Online Only: To see a photo gallery of John Meier’s book collection, visit our online selection here.I
n September 2004, during her visit to Vancouver, then governor general of Canada Adrienne Clarkson made an unpublicized stop in a leafy, affluent suburb in the outlying southern reaches of the city. She was there to see a book collector named John Meier. Clarkson didn’t particularly know the American-born Meier, nor was he a public figure of any kind, although he’d had a colourful childhood. His father, John Meier Sr., was Howard Hughes’s scientific adviser and fled the US for Canada, claiming threats to his life after the billionaire’s death, then settled in this suburb in 1972. John Meier Jr. himself had had an eclectic career to that point: medical supplies entrepreneur, marketing consultant, real estate agent, and specialty bookseller. At the time Clarkson visited, he was forty-eight, single, and working out of an apartment in his parent’s house.
Meier had known that Clarkson might visit. He’d written a letter to invite her and received a polite and positive response. There had even been a call from Clarkson’s rcmp
security detail two weeks before, sounding oddly as if they were sitting in a van out front, asking to confirm his address, the appearance of the house, the makes and models of cars in his driveway. Still, Meier hadn’t allowed himself to believe it until the limo pulled up. At that moment — as she stepped out onto the wet asphalt, an umbrella unfurled to protect her from the seasonal rains, and strode across the driveway where he had played as a kid — Meier finally had to accept that Adrienne Clarkson had indeed taken the time to drive forty minutes south of the city to look at the jewel of his extensive book collection.
And that jewel was a surprising one. Not a single volume but hundreds of volumes, pristine first editions, unusual association copies, and rare advance states, most signed by their respective authors. It was certainly surprising that Meier had managed to collect all these books in one place. But it was arguably more surprising that Clarkson had never seen such a collection, that Rideau Hall didn’t have one of its own. Nestled into the bookshelves lining the walls of the low-ceilinged basement suite, with its fully drawn blackout curtains and dim UV-free lights, was nothing less than every Governor General’s Award winner in English-language fiction since the 1936 inception of the prize.
The governor general, with her high-profile schedule, had precisely one hour for John Meier, he had been informed by security. Clarkson — sipping tea, asking questions, and leafing through this history of Canadian letters — stayed for two and a half. Meier told her collecting stories, anecdotes about the authors. He also spoke about his latest project, writing and publishing a descriptive bibliography of the collection covering the first seventy years of the prize. For those unfamiliar with these most bookish of books, these catalogues of minute publishing information, that undertaking is best understood as near-Sisyphean. Meier had set out to find all the publishing information for each title, scattered as that data would be through library and publishers’ archives across the English-speaking world.
“A fantastically huge job,” Eric Swanick, the head of special collections at Simon Fraser University and himself a bibliographer, told me. “A work of brass and significance,” echoed Carl Spadoni, the research collections librarian at McMaster University. This Clarkson must have sensed. At the close of her visit, she asked Meier who was supporting him in this unprecedented undertaking. What publisher? What public funding body? The Canada Council, perhaps? To which Meier responded, “No one really seems interested in helping. So I’m just doing it myself.”
d known Meier for a dozen years at that point, and if I understood anything about the man it was that he was single-minded in his attention to projects and a committed individualist. When I’d first met him, he was the alpha neighbour of our old walk-up apartment building on South Granville, Vancouver. Our Kramer, if you will. If you traced lines from every suite in the building to every other suite where the occupant knew somebody, they would have converged in a dense smudge at Meier’s place. Everybody knew him. And like most people for whom this holds true, it was hard not
to know him.
Meier is tall, thin, outgoing, and conversational across an eccentric range of topics. His war with our landlord was a favourite, a three-year feud that began with some paint damage done to Meier’s vintage Ford Granada in the parking lot. But he was also conversant in real estate, the stock market, animal husbandry, wilderness survival techniques, and the possibility of developing a good deet
-free mosquito repellent. There were billions in that one if you hit on the right formula, apparently. Meier once convinced the entomology lab at Simon Fraser University to help him test his homemade recipes; he sat there for an afternoon, his arms deep inside mesh cages of hungry female mosquitoes.
But Meier’s books, strangely, I discovered more or less by accident. We’d been talking about his most recent venture — a wrist-mounted hearing device for the profoundly deaf — when he offered to show me a prototype of the gizmo. I accepted, in part curious what his apartment might look like. The place was stacked with boxes, as if he had only ever gotten around to half moving in.
And then I saw them, looming in the grainy half-light. Custom-built glass-front bookcases from floor to ceiling along every available wall, every shelf full, the colours of a thousand spines seeming to rustle in the darkness. And in the same instant that I understood the lights were low to protect the volumes from fading, I understood further that these were not merely books, but collected books. Books that had been searched for, bought, wrapped individually in clear plastic sleeves. Books that you held gingerly, marvelling that they could be held at all. Galley proofs of The Color Purple
. An advance review copy of A Confederacy of Dunces.
A first edition of Geek Love
, signed by Katherine Dunn to her editor. Advance review copies of both Cat’s Cradle
. I recall Meier considering the long shelf devoted to Irving for a moment — Meier loved
John Irving — before pulling out a mint-condition copy of The Hotel New Hampshire
, an unusual early-state shot from the manuscript. Inside was a slip of paper from the publisher indicating that the book had been given to Robertson Davies. A moment later, I was holding Tom Robbins’s Another Roadside Attraction
, the original Doubleday & Company file copy. Meier had a galley of that one, too — an ultra-rare Cerlox-bound version, the very first setting of the type.
“Where did you get this? ” I remember asking.