Curiosity Delivers.

(Hannah Taylor / The McGill Tribune)

An afternoon at The Word: The history behind the Milton-Parc gem

Out on the Town/Student Living by

Over the course of their time at McGill, a large portion of students become familiar with The Word—a quaint bookstore located on Rue Milton. Even during its busiest hours, there is a special sense of serenity that emanates throughout the shop. A calm, coordinated silence embraces the room, and a warm light illuminates its dynamic window display. It is an ideal environment for patrons to explore its vast treasures: Hundreds and thousands of neatly lined books form an organized procession of the preserved works of Steinbeck, Frost, Locke, and countless other great minds.

The peaceful, homey feeling of the store traces back to its origins: The Word was officially founded by Adrian King-Edwards and Lucille Friesen in 1975. Before the establishment opened, the duo ran a bookstore out of their home.

“In 1973 to 1974, I lived […] in an apartment next door, it was a four and a half apartment,” King-Edwards recalled. “All the doors along the street looked the same. [Friesen and I] were running an underground bookstore in our living room, so we put a picture of George Bernard Shaw in the window, so people would know that’s [what we were doing]. The door would be unlocked and students from McGill would walk in and buy books out of our living room.”

The two ran the hidden bookstore for approximately a year and a half, also hosting activities, such as poetry readings for their visitors. During that time, King-Edwards and Friesen were looking for a place to expand the business.

“One morning I came out to walk the dog, and this place [which] was a Chinese laundry for 70 years, there was a sign on the door [of the building] saying ‘For Rent,’” King-Edwards said. “It was so obvious [what I should do], you didn’t even need to think about it. It’s a beautiful building, it’s perfect.”

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Today, the store is owned by King-Edwards and managed by his son Brendan King-Edwards. King-Edwards’ wife, Donna Jean-Louis, has worked at The Word for several years, and their assistant Scott Moodie has worked there for 25 years. In over 40 years of existence, the layout and look of the store has not changed much.

“I’ve seen someone come in here with a letter from a friend in Europe saying, ‘Go to The Word and get me a copy of Marshall McLuhan,’ and [the letter] had the directions for where it was,” elder King-Edwards said. “The [sender] had not been in the store in five years, but the person with the letter goes […] and finds [the book right away].”

The comforting consistency of the store’s organization also applies to its business model, which has remained constant. As a second-hand bookstore, it is able to provide a large selection of works from various time periods at a low price. Almost all of the books in the store sell for $10 or less. The store also buys and sells textbooks for McGill classes, with some professors exclusively ordering and selling their course books through the establishment. 

The Word maintains a focus on collecting and selling works of classic literature, art, history, philosophy, and poetry. The owners take pride in how the collection is curated.

“Every single book has been chosen by us,” the elder King-Edwards said.  “When people phone me to go to their homes to buy books and I go in and they have maybe 2,000 books, I only choose the ones that I absolutely need that are the best in that library. So I take maybe 200 to 300 books. Usually, we are also very fussy about condition.”

Perhaps more important than the items it carries is the role the store plays in the lives of the people of the Milton-Parc community, including students and professors at McGill. As a small, intimate setting, The Word provides a cosy space for its visitors in a way that larger bookstores typically do not.

“It’s kind of a refuge for [some of our customers],” younger King-Edwards said. “People will often pass by and visit, even once a day and they are stressed, maybe they are a professor at McGill [….] They know that they can come in here and […] that it will be relatively quiet and […] they can have a little bit of reprieve from their day.”

Confirming the younger King-Edwards’s view of the store, there is a grey armchair in the centre of the store, where some visitors will spend hours, seeking solace in a world of words. The setup enhances the reader’s ability to engage in his or her book and escape his or her life for a while. It is this intimate aspect of the store that helps the storekeepers to form a closer relationship with their patrons, which is a large factor that keeps people coming back.

“There’s all kinds of book collectors […] and a lot of our regular customers will come by at least once a week because they know every week we will have new books,” the elder King-Edwards said. “[People return to our store] because they like books [and because] we’ve developed a friendship with them, and we get to know them, and when you know someone for 30 or 40 years, there’s usually a close relationship.”

These interactions between the owners of The Word and its patrons extends beyond the physical store. Brendan King-Edward sends out a monthly newsletter, which customers sign up for online. The newsletter contains lists of the best books the store has acquired over the month, and announces community events, such as the Christmas party they hold in the store annually. 

“One of my favourite parts about working at the store is sending out the newsletters,” the younger King-Edwards said. “I have a lot of fun interacting with people online, whether it is through the newsletters [or] on Facebook [and] Instagram. There is a huge community that starts here and I connect with them outside the store.” 

Much like the classic works housed there, the store’s sense of community is geographically boundless and timeless. The Word prides itself in the welcoming environment it provides for customers.

“The relationships you build are amazing,” the elder King-Edwards said. “If I walk down a street in New York or London, I will always see someone I know [from the store.] In over 40 years, I [have met] hundreds and thousands of people.” 

The Word is an irreplaceable piece of the Milton-Parc area, anchored by people’s passion for reading. For students on a budget, it is a place to buy paperbacks for cheap. For collectors, it is the ultimate destination of a long journey to find a rare edition of their favourite work. For others, it is a sanctuary to spend a relaxing afternoon in good company. But ultimately, for all lovers of books, The Word is simply paradise. 

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