography magazines too?

The even more amazing thing is that this is a photograph by Stephen Shore and was included in his seminal 1982 collection, Uncommon Places. I never bought that book. I didn’t become interested in Art books until about 2000, when my own art career got a bit serious. I imagine it’s the only Canadian shot in there.

When I was about twelve, Stephen Shore took a picture in Hamilton, Ontario during his trip across the U.S. in which he built a body of work that would make him one of the most acclaimed contemporary art photographers of the 20th century. He took a picture of a store that I might have been standing in on the same day, hours after that the shutter clicked. I might have been flipping through a photography magazine. Twenty-seven-year-old Stephen Shore was literally meters away from fourteen-year-old me. Maybe that happened.

This seems remarkable to me, considering I wouldn’t know who Stephen Shore was until 25 years later and I wouldn’t see this photograph until 50 years later.

*this image is a painting of Book Villa by Cameron Kuntz