Remembering the House of SpecFic

During my youth, I patronized a specialty bookstore in Ottawa called the House of Speculative Fiction, which more or less describes its slant. Recently, culling through my library, moving piles around hoping more space would magically appear, I found this:

It brought back a memory or two. Like the card says, the store was located in a house just a few doors from Bank Street on Fourth Avenue. The splendid drawing on the card was very much based on the taciturn proprietor who sat at the back of the store reading. I did (a very cursory) search on the web and learned that the store opened in the late 1970s and served as a base for up-and-coming Ottawa science fiction and fantasy writers, including Charles de Lint who has gone on to international renown. I could not find out when it closed, but I think it might have been in the mid or late 1990s.

I did find a quote by Robert Sawyer on his blog commenting on the odd practice of separating Science Fiction and Fantasy one step further, by gender. It seemed interesting to me then that the publishers often made the authors names gender neutral, using first and middle initials etc. to head off any bias. And yet, I’m sure there were guys who shunned that section, just ‘cuz.

In a Chapters recently, I noticed the fantasy shelves outweighed the science fiction by a long shot, the realization of a fantasy of my own, back in the days when the tables were very much turned. However, the wisdom I’ve acquired since then is that quantity does provide choice, but it does not usually provide quality. Take away the dribbling romance blended with watered-down horror, the “Dragonlance” type serials, cancerous “Shannara” franchises, and the schlockier slapstick send-ups of the genre, and what’s left is, well, not much. This is fantasy’s day, but gads! there’s a lot of dross on the shelves.

As for myself, I’ll take any Christmas money that comes my way and head to my book dealer, Bytown Books, to stock up on the new year’s fantasy and SF reading.

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11 Comments on “Remembering the House of SpecFic”

  1. Larry Thompson Says:

    And dig the bubble letters on the book mark. Holy period-piece, batman!

  2. Lee Says:

    I remember back in high-school bicycling down to the House of Speculative Fiction to search the racks. I remember the Victorian home it was located in and that they had the creaking original floorboards. One trip I recall vividly for some reason and buying The Dark by Barbara Hambly specifically because it had a wizard on the front (Ingold Inglorian if memory serves) caught sitting at a kitchen table with a foamy can of beer in his hand. It sounds crazy but I can still remember the smell of that place. Wood and paper and a breeze coming in through the back door propped open on the hot summer days.

    • Larry Says:

      I know what you mean. There aren’t many small bookstores left, and I have no illusions, I understand why, but it still makes me feel a bit sad. It’ll be a while before the web can emulate that kind of experience….

      • Lee Says:

        It makes me sad too because of the people: those who own and run these bookshops and their (often) rich cast of different and unusual patrons. It’s not a bookshop I know, but the gaming store, Phandom II, especially when it was on Laurier Ave East in Sandy Hill was another such stop on those warm July days.

        Sorry, I told myself I woudn’t be one of those middle-aged guys who sit and talk about the past but thanks for bringing this up. The memories make me smile, like running into old friends, you know?

  3. Gregg M. Says:

    It’s a little surreal coming across this journal entry and the comments therein, all years old as I write this in early 2015, while I hold in my hand a twin to the very same bookmark above.

    The House of SF brings back fond memories of my teens and early 20s. I bought many a book from there, and always enjoyed talking with the proprietors.

    It’s a real shame that they couldn’t survive the emergence of the book superstores in Ottawa. The owner ended up working for Chapters downtown at the Rideau Centre, I believe.

    At least Fandom II survives as an Ottawa tradition (another old stomping ground of mine).

    It’s sad.. times change, but at least the memories never fade. Thank you, House of SF and all who worked there, and thank you to those who supported it.

    • Larry Says:

      Thanks for the post, Gregg. Yes, I haunted Fandom II as well. To a degree, wallowing in nostalgia is a worthwhile way to spend some moments. It seems in the minds of a few of us, the House of SF has taken on an almost mythic quality, which makes sense, considering their stock and trade. And we have the book marks to prove it really existed! Or did it. My bookmark seems to have vanished again into the churning mill of papers in my life. Did I imagine it? Maybe it was Brigadoon….

  4. Gregg M. Says:

    You’re welcome!

    Hehe, true enough. No, you didn’t imagine it. The bookmark still exists, trust me! I had the sense to snag a few when they were going out of business. I still use them, treasured momentoes. 🙂

  5. Wayne Lenahan Says:

    Hi. I fondly remember going to that wonderful bookstore in the past in the Glebe. Fond memories indeed. And I remember one of the wonderful staff, Galad Elflandsson, if I recall correctly. All were nice and helpful staff, and a wonderful home to sell all of the books of SF and Fantasy for sale. Sadly missed indeed. The bookstore in such a peaceful and wonderful setting. It will sorely be missed by all.
    And indeed there was a major group of SF and Fantasy fans around belonging to a number of Science Fiction and Gaming Clubs at the time. And promoting local Science Fiction Conventions, and others elsewhere at the time. Those were indeed busy times by all.

    • Larry Says:

      If I had been told in my teens and twenties that I would live to see bookstores relegated to veritable novelty shops, I never would have believed it. Fantasy indeed! I just assumed those hallowed aisles would endure at least as long as I did. I didn’t realize then that change is almost always inevitable, and, granted, as often a good thing as it is a tragedy. Difficult times, though, for those of us who loved (and practically lived in) bookstores….

  6. czandramostly Says:

    I have a letter from Patricia Caven in front of me, dated 1992, in which she rejects a manuscript I sent her, with apologies. The letter contains this passage:

    “My business partner and I started this press initially to publish a story by Charles de Lint in honour of our store’s tenth anniversary. It was a costly procedure and taught us much about what our requirements must be for future publications. Unless, of course, we win a lottery.”

    I’d be very happy to know the whereabouts of either her or her partner.

    • Gregg Says:

      I’d be curious about that too.

      As I recall, after the store closed, she worked at that large bookstore adjacent to the Rideau Centre (Borders?). Of course, that place went out of business years ago as well.

      Have you searched online at all? (including Facebook)

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