I was just thumbing through an obviously well loved, but also well cared for, copy of the Money-Saving Cookbook by Ida Bailey Allen, published by Nelson Doubleday Inc., 1942. Three years into the Second World War, on the heels of the decade-long Great Depression, folks on the home front no doubt would have appreciated whatever advice they could find on how to stretch scarce resources to make ends meet.
I really enjoyed that warm September day in 2011 when we found that cookbook. I had received an assignment from Westworld Saskatchewan Magazine to photograph Ralph Crawford for a back-of-book piece about his bookstore, Crawford’s Used Books, in Perdue, 60 km west of Saskatoon.
We had driven out to Perdue in the morning, planning to interview Ralph early in the day and set up a few compositions while the mid-day light helped illuminate the interior. Then we walked around the town to enjoy a picnic in the “other” downtown, before crossing back to the north side of the tracks to relax with a couple brews at the Hotel Perdue while waiting for the golden hour to bathe the bookstore in warm light, followed by the rise of the harvest moon.
Not many people know why Perdue ended up with two downtown districts. The Canadian Pacific Railway had wanted the town of Perdue to be situated north of the tracks, but there had already been a settlement established on the south side of the tracks, called Dickey. Trying to enforce its view of where the town should be, the CPR erected a tall barbed wire fence. The fence effectively divided the towns, allowing both to flourish, in their own way, until a group of “Southsiders” cut the fence under stealth of night, uniting the town.
Like so many small prairie towns, Perdue is a shadow of its former glory. As the sun dips toward the horizon, it’s easy to imagine the throngs of farmer families that once strolled up and down the streets, ducking into the mercantile for a stout pair of boots or a bolt of fabric, glancing at their reflections in a window to make sure that ties are straight and hair is in place before meeting with their bank manager, or escaping the heat and the dust long enough to down a glass of draught at the hotel.
For the past few years, the Saskatoon Cycling Club has organized an annual Father’s Day ride along the quiet, tree-lined old highway from Asquith that crosses a prominent, historic “rainbow” bridge just east of Perdue. They stop long enough for a leisurely picnic lunch and ice cream, before returning along the same relaxing route. The town is a quiet oasis, bypassed on its northern outskirts by Highway 14, Biggar to the west, Saskatoon to the east.
This is the environment that Ralph stumbled upon in the early days of the 21st Century.
Ralph, articulate and soft-spoken, is a transplant from Sheffield, New Brunswick, where he had operated a bookstore for many years until highway modernization threatened to take away his business.
“My store in New Brunswick was in a rural area,” Ralph says. “It was on the Trans Canada Highway, so it was excellent with tourist traffic in the summer. But when they built the new four-lane through New Brunswick, that bypassed my area, and I knew I just wasn’t going to have the traffic to make staying there viable. So I decided to move.”
At first, he thought he might move to British Columbia’s Lower Mainland, but serendipity brought him to Saskatchewan. While in New Brunswick, he had befriended a couple from BC. The couple subsequently separated, with the woman returning to BC and the man looking elsewhere out west.
“He looked on the internet and he found a property advertised over here in Harris, and I helped him move,” Ralph says. “I asked him to have his real estate agent send me some literature.”
By March, 2000, Ralph had bought the former Merchants Bank of Canada, but didn’t move right away. He had to wind down his store in the Maritimes, completing that task at the end of October the following year. But it took until 2004 for the former store to sell, finally allowing Ralph to open his store in Perdue in 2005.
“There were only a few branches of the Merchants Bank across Canada,” Ralph notes. “There’s one that’s basically identical to this in Heartland, New Brunswick, and it became the head office of Bay and Ross Transport for many years. The building’s still there.”
“This one closed in the ’30s,” Ralph adds.
The Bank of Montreal took over Merchants Bank nine days before Christmas in 1921. Merchants had been one of Canada’s oldest institutions, but was at risk of failing as a result of making bad investments. The bank had opened the West, being one of the first to set up branches across the prairies. The merger made Bank of Montreal the largest financial institution in the country, the New York Times reported on December 17, 1921.
The location doesn’t pose any impediment to operating a bookstore, Ralph tells me.
“You need to be on a highway so that people will be able to get to you. It would be nice to be in a city, but it’s going to cost you a lot more to operate, so you’ve got to sell a lot more just to break even.”
“People will come to you. If you have a book store and they like what you have and they like dealing with you, people will come.”
“People do go out of their way to come here.”
Ralph gets customers from eight provinces, Yukon and Northwest Territories, and “a number of the states.”
“I try to appreciate what others enjoy reading, as well as what I enjoy reading. I think that’s the secret to being able to sell books. You have to be able to believe in the product you’re selling, even if it’s not a book that maybe you would want to read. You have to appreciate that the author did a good job in the field that he’s writing and that it’s a book that will appeal to other people.”
Customers come for a variety of reasons, too, Ralph says.
“In some cases, the books specifically bring them out. In other cases, they’re travelling through, because this road does go on to other communities. It’s a fairly main highway. Then, of course, there’s the golf course out here. You get people coming out to the golf course. Sometimes it will start to rain. What are you going to do, well let’s go to the bookstore!”
“I even had a couple come into town one day and he dropped his wife off here and she bought a number of books while he was over and took a picture of the grain elevator, because he was collecting pictures of grain elevators. You never know what’s going to bring people.”
The sturdy brick building holds roughly a third of Ralph’s inventory of 300,000 books. The remainder are stored in three transport trailers and an antique transit bus.
“These are picked books,” Ralph says. “They’re pretty well all reasonably good books. I don’t mean expensive books, but they’re all books that somebody would want.”
“Basically, I’m open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. but it is recommended that people call if they’re coming, because I run it alone and sometimes I do have to be away. If they’re going by on the highway, that’s different, they can just run in and if I’m here, I’m here.”