Ed’s Books: A Steelworker’s Next Chapter

Ed’s Books and More on Charlotte Street in Sydney is a secondhand bookstore with wildly varied stock and many labelled bookshelves in lots of sections—rooms, corners, alcoves, a dead-end book alley.

Last Wednesday, while I was there for this article, I almost collided with a customer hectically emerging from the back room (Sports, Hollywood, Comics, Jazz CDs). He rushed past me, muttering, “Lots of nooks and crannies, don’t know what you’re going to see next.”

Ed Gillis of Ed's Books & More, Sydney, NS. (Photo via Facebook)

Ed Gillis of Ed’s Books and More, Sydney, NS. (Photo via Facebook)

I was once searching for E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime. It wasn’t in the Paperback Fiction section. Not among the Popular Books either. Or on the Vintage Fiction shelves. Ed asked me if I had tried the hard covers, so I managed to find them and tried—no luck. Then Ed disappeared to God knows where and returned a couple of minutes later with a copy of the novel for me.

If he can get the book for you, Ed will. I once needed John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Scotch, a memoir of growing up in southern Ontario, but it wasn’t to be found anywhere in the store. Ed checked his own book collection at home and it was in the shop waiting for me on my next visit.

My best find, so far, was the first volume in Eric Hobsbawm’s scholarly, brilliant history of the “long 19th century,” Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. That, of course, was on the shelves labelled History, just up from the back section (War, True Crime, Thrillers, Philosophy) where Mittens and Shadow, the store cats, are usually found.


From collector to seller

Ed Gillis knows all about secondhand bookstore serendipity, since book collecting is what got him into the business. “I was always a book collector,” he told me during our interview in the store’s southern nook (Animals, Gardening, Erotica, Cooking). “I was at flea markets, yard sales, church sales, library sales. I used to come here when it was Reynolds [bookstore].”

Ed's Books & More, Sydney NS (Photo by Catherine Campbell)

Ed’s Books and More, Sydney NS (Photo by Catherine Campbell)

His house was so full of books that a visitor looked around and told him, “You need a bookstore.”

A keen reader, Ed always carried a book with him at the Sydney Steel Plant, where he worked for 27 years till its closing, snatching a read during any break or downtime. (Ed and I never met while working on the Plant — he was usually at the Lab, I was usually at the Blast Furnace — but the Plant wasn’t that big a place, and we must have passed by each other more than once, paperback books in our back pockets. Maybe even the same book, since we were both big on Hemingway at the time.)

A bookstore was a natural move for him but still, he was reluctant. “I’m not a businessman or had any aspirations to be one.” But he was moved partly by necessity:

The Steel Plant pension isn’t indexed, and after 10 years of retirement I had to find a way to make a few extra dollars. So I opted for something I might enjoy, though I knew it would be a challenge. And it’s been a good experience. It’s rewarding and I make enough money to supplement my pension.

Without a pension, he couldn’t make a go of it; with it — and a love of books — he provides the only bookstore in Sydney, a much-needed business on Charlotte Street and employment for two part-time workers.


The Plant

At Ed’s I often get a chance to reminisce about the Plant, since there is no shortage of former steelworkers coming in. That Wednesday, Mike McNeil dropped by and it was good to catch up with my old friend. We worked together a couple of times on the Blast Furnace, and were on the site from 2002 to 2006 as members of the burner crew, demolishing anything metal with oxy-propane torches so it could be sold off as scrap.

Mike is a regular customer, particularly in the “…and More” department. The many items he has bought at Ed’s, he told me, include snowshoes, an ancient mechanic’s creeper (for working under cars) and a small table for his four old cats, who can no longer make the high jump to the parlor window table and now require an intermediate step.

Three steelworkers walk into a bookstore: Ken Jessome, Mike MacNeil, Ed Gillis (Photo by Catherine Campbell)

Three steelworkers walk into a bookstore: Ken Jessome, Mike MacNeil, Ed Gillis (Photo by Catherine Campbell)

Mike’s an art collector, though, and his most frequent purchases are the works by local artists Ed displays throughout the shop. Three of Mike’s most purchased artists are Gary LeDrew, Gloria Clifford and Cordell Miles. The work of Miles had already caught my eye that day. His pencil crayon drawings of that contemporary archetype the anime girl catch the lighthearted spirit of the genre and, for Mike, who knows Miles, the drawings express the artist’s own liveliness and charm.

Ed’s Books supports the arts in many ways, a recent example being the annual Short Story Contest. “This was the second year,” Ed told me. “There were 33 entries last year, and this year it virtually doubled with 65. It’s growing fast.” There are four judges with backgrounds in publishing, journalism and library service. The winner this time, Colleen Gillis, was last year’s runner up. Her story “Manhunt” is a fast-paced and funny account of a wretched old gold-digger trawling wakes in pursuit of fresh widowers, an apt cautionary tale for Cape Breton’s aging population.

Gillis has been invited to read from “Manhunt” at the store on Saturday, April 29, as Ed’s Books joins independent bookstores across the country celebrating Canadian Authors for Indies Day. The event runs from 1 to 4 pm and participating authors include Sheldon Currie, Paul MacDougall and Hugh MacDonald.


Ken Jessome


Arts reporter Ken Jessome was born and raised in Whitney Pier. His latest play, The Girl Out Back, was presented at this year’s Boardmore One-Act Festival in March, where it won four awards, including best script.





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