I was so sad to hear of Jim Munro’s death last Monday. Jim was a huge promoter and lover of books, heritage buildings, art and authors, including of course, his first wife the Nobel prize winner Alice Munro.
He was also a lovely man. I had the pleasure of meeting Jim a few years back when I was researching Sensational Victoria. Because my book was about the stories of people filtered through the houses where they lived and the heritage buildings where they worked, I was fascinated by both Jim Munro’s home and Munro’s Books, the building that he turned into a destination.
Jim told me that in 1966 he fell in love with a house in Rockland that was asking $33,000, and likely designed by the infamous Francis Rattenbury. The house had been turned into a duplex and was in rough shape, but Jim could see the potential, and managed to get the owners down to $20,000. Alice wrote Dance of the Happy Shades, a 1968 Governor General award winner in an upstairs room, and followed that with her bestselling Lives of Girls and Women. The Munro’s divorced in 1972 and Alice moved back to Ontario.
In 1977, Jim married textile artist Carole Sabiston in what the family called the “chapel” because of the stained-glass effect Jim had painted around the windows and for his old pump organ that still sits under the staircase. Jim played Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary on the organ before the wedding.
“I marry artists,” Jim told me “and I love heritage buildings.”
Margaret Drabble, Ian McEwan, Vikram Seth, Jane Urquhart, Carol Shields and Simon Winchester, were just a few of the literary greats that have visited the house.
Carole kindly showed me through the house and garden. Both are beautiful and quirky. There is a wall of wearable art—everything from straw hats to top hats. One corner of a room has a key collection—big iron keys to tiny clock keys collected from flea markets around the world. Another corner has a collection of carpet beaters. Out in the garden, Carole created the Philosopher’s Walk for Jim with a bust of Voltaire.
Carole added a studio that’s connected to the house by a glazed passage. It was here that she created the dramatic five-panel work of mountains and ocean that hangs in Government House, as well as perhaps her most publicly accessible work: eight large banners depicting the seasons that hang in Munro’s Books on Government Street.
In 1984, Jim bought the Royal Bank building, designed by Thomas Hooper, the same architect who designed Hycroft in Shaughnessy, the Victoria Public Library, Roger’s Chocolate building and Christina Haas’s Cook Street Brothel.
“No one wanted a used bank building except me,” he said. “People thought I was insane because in those days there weren’t huge bookstores like there are now, but people who buy books also appreciate art and beautiful buildings.”
In December 2012 Jim invited me to have a Victoria launch at Munro’s and hang out with a bunch of local authors that included Kit Pearson, Sheryl McFarlane and Bill Gaston. Two years later he retired and handed over the keys and inventory to four long-time staffers. That same year he received the Order of Canada.