Ivy’s celebrates 50 years in Oak Bay
While she was a mainstay of the Victoria literary world, bookstore owner Ivy Mickelson liked to read C.S. Lewis, E.B. White, Henry Miller (whom she met while working in a New York bookstore), Allan Watts, Thomas Merton, Krishnamurti, C.G. Jung and Herman Hesse.
June 09th, 2014
The late Ivy Mickelson’s spirit will doubtless preside during the festivities to mark the 50th year of independent bookselling at Ivy’s Bookshop.
There was no sales tax on books when Ivy Mickelson opened Ivy’s Bookshop in 1964. The store did not have a cash register; sales were recorded on a stenographer’s pad.
As the last copy of a particular title was sold, a note was made on a scrap of paper to remind Mickelson to re-order. No inventory lists were made.
Poet and professor Robin Skelton was a frequent visitor, as well as poet P.K. Page. The little store soon became a bastion of the Victoria literary world in the Sixties and Seventies. Touring authors included Farley Mowat, Robertson Davies, Margaret Atwood and John Mortimer.
But it was Ivy Mickelson herself who was the main attraction for many customers. She liked to read C.S. Lewis, E.B. White, Henry Miller (whom she met while working in a New York bookstore), Allan Watts, Thomas Merton, Krishnamurti, C.G. Jung and Herman Hesse.
Part of the customer service often included heated discussions with Ivy herself. In a 1972 article in The Victorian newspaper she is quoted as saying: “Maybe if we were more familiar with the great writers we would be in a better position to assess some of the garbage that is being churned out today.”
Born in Manitoba, she had moved with her family to Victoria at the age of six. She first worked in 1947 at the old Diggon-Hibben firm in Victoria before it was bought out by Wilson Stationery, which dropped its book department.
Mickelson then had stints working in bookstores in England (Foyles Bookstore) and New York (Gotham Book Mart) before returning to Canada and getting hired by Bill Duthie at his Robson Street locale. She and several other ex-employees from Duthie’s went on to open their own bookstores such as Laughing Oyster (Courtenay), Butte Booksellers (Butte, Montana), Granville Book Company, Women in Print and Sophia Books (all in Vancouver).
“Ivy was a true bookseller,” says long-time employee Shirley St. Pierre. “She was eccentric, personable – a larger-than-life person.”
“Ivy’s love of books was a big part of her character,” says former employee Sarah Gee. “When people showed that they cared about books, they got her best attention and service.”
“Ivy was a bookseller of different kind and another era,” says Diana Leeming. “She was brilliant, a genius. In the days before computers, Ivy had everything in her head.” (Leeming left Ivy’s to start her own second-hand bookstore but has now returned to work at Ivy’s under the current ownership.)
Ivy Mickelson became a much-admired mentor to her staff, often charming them with her expressions. “She used to say to me and a few others, ‘Ah my proud beauty’. I adored it,” says Pat Sloan whom Ivy hired in the late 1960’s (Sloan later became Managing Editor of Sono Nis). “I often think of her permanently tanned face and her electric blue eyes that seemed to see through your defenses to the real you.”
St. Pierre remembers that a tea break was held every afternoon at 3 pm without fail. “Whoever was in the store was invited, too,” says St. Pierre. “If a customer needed assistance during tea, one of us would get up while the rest kept sipping.”
“Customers waiting to buy a book might be ignored,” recalls Gee, who was employed at Ivy’s in 1983, at the age of 18, “to the point it was uncomfortable. They would start looking around to see who was working. But eventually someone got up to attend to them.
“Ivy and her sister Ada, who helped run the business and did the bookkeeping, were very strange and eccentric bosses for an 18 year-old girl. They did things their own way. There was no business plan; they did whatever they thought was morally correct.
“She was a raging intellectual. The regulars were usually people who were strong enough to stand up to Ivy. She could be very intimidating. But Ivy grew not to like change. She stopped listening in her middle-age and became old-fashioned. And yet, she was also ahead of her time in many ways, too.”
One day an older gentleman came into the store, surreptitiously took a book from the shelves and brought it to the counter to pay. “The book was The Joy of Sex but he was trying to hide the title. So Ivy hollered into the back room to her sister, ‘Ada how much is The Joy of Sex?'” says Gee. “She kept loudly repeating the title much to the embarrassment of the poor customer. He looked like he wanted to die. But Ivy was doing it because she didn’t believe people should be embarrassed about books. It was her way of saying, ‘get over it, it’s just a book’.”
Ivy Mickelson and her sister Ada were a team. “They co-managed the store,” says Leeming. “Ivy couldn’t do it on her own; she wasn’t good with the bookkeeping. And they were as different as night and day. Ada was quiet, calm and good in crises. Ivy was loud, mouthy and didn’t care who she offended.
“She was quite left-wing and stated her politics out loud. She didn’t care who was there. One of her regulars was a Colonel. Of course he was of the opposite political stripe to Ivy. He would stand in the doorway and say, ‘Look at the hotbed of reds in there.’ And Ivy would shout back, ‘Come in if you dare.’ Her customers loved her.”
As mentor, Ivy Mickelson ranks with Bill Duthie and Jim Munro of Munro’s Books (which turned 50 last year). “I worked there three different times over the years,” says Pat Sloan. “The stockroom was her bathroom and any other place she could fit books into.
“Many books were stored under the bed in Ivy’s home. She was warned more than once by the fire chief that it was a fire hazard. Another one of Ivy’s frequent sayings was, ‘There’s always room for one more,’ meaning we could stuff more books into the shelves. I still remember the Penguin book shelves at the back. They were so stuffed, they bulged.”
Later in the day the drinks of choice at Ivy’s became wine and sherry. Ivy liked to drink sherry. The wine drinkers took over from the tea sippers of the afternoon, two distinct groups. Things could get a little out of hand. “One evening, an employee drank so much wine she passed out in the store,” says Sloan. “Ivy just laughed. Another boss might have reprimanded the employee.”
Author readings became heated at times. “There was a fight one night when an author kept reading way past his allotted time,” remembers Sloan. “The author who was supposed to follow the windbag decided to try take the stand and a scuffle broke out. Wine was spilled and I got covered in it.”
During Mickelson’s time, her bookstore became a hub for ‘artsy-types’ says Sloan. “It was a happening place to be. Lots of people connected with the University of Victoria came to Ivy’s as well as actors and artists. The painter Maxwell Bates made bookmarks for Ivy.
“There was a period while I was working at Ivy’s that I lived in the old Mickelson family home. It was a huge waterfront older house inhabited by artists, creative people and actors. That place was an island of hippie culture. It seemed so natural to me then and yet, looking back, it wasn’t ordinary at all.”
Sloan says the activities at Ivy’s made books an integral part of the larger cultural fabric. “Ivy’s Bookshop was more of a social life, one that revolved around books. But computers changed the book world. When they came in, bookstore employees didn’t need to know what was on the shelves. At Ivy’s, we knew exactly what we had and where it was. We had to in order to keep track of the inventory. At least Ivy had an adding machine that we could use to total our book sales at the end of the day. I had worked at Munro’s bookstore and they didn’t even have that in the early days – we had to do additions by hand.”
While ordering books, and surrounded by a mound of slips of paper as reminders of what was needed, Ivy would also use her knowledge about the tastes of her varied customers as a way to order titles says Diana Leeming. “She ordered books with specific customers in mind. They didn’t have to ask her. When the books came in, she would phone them. Customers were so pleased by this. They almost always bought the books.”
Meanwhile Mickelson maintained a simple domestic life. “She lived in a series of primitive cottages and she loved nature,” says Sloan. “But her love of books shone through. We were even allowed to take books home to read.”
“One of the first things Yvonne did when she bought the store was buy a proper cash register,” says Shirley St. Pierre–who has known all four owners. This did not go down well with Ivy.
“She was really upset about it,” says Pat Sloan. “Ivy said to me, ‘She put in a cash register,’ in her high indignant voice, as if it was the end of the world.”
Yvonne Sharp had the good fortune of going for dinner with John Mortimer, the creator of the Horace Rumpole character that was the basis for a British TV series called Rumpole of the Bailey. “Mortimer was a real ‘good time Charlie’ especially after he drank a lot of booze,” says St. Pierre. “He gave a memorable reading at Ivy’s. People were packed into the store and he talked to everyone, regaling them with anecdotes and funny stories.”
Sarah Harvey is an editor for Orca Books, as well as an author and the former manager of the University of Victoria bookstore. One of her earliest jobs was at Ivy’s Bookshop. Here are her memories of those days.
I started working at Ivy’s Bookshop in 1965—I was fifteen and the store was a year old. My qualifications were minimal; I knew how to operate a cash register and I loved books. Turns out that my cash register experience was of far less use than my love of books, since Ivy’s didn’t have a cash register, just a cash drawer (more on that later).
The store’s first location was on Wilmot Place, a side street in the quiet (some might say quaint) district of Oak Bay. Heated by a single smelly oil heater, the store featured poetry, drama and fiction, as well as a children’s section (with a weird low table and attached chairs that children hated). There was also a larger, adult-sized table where tea was served every afternoon to anyone who was in the store.
Making tea was one of my first responsibilities, and it was a strict process, taught to me by Ivy’s sister, Ada, the store’s bookkeeper and main Ivy-wrangler. Around 3 pm, I warmed the teapot and made a big pot of strong black tea. I was to add milk first to the mugs of those customers who wanted it. Digestive biscuits (not the chocolate kind, just the plain ones) were to be arranged nicely on a plate. The teapot must be kept replenished until teatime was over (usually around 4 pm). Then I did the dishes in the bathroom sink.
Between 5 and 6 pm, the wine jugs came out. The wine, mostly red, was consumed by Victoria’s literati—people like Robin Skelton, Fenwick Lansdowne, Nita Forrest, Pat Martin Bates, P.K. Page dropped by regularly to drink lousy wine and discuss great literature. I poured the wine, listened to the conversations—and washed the glasses in the bathroom sink.
The centre of all this activity was the brilliant, hard-working and eccentric Ivy Mickelson, who was reputed to have trained as a bookseller in New York City. Ivy was short-ish and round-ish with a head of unruly curls and a slash of magenta lipstick, which she famously applied without a mirror. She had two favourite expressions. The first was, “Oh, really!” said, eyes wide, in response to just about anything, from the trivial (“We’re out of digestives”) to the serious (“I’m pregnant”). She also proclaimed “Life is real! Life is earnest!” almost every day. It was years before I found out the next line of the poem is “And the grave is not its goal,” but it’s an expression I still use today.
Ivy-the-Indefatigable worked incredibly hard to build up the store’s reputation as the place in Victoria for Literature with a capital L. She refused to stock mass-market paperbacks (although she would pick them up at the local wholesaler if you asked nicely) but she had firm views on what constituted literature, and what did not. Woe betide the customer who challenged Ivy’s opinion on such matters. I certainly never argued with her (not about that, anyway). I was just happy that she paid me to come in and make the tea, pour the wine and sell some books. I loved bookselling—and I loved learning about it from Ivy (and Ada, although Ada could be a bit scary).
One of my duties was gift-wrapping (special occasions and Christmas) and I still remember Ada teaching me to make a very specific kind of bow (no curly ribbon—that was cheating). Ada was also VERY particular about how the bills were placed in the cash drawer—the Queen’s heads all had to face in the same direction—and I was always getting in trouble for forgetting that important rule (and for getting my long hair caught in the cash drawer).
I worked for Ivy off and on for years—and I was proud to have been trained in the fine art of bookselling before there were inventory systems and computers. Either you remembered that a book was on the shelf, or you didn’t. It was that simple. Over the years, I met and served tea and wine to writers and artists and reps (I remember the first book Scotty McIntyre sold to Ivy: Cooking for One, by Norah Wilmot), as well as elderly ladies and gentlemen, harried young mothers, brash young broadcasters (hello, Jurgen Gothe) and whoever else had heard about the little, poorly-heated, well-stocked shop run by an amazing woman named Ivy.
Ivy’s Bookshop remains an intimate place where people like to drop in and hang out. Megan Scott maintains there will always be a place for bookstores, especially ones that specialize in excellent customer service, knowledgeable staff and community involvement.