Richard King, Montreal bookseller and author, dies at 76

Paragraphe bookstore co-owners Richard King, left, and Jonathan Penney in front of their store on McGill College Avenue in Montreal on June 15, 1998.Owen Egan/The Globe and Mail

Richard King, the Montreal bookseller, author and inveterate book propeller, managed to bridge the gap between the “ka-ching,” as he called the ringing of the cash register, and the pure magic of the written page.

Gregarious, pragmatic and gifted with a salesman’s flair, Mr. King was a high school dropout-turned-mature history student who got into the book business when he realized he couldn’t find no job in the field he had chosen. In the 1970s, he first worked for the now defunct Classics bookstores, where he learned how to organize books in a way that would attract customers. He also learned the importance of having knowledgeable staff who respected the merchandise, could answer customer questions, and had the strength to lift cases of books.

In the early 1980s, when Quebec’s English-speaking population was in upheaval following the province’s first sovereignty referendum, he and a colleague took over the Mansfield Book Mart, a crowded store in a half-basement just south of the McGill University campus. Even though many English speakers fled Highway 401 for Toronto, the business partners made a heady bet on an in situ future, with a store that would become a haven for English-speaking writers and readers, with a cafe that encouraged people to stay a while.

Renamed Librairie Paragraphe Books, it would become a downtown Montreal landmark, both in its original location and in its much grander version on McGill College Avenue.

“Richard was both creative and businessman, a mensch and a man for others, in the Jesuit sense, engaged in the world and always, always in return,” said his longtime friend John Aylen.

Endre Farkas, a poet, editor and publisher who first met Mr King in the late 1970s, recalled his friend coming up with the idea for an in-store cafe during his travels as a as a sales rep for Classics south of the border.

“He saw bookstore cafes in Cleveland and somewhere in Texas and thought, ‘I have to do this,'” Mr. Farkas said. “People who read books drink coffee. It creates an atmosphere. »

Mr King, who also launched Books and Breakfast, the much-vaunted Sunday morning event where authors talk about their books to an audience over brunch, died on January 2 after a brief bout of breast cancer. liver. He was 76, a man who could never finish a single beer and recognized the irony, if not the injustice, of being diagnosed with a disease often associated with alcohol consumption. He opened up about his diagnosis in a recent video that was part of a YouTube series designed for seniors and directed by famed documentary filmmaker Bobbi Jo Hart. In the video, Mr King recalls going to the Jewish General Hospital, where he volunteered for years as a greeter and patient guide, after suffering what he thought were the effects atrial fibrillation. Later tests found cancer, instead.

Mr. King was a high school dropout turned mature history student who got into the book business when he realized he wouldn’t find a job in his chosen field.Courtesy of Baraka Book

“No one really likes to hear that word come out of a doctor’s mouth, but I’m pragmatic,” he said. “You’d think I’d be struck with terror, but I’m not. It’s just something that happened.

His support network was essential: his two younger brothers, his longtime partner, his son and his ex-wife, and the staff of the Jewish General, including a nurse, Maggie Quinsey, who had inspired a main character in his last two detective novels, the second of which comes out in April.

“Richard was the most generous person I know,” Ms Quinsey said in a hospital newsletter. “His humor was always appreciated by our triage team and he never hesitated to help where needed.”

Richard King was born in Montreal on January 27, 1945, the eldest of three sons of Arthur and Laura (née Schecter) King. Her father worked in insurance and her mother was a housewife. She suffered from lupus and died just before Rich’s 7th birthday. It was a loss that would help shape the trajectory of his life.

“When he was diagnosed with cancer, he noted that it was the second worst day of his life,” said his brother Norman King, “and the worst day was when Mom died.”

He turned to books such as The Hardy Boys Mysteries, which always provided a solution to seemingly inexplicable tragic events. He also protected his brothers, whether as a cool counselor at Camp Kinderland, a left-leaning Jewish camp in New York State, or introducing them to the outside world, the blues, and Bob Dylan’s debut album.

Although Mr. King upset his family when he dropped out of high school, after working a series of dead-end jobs, he was accepted as a mature student at Concordia University, where he majored in story, drawn to the subject because he could try to make sense of the past, however chaotic or inexplicable.

He also studied at the University of Rochester, New York, and Paris, where he focused on events during World War II.

Upon his return to Montreal, Mr. King chose to work at Classics because he had always loved books. A fervent defender of the arts, he also participated in the founding of the Quebec Society for the Promotion of the English Language, or QSPELL, precursor of the Federation of Quebec Writers.

For years, he was a book columnist for the local English-language CBC radio station. “He never critiqued a book per se,” said Sue Smith, who until 2019 hosted CBC’s afternoon show, then called home run. “He was a storyteller who loved to laugh, a man filled with contagious energy whose eyes lit up as he spoke. Truly, they twinkled.”

Mr Farkas said his friend knew that recognition of literary excellence would increase community awareness and pride, which would increase book sales. And whenever there was a problem, it was Mr. King who urged action, like when Montreal’s public transit public relations company ruled that only French poetry would be allowed on the sides of city ​​bus, and not next to English poetry, as had been the case. planned in a campaign to popularize the literary genre.

“Richard told us to organize a protest, make it an event and let the media know about it,” Mr Farkas recalled. “The day the campaign was supposed to start, we were there, with our poems on placards, declaring that English speakers and non-English speakers were not allowed to board the bus.

“The decision,” he continued, “was promptly reversed at the behest of [then mayor Jean] Flag.

After selling Paragraphe in 2000, Mr King remained with the store until 2003, but he also began writing mystery novels and helping others, including Holocaust survivors, tell their own stories. .

Along the way, in 1970, Mr. King married Deirdre O’Donnell, with whom he would have a son, Nicholas O’Donnell-King. They would remain friends after their split, and after a second marriage that quickly ended, he settled down with Mary Reinhold in August 2010, after the two were set up on a blind date by her daughter.

“I walked into the cafe and there he was, wearing a pink shirt, reading The New Yorker,” Ms. Reinhold said. “We had coffee, started talking about Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje, and the date lasted five hours.”

The couple, who did not live together, called themselves “a-partners”.

“We never said ‘I love you’ until days before he died,” she recalled. “We just didn’t want to jinx him.”

Mr. King is survived by Mrs. Reinhold, Mr. O’Donnell-King and Mrs. O’Donnell, along with his brothers, Joel and Norman King.

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