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Meet Nigel Beale of the Literary Tourist

Haven’t given up on the printed page in the era of digital media? For book lovers who also love travel, the Literary Tourist is a rare find.

The site, launched in 2011 by Nigel Beale, an Ottawa-based writer, broadcaster and admitted bibliophile, has a huge database of bookstores, literary events, and significant literary landmarks around the globe—everything from the Charles Dickens Museum in London to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter amusement park in Orlando. It even includes a few literary hotels. (Did you know there were literary hotels? We didn’t.)

For your travels, you can download maps and guides from the site, and use the Literary Route Planner to pinpoint everything of interest en route.

Among book lovers, Nigel may be best known as the host of popular podcast The Biblio File.

Why did you decide to start Literary Tourist?

The idea took hold about two years ago when I first learned that the publishing company Book Hunter Press (BHP) was for sale. It had a series of Book Lovers Regional Guides, which listed all of the used/antiquarian bookstores in North America. I thought this might fit very nicely with what I was doing at the time: writing about literature and books, book collecting, hosting a radio program, and travelling around visiting and photographing bookstores—sort of a midlife folly I called it. I’d been working in the media/public relations business for more than 15 years, and had decided to follow my passion full-time!

I bought the company and since then we’ve added all sorts of bookstores around the world to the original database, in addition to literary destinations, activities and events.

On another level, I was concerned about the alarming number of used bookstore closures, and saw the new Literary Tourist as a way to help slow the trend.

What’s your personal literary background?

Unconventional I’d say. I eschewed novels and fiction for many years, preferring non-fiction. This all changed at about age 30 when I picked up Somerset Maugham’s Great Novelists and their Novels. Reading the amazing works that Maugham had recommended changed my life. I couldn’t wait to get home each evening to re-enter the worlds that these geniuses had created. From there I started to work my way through Clifton Fadiman’s Lifetime Reading Plan, a list of about 100 great books, mostly fiction. I’m sitting at about 70 right now.

At about the same time I set up a book club with a good friend who is now an English professor at St. Xavier University. Each month we’d read and discuss a Shakespearean play. This must have lasted, on-and-off for close to ten years. When Joseph (Khoury) left to teach, I felt a void, and to fill it, launched The Biblio File podcast, which I continue to host. Thanks to the show I’ve been privileged, over the past six/seven years, to interview many of the world’s greatest living authors.

How did you compile such a huge database of bookstores, events, and  literary attractions and how do you keep it up to date with new places and events?

The bulk of the bookstore database comes, as I say, from BHP. Early on I partnered with online bookseller Biblio.com. Together we maintain the list. As for the non-bookstore listings, they’ve mainly been culled from relevant books and Web sites. Whenever I see any material on literary places or landmarks in my travels, I snap it up. Increasingly, we’re receiving feedback from our Web site visitors. This I hope will continue to grow, so that the site becomes more interactive; more of a joint effort to ensure accuracy and comprehensive coverage.

What are some of your favourite literary cities or regions around the world and why?

Well, I’ve just returned from New York. It’s such a vibrant, cosmopolitan place. Its population is large enough to support literary events taking place pretty well every night of the week. For example, last Monday I picked up a Time Out magazine and had at least half a dozen author readings to choose from. I settled on Martin Amis talking about one of his favourite movies. Within hours I was sitting in the front row of a swank hotel’s auditorium listening to one of England’s greatest contemporary authors. London and Paris are also obvious choices. Perhaps not so obvious: Hay-on-Wye, a great book town on the English–Welsh border that something like 60 used bookstores to browse. There’s also a rather charming little book “ville” in Normandy, called Bécherel. Finally, although it’s not exactly close by, Franschhoek in South Africa is about as spectacular a venue as you’ll ever find for a literary festival, surrounded as it is by sunshine and mountains and vineyards.

In Canada, what do you think are some of the must-visit spots for literary tourists?
I don’t think Canada does a particularly good job of preserving the memories of its authors. Hopefully the Literary Tourist Web site will raise awareness of the need for more celebration. This said, there is the Anne of Green Gables phenomenon in Prince Edward Island. which, for fans, shouldn’t be missed. On a much smaller scale there’s Emily Carr House in Victoria and Joy Kogawa House in Vancouver. In Manitoba you’ll find the homes of Ralph Connor, Gabrielle Roy and Margaret Laurence. In Quebec there’s the Musée Louis-Hémon, dedicated to the author of Maria Chapdelaine. On the rare book front, two great libraries come immediately to mind: the Bruce Peel Special Collections Library in Edmonton, and the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library in Toronto.

Do you have a few favourite Canadian bookstores you can recommend?

Since I’m a collector, I prefer used/antiquarian bookstores. So, in Vancouver, MacLeod’s is an iconic shop with gigantic piles of interesting books everywhere. Check out the great poetry section in the basement. In Calgary there’s Aquila Books for those who love groomed, curated surroundings with hand-selected titles, and Tom Williams (122a – 17th Ave. SE; 403-264-0184), for those who like to hunt in wilder terrain. Winnipeg is home to the beautiful Burton Lysecki Books; downtown you’ll find Bison Books, which has a good selection in nice bright surroundings. Finally, when in the Halifax area, don’t miss John Doull, Bookseller, a “dark and musty extravaganza of disorganization” in Dartmouth.

What literary events in Canada are worth travelling to attend?

First off, I think that Canada hosts some of the world’s best writers’ festivals, none better than the Toronto International Festival of Authors (October). Montreal’s Blue Met (April) is also an outstanding event. While not quite on the same scale, the Ottawa International Writers Festival puts on a great show twice a year in spring and fall. The Wayzgoose Book Arts Fair (April) in Grimsby, Ontario, showcases the work of some of Canada’s best private presses.

What’s one of the oddest literary attractions you’ve come across?

I’d have to go with the 17th-century Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral in England. Largely because it seems so odd to to see books tethered down, locked in place, instead of free, easy to access, easy to bring home. The cathedral’s most important book is the 8th-century Hereford Gospels. Chaining books served as an effective security system from the middle ages to the 18th century.

A close second for oddness might be the Edgar Allen Poe House in Philadelphia; the open chimney in the basement plays an important role in several of the author’s macabre short stories.

Has anything surprising come about as a result of launching Literary Tourist?

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how the site, during its short lifetime, has evolved from merely providing a list of literary places and events for literary tourists, into a platform for these same destinations, and associated tourism organizations, to showcase their treasures to the world.

Any plans in the works for a Literary Tourist app?

Definitely. We are currently working on one. In the meantime, the site will soon become mobile, as a result of a redesign that will kick in shortly. It will help visitors get to listing results faster than ever.

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Check out the Literary Tourist Web site or Twitter feed (@LitTourist). Or take a look at the impressive collection of bookstore photos on Flickr.

Photo: John W. MacDonald

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