I had the honour of hosting an evening of Alberta literary trivia at the Writers’ Guild of Alberta 38th annual conference in early June, held at the Memorial Park Library. I welcomed attendees with this glimpse of Calgary's literary landscape, and in particular, the Beltline neighbourhood.
This weekend, we join a long tradition of storytellers who have been gathering in this wide valley for millennia. For generations, Indigenous peoples would travel to the confluence of the Bow and Elbow rivers to hunt bison. As they gathered at the rivers’ edges, their stories would have turned around the winter counts – symbolic annual histories painted on tanned hides. Elders would have told stories about the trickster Napi, who floated on a raft with four animals after a great flood, and who, with a pawful of mud the muskrat brought him, created the prairie, rivers and mountains.
In 1875, when the North-West Mounted Police established a log palisade at the confluence a couple of kilometres from here, they set a new creation story in motion: the tale of a city. This evolving mythology would feature not a raft but a transcontinental railway; not a flood of water, but of people – among them, those who were passionate about story.
The story of the literary landscape where we are meeting this weekend begins three decades after the founding of Fort Calgary, in 1906. That February a 68-year-old widow moved here from Brandon, MB to set up house at 112 - 13th Ave West, a block or so from here, directly behind what is now Hotel Arts. Annie Davidson brought with her a trunk filled with books, and a love of literature.
1906 Calgary was a small city of 12,000 in the early throes of a real-estate boom. There may have been “a bar and brothel on every corner” but in those days, Calgary also possessed a literary culture. Two newspapers. A satiric magazine called the Eye Opener, a more-or-less weekly that featured Bob Edwards and his special blend of fact and fiction.
Bookstores were among the first businesses on Stephen Avenue in the early 1880s, and in 1906, they continued to thrive. One of them was Thomson’s – a bookstore that operated where Thomson’s Restaurant now stands – part of the Hyatt Hotel where we will be gathering to celebrate the Alberta Literary Awards tomorrow evening.
There were several libraries in 1906 Calgary – all of them private. While Annie Davidson was settling into her new home on 13th Avenue West, down the street, James and Isabella Lougheed were planning an addition to their sandstone mansion, in part to showcase their extensive library of leather-bound books.
Soon after Annie Davidson arrived in Calgary, she invited a group of women to her parlour, with an eye to starting a reading club. That invitation would, over the decades, turn these few blocks in the Beltline into a literary landscape.
The women who met in Annie Davidson’s parlour in February 1906 formed the city’s first – and longest running book club. (It still convenes to this day with 38 active members and a lively, rigorous program of reading and discussion.)
But for Annie Davidson and her friends– a book club was only the beginning. Soon, their Calgary Women’s Literary Society began petitioning the city to build the province’s first public library in this park behind us, down the block from Annie’s house.
Davidson would die before the library opened its mahogany doors on January 2, 1912, but the city’s first librarian, Alexander Calhoun carried the torch – intent on offering Calgarians what he envisioned as a “temple of knowledge.”
What we now call the Memorial Park Library opened with Calhoun’s carefully curated collection of 5280 books to, which would – in his words – “satisfy the thirst of all classes of individuals.”
He also created a place that would become a magnet for writers.
The English poet Rupert Brooke was the first notable author to visit, in 1913 – the year after the library opened. “[I]n Calgary,” he wrote in Letters from America, “ you find a very neat and carefully kept building, stocked with an immense variety of periodicals, and an admirably chosen store of books, ranging from the classics to the most utterly modern literature. Few large English towns could show anything as good.”
The Calgary-born expressionist painter, poet and essayist Maxwell Bates spent hours in the stacks across the street as a boy and adolescent, receiving in the library what his biographer calls “his real education” in art and literature.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the young P. K. Page found her way to the library. The building became her “mecca” – the place that fed her aspirations to be an artist, and her first poems, scribbled in a basement cubbyhole at a friend’s house a couple of kilometres from here, on Riverdale Avenue.
In the 1930s and 40s, the library caught the imagination of the prolific BC-based author Frederick Niven. He gave the sandstone building two literary cameos – in his 1930 nonfiction book Canada West, and his 1942 novel The Flying Years. For Niven, the library represented the tangible evidence of the city’s urban aspirations.
In the early 1950s, Sheila Watson likely visited this library when she lived in Calgary, borrowing a lecture by a French existentialist philosopher while she was writing The Double Hook in her house across the Bow River in Crescent Heights.
And, jumping ahead to 1998, the narrator of Aritha van Herk’s novel Restlessness takes note of the Memorial Park Library, describing it as a “dowager” with a “damelike façade” – an “Odd place, breathing ghosts.”
Since the 1970s, the Memorial Park Library has become a hub of literary activity. In the late 1970s, Timothy Findley’s book tour for The Wars stopped here – a memorable visit involving an inebriated audience member curious about Findley’s Irish storyteller’s scarf -- and anxious to know how much money Findley made as a novelist. A few years later, Findley returned with his novel Not Wanted on the Voyage and inadvertently triggered the fire alarm. Both incidents made their way into Findley’s memoir and that of his partner William Whitehead.
“[W]e had come to view that library,” Whitehead writes, “as a symbol of Calgary itself – a source of endless wonders.”
The Memorial Park Library was not just a venue for visiting authors, but offered a place for homegrown writers to share their work. The Calgary Creative Reading Series, launched by W. P. Kinsella in 1979, migrated to the library and showcased many local writers. So did Splits the Heard. The reading series held in association with the Muttart Art Gallery in the 1990s featured the collaboration of literary and visual artists.
In 1987, the Calgary Public Library launched its author-in-residence program with Fred Stenson serving in the inaugural role. During his term, he met aspiring and practicing writers in a well-lit room on the ground floor. In later years, the author-in-residence took up digs in a basement room with metre-thick cement walls – a room called “the vault.” A fitting place for a civic literary jewel.
The author-in-residence program has since moved to the Central Library downtown, but last year the Library announced a new partnership with Wordfest. These days, the Memorial Park Library offers a year-round slate of programming featuring storytellers from near and far.
Over the years, the literary landscape has grown from the library to neighbouring blocks in the Beltline. Next door at the “Old Y,” the WGA operated its first southern Alberta office from the early 1990s to 2009. At the other end of the park, author JoAnn McCaig and her business partner Will Lawrence opened Shelf Life Books in 2012, introducing a new gathering place for writers and readers.
And no literary neighbourhood is complete without a watering hole: for many years, the Hop In Brew pub has served in that role – the setting for stories still to be written and ones in which some of you may very well feature.
As you spend time this weekend in Alberta’s first public library – a brand-new addition to Canada’s register of National Historic sites – I invite you to consider that you are part of a long tradition of storytellers gathering in this place: from the Indigenous peoples who have been sharing stories through the millennia in this valley, to the writers and readers who have been drawn to this particular part of the city since 1906.
Decades ago, Annie Davidson was a reader intent on making books available to the citizens of Calgary. But in these blocks, she also planted a landscape where writers would grow, be inspired and come together.
When you step through the library doors tomorrow, pause for a moment by the display in the vestibule and pay your respects to Annie.