Bill Hoffer was one of the top ten thousand most eccentric characters I ever met.
I spent a lot of time hanging out at Don Macleod’s Pender Street bookshop and met many interesting literary personalities there and on occasion even bought a book. More often I sold books to MacLeod (it was all second-hand there) as I was permanently broke and needed the money to buy more books. Even Stephen Hawking cannot untangle the mystery of my personal economic system. (This is where the expression “even stephen” comes from.) One afternoon in 1970 I met Hoffer and he admitted to me that he was a rare-book dealer. A cash register went off in my brain . . . ker-ching! . . . and I mentioned my fabulous library of rare and original books, literary and poetry magazines, pamphlets, broadsides, manuscripts, etc. “Interested?” Yes, he said, but I don’t have any money. I’d like to see them anyway. So we hopped in his Pontiac and drove to my place.
Johanna was only a few months old, maybe four or five months. I had this crazy idea which I regret to this day that it was more important to buy her milk or mashed peas then save a bunch of great literary masterworks for her future enlightenment. What was I thinking? Hoffer went through the box his eyes virtually popping out of his head. I had some great stuff. I can’t give you anything near what this is worth, he said, all I can pay is thirty bucks for the whole lot. It’s a deal, I said! I threw it all into a carton and off he went, leaving me with a twenty and two fives.
I remember thinking as his car sped off, spitting gravel onto the front lawn, that I’d forgotten to remember that I had once thought that Johanna would one day be studying all these by then famous authors and here she’d have original and rare copies of their greatest works – as though my father had said to me, e. e. cummings? . . . knew him well . . . here’s his first hand-printed pamphlet which he signed and gave to me in 1917 when I ran into him at Ezra Pound’s father’s butcher shop.
Hoffer and I were friends after that. I visited his Water Street loft and a few months later he had a real bookstore on Tenth Avenue, out towards the university district. The first time I went there he told me he’d already made his money back – sold one Bowering first-edition for what he paid me for the whole lot. I perused the shelves, visiting my abandoned children, sold into slavery, and among the familiar items was a book John Sinclair gave me, signed by him, saying something like For Brian, a true friend and the greatest poet of the century – well, no, that’s not what it said. I can’t remember what he wrote – it’s around here somewhere because I said to Hoffer, at least give this one back to me, which he kindly did.
One day Robert Duncan was at Hoffer’s shop, signing copies of his books. I picked up a book of memoirs by Salvador Dali, which I ended up never reading and was only interested in because thumbing through I spotted “There is only one difference between a madman and me. I am not mad” which I thought was a pretty good thing to say. I paid Hoffer the five bucks or whatever and then asked Duncan to sign the book. I’ve never seen such disdain on the face of a poet before or since – like I’d knocked on his door to sell him thirty years worth of Watchtowers. Anyway, I never saw him again so I’ve had the permanent impression that he might be a good poet but lacks any sense of humour. Or maybe I really was being an idiot. You decide. By the way, Duncan once offered this quote at a seminar which I never forgot. “A poet at twenty is twenty but a poet at forty is a poet”. Good one.
The thing that interests me about my friendship with Hoffer is that as far as I can tell he had nothing but enemies. No one was ever as cantankerous. He despised the literary establishment (whatever that is) the government, the CBC, Canada Council, writers, editors, publishers, booksellers. His tirades were homicidal and he actually published some of them in little chapbooks. But he liked me. What gives? He urged me to write with promises of publication but back then, in spite of the occasional dribblings at my typewriter, I thought it was more fun to pretend to be a writer than actually do the work.
A notable biographical fact is that his father is Abram Hoffer, Canadian psychiatrist famous, with Humphry Osmond, for theories on nutritional treatments of mental illness (orthomolecular psychiatry) and a pioneer LSD experimenter of whom I’d been aware long before meeting Bill, as these were all topics of great interest to me at one time.
Hoffer and I made the rounds of the bookstores, had meals, coffee, and as long as I could find his latest book store (he seemed to move a lot) we were pals. The last one that I remember was three whole floors worth on Powell St of which the main floor had once housed the Georgia Straight. I think he bought that building. I guess he sold that carton of my stuff for a million bucks eventually.
Then he vanished. In the late nineties I ran into him after an absence of six or seven years. He’d moved to Moscow. He married a Russion, learned the language, and carried on as usual buying and selling books and perhaps also making enemies out of everyone. We talked on the street for twenty minutes but what he didn’t tell me was that he’d come home with lung cancer which he tried to cure with vitamins and the next thing I know I never saw him again. He died in 1997.
Obituary by Celia Duthie:
Bill Hoffer was one of the most colourful and cantankerous characters in Vancouver. Originally from Saskatchewan, Bill arrived in Vancouver in time to take part in Simon Fraser University’s PSA department unrest in the ’60s. His first bookstore, on West 10th, specialized in Canadian poetry and fiction, largely scouted from Binky Marks’s stock in Duthie’s Cellar. He surprised collectors and librarians by putting high prices on unknown authors — and through this increased awareness of these authors. He moved from 10th Avenue to a store above the Love Shop on Granville and later to his own building on Powell Street, from which site he continued to publish catalogues, ephemera, and broadsides, all of very elegant aspect (Bill was no stranger to fine design).
His early catalogues were fairly civil and usually funny (he wrote that Malcolm Lowry was “an alcoholic and justifiably under-rated writer” about whom there were far too many theses written), but in later listings he became more vitriolic, ranting against writers, publishers, and particularly the Canada Council.
Finally, Bill’s indignation with Canada reached a zenith, and he departed for Russia — “the land of the future”, as he described it. There he married a Russian woman, Masha, studied the Russian language, and collected thousands of folk toys which he had beautifully arrayed by region in the couple’s apartment in Moscow. He still haunted the Moscow auctions and occasionally came back to Canada bearing extraordinary books — a nineteenth century Russian moveable book, for example, or an early Danish Braille dictionary.
At the Reader we note Bill’s death with particular sadness, as he was here at the journal’s inception in December 1981; indeed, he wrote the opening column. He began with a harangue about how reviews in Canada were written by friends or enemies with no real critical analysis, but he ended his column thus: “It may be that the Reader will coincide with a new Canadian impulse, one which will permit that which is essentially good in Canadian culture the freedom to weigh something other than the odds. I certainly hope so.”
Bill was never a healthy person, but he always seemed indomitable. When I asked him whether his illness might lead him back to the faith of his forefathers, he replied, “I have never been greatly impressed by death, and I find even now that I am still not impressed by death.” It is left to us, his friends, who are impressed, bereft, and saddened by his early death.