Poor Michael

I hate writing the pieces that I think of as eulogy columns. When a friend dies I’m always thrown into a period of deep thought, and more times than not it leads me to begin wording my own eulogy of sorts—usually a newspaper column, and now a blog post as well. I don’t want to do this, but I can’t help it. In the end I say whatever it was that I apparently needed to say, and I’m always very glad that I did it. Thinking about the loss of my friend Walter Smith made me go back and look through a few others. This one was written for my tragically young friend Mike Holm, of Poor Michael’s Bookshop in Brandon, Manitoba.

Death’s final lesson

First published in This Week, May 14, 1996.

You know what it’s like when you start a new job. You’re never quite holding all of the strings. You feel as if you’ve learned more than you can pack into your head when you’ve actually learned just a fraction of what you need to know.

In mid-March, when I was feeling just that way, my sister phoned me from the Brandon Sun. My friend Mike Holm was dead.

Now, it’s funny the way your mind works. Rather than inject a puzzling, intimate loss in the midst of a very trying time, I slipped the information into a “Poor Michael’s Bookshop” file in my memory. A month later my mind allowed me to open the file; to reflect, and grieve a little.

I’m still trying to wrap my memory around everything that I ever knew about Poor Michael, and I realize that it’s not much. I suppose that I knew the basics: his personal background and his apprentice years with Winnipeg booksellers. I certainly knew him as a quiet, intellectual man. I ran into Mike a few times when he was trying to make it on his own, selling rare books from a table at Brandon University. In time he opened an antiquarian bookshop that was everything you’d imagine it would be, on the second floor of an old commercial block in downtown Brandon, and when the Manitoba Arts Council saw fit to provide financial backing for the novel I was writing I rented a neat old office down the hall from Poor Michael’s Bookshop.

We wasted far too much time in uncountable bull sessions about everything from golf to Kafka in that old Sam Spade office of mine; Mike and I shared more pots of coffee than you can ever imagine. We bought, sold or traded hundreds and probably thousands of books with each other. After I left Brandon in 1994 I realized that I still had a book that Mike loaned me. Much later I realized that he still had one he borrowed from me, and I considered us even.

Mike and I never shared intimacies, yet we were friends because we shared reading, writing and books. He hunted out treasures for me that my life left me no time to discover for myself.

The last time I saw Mike was just over a year ago, when Lonnie and I were moving from Charlottetown to Prince Rupert. He had long since moved to a Rosser Avenue storefront, but everything else was the same. Books from floor to ceiling, and the gentle, introspective soul of Poor Michael flowing around us like music. We had little time to browse. I chose an old hardback Peter Straub novel for our journey, and Lonnie picked out a wonderful 1940s mystery magazine.

When I think of Poor Michael I remember how deeply affected I was by the loss of elderly Mrs. Day, who ran the used bookshop of my Minnedosa boyhood. All of your secret dreams and hopes are in your imagination; books are the signposts along the path that leads into the very heart of it. It is a rare soul who lays aside any possible chance for a remunerative life to guard that path. Every true bookseller I’ve ever known has genuinely cared more about making sure that I left with exactly the right book than about the money I spent. Those of us who live to read value those rare few. We value them so highly that in memory they never die.

I’ll never forget Poor Michael. He lives in hundreds of books lining my shelves, the ones with the neatly-pencilled price on the top corner of first page. That is the most important thing, death’s final lesson. When it’s my time, I hope that I’m remembered so fondly.

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