Libraries · Victoria

Mary Stewart: “Knew More about Books than Anyone Else in Victoria”

In the 1890s, T.N. Hibben & Co. was the place to meet in Victoria. “On a Saturday afternoon, or in the evenings, when the stores were open, you were sure to meet just about everyone you knew waiting for somebody else in Hibben’s store, poking among the books and passing the time of day with other people who were waiting for the people who were always late,” wrote James Nesbitt in his popular column “Old Homes and Families” in the Colonist (1).

“It was a friendly store, filled with books and the latest in stationery,” Nesbitt continued, then mentioned the constant presence of Thomas Napier Hibben (son and namesake of the founder), his brother, Parker, and William Bone, a partner in the business.

“And there was also Miss Mamie Stewart, whom everyone said knew more about books than anyone else in Victoria.”

“And there was also Miss Mamie Stewart, whom everyone said knew more about books than anyone else in Victoria.”

This grabbed my attention, as I hadn’t come across Mamie Stewart’s name before in connection with Hibben’s.

Nesbitt’s article said Stewart had eventually left Hibben’s for a job at the Victoria Public Library. “Everyone missed her, and said Hibben’s was never quite the same.”

Who was this Mamie Stewart? In my research of BC bookselling history, I so seldom come across the names of women (an unfortunate reality of the times) that I felt extra-motivated to find out.

Childhood and St. Ann’s Academy: “Such Is the Way to the Stars”

Mamie Stewart, or Mary Elizabeth, her given name, was born in Victoria in 1870 to John and Margaret (McCoy) Stewart. John was a brass founder originally from Dundee, Scotland, while Margaret’s roots were in Ireland (2). Prior to arriving in Victoria in 1862, John spent five years in Lima, Peru (3). The family also included two sons, John Walter and Arthur Bernard, both younger than Mary.

As a girl, Stewart attended St. Ann’s Academy, an all-girls’ Catholic school in Victoria (4). “The school motto of St. Ann’s Academy was SIC ITUR AD ASTRA, which translates to ‘Such is the way to the stars’,” reads the history section of the school’s website. “Over and over again, the former students and teachers from the Academy spoke of the high expectations of the pupils there, and how this confidence in their abilities led them to achievements.”

The years she spent at St. Ann’s presumably instilled in Stewart her knowledge of and appreciation for literature.

T.N. Hibben & Co.

In 1894, Stewart worked as a clerk at C.A. Lombard & Co. (5). The music store was located at 61 Government Street, just a few doors down from T.N. Hibben & Co., at 69-71 Government, presumably giving Stewart lots of opportunity to stop into the bookstore and get to know its proprietors.

By 1897, Stewart was employed as a clerk at Hibben’s (6). She remained with the company until at least 1905 (7), during which time she gained her reputation as knowing “more about books than anyone else in Victoria.”

Victoria Public Library

As reported in the Nesbitt article, Stewart left Hibben’s for a position at Victoria Public Library, making the move sometime between 1905 and 1909 (8).

By this time, Mary’s father John had died of heart disease. Reporting his death, the Daily Colonist called him “a highly respected and well known resident of this city” (9).

At the library, Mary Stewart’s knowledge of books and way with people stood out, just as they did while she was at Hibben’s. In a 1914 report about the library’s rising circulation, the Daily Colonist gave Stewart much credit:

“The kindness and courtesy of Miss Mary Stewart, the manager of the circulation department of the library, makes the task of exchanging books a real pleasure to most people. There are many readers who must depend on the manager of this department for information and advice, and Miss Stewart is exceptionally well qualified to give both. To readers and book-lovers in Victoria she is an old friend, and she has added to her early training an earnest study of modern library methods. In Miss Stewart the head librarian has a very efficient and loyal co-worker, and the patrons of the library one of the kindest and most courteous, as well as most efficient, of public servants” (10).

“To readers and book-lovers in Victoria, [Mary Stewart] is an old friend.”

Mary Stewart (at centre behind desk) as circulation manager at the Victoria Public Library, ca. 1915 (BC Archives, D-07481).

Mary Stewart is not to be confused with the other Stewart of Victoria’s early library history: Helen Gordon Stewart, who served as head librarian from 1912 to 1924.

Helen’s enormous contributions to the development of libraries and librarianship in BC are too numerous to mention here, but Mary made an impression on even this illustrious figure. In an interview Helen gave about her library career, she referred to Mary as “a fine a person as ever there was. I think she knew every person who came into [the library]” (11). Mary served as acting librarian a number of times when Helen was away.

Mary retired from the Victoria Public Library in 1936. After a lifetime of contributing to Victoria’s reading culture, she died at the age of seventy-four on November 11, 1944 (13).

 

Notes

(1) James Nesbitt, “Old Homes and Families,” Colonist (January 10, 1954): 1.

(2) 1901 Canadian census.

(3) “Pioneer Passes Away,” Daily Colonist (April 25, 1907): 6.

(4) “Lived Here 74 Years,” Daily Colonist (December 1, 1944).

(5) Williams Office British Columbia Directory, 1894.

(6) Henderson’s BC Gazetteer and Directory, 1897.

(7) Henderson’s BC Gazetteer and Directory, 1905.

(8) Directory of Vancouver Island and Adjacent Islands, 1909.

(9) “Pioneer Passes Away.”

(10) “Library Circulation,” Daily Colonist (February 7, 1914).

(11) “Interview with Dr. Helen Gordon Stewart,” in As We Remember It, edited by Marion Gilroy and Samuel Rothstein (Vancouver: University of British Columbia School of Librarianship, 1970), 21.

(12) “Will Seek Work in the War Zone,” Daily Colonist (March 30, 1916):  6.

(13) “Lived Here 74 Years,” Daily Colonist (December 1, 1944).

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3 thoughts on “Mary Stewart: “Knew More about Books than Anyone Else in Victoria”

  1. The Victoria Public Library at Blanchard and Yates was my introduction to literature in he early 1960s. A sacred space for a little girl in love with books and imaginary world’s half-mirroring her own…

  2. Mary Stewart pursued expertise and then used her knowledge in the best way by being kind and helpful to the library visitors. A woman like that deserves to be remembered and honoured for what she did. It was good to read about her here. She’s a great role model.

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