Manfred Gaskell: Boom and Bust

In 1909, when Manfred Gaskell, Edward Odlum, and Albert Stabler bought Thomson Stationery Company, the firm was said to have the largest book stock in all of Canada (1).

Manfred Gaskell (Bookseller & Stationer, September 1909, p. 56)

By 1914, Gaskell had bought out both of his partners. He also had three stores operating as the Gaskell Stationery Company: two in Vancouver, at 679-681 Granville Street (established in 1910 after buying out Norman Caple & Company) and another at 532 Main Street (established 1911), and one in New Westminster at 649 Columbia Street (established in 1910 after purchasing the business of Thomas Todhunter) (2).

He was also a family man by this time, having wed Jessie Small Millar in Pembroke, Ontario, in 1911, with whom he had a son, Eric (3). In 1913, Gaskell had commissioned architect F.J. Peters to design a large and elegant family home in Shaughnessy Heights (4).

“His life is active in various phases of usefulness touching the general interests of society, while in business circles he has gained a reputation that is most enviable,” gushed the author of his biography in British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present. “He is honored and respected by all because of his achievements and the straightforward business policy he has followed. Employing the most progressive methods, he has also adopted as guide posts of his life those principles which everywhere excite admiration and respect and constitute the basis of all honorable and desirable prosperity” (5).

(British Columbia Magazine, November 1911)

On April 3, 1912, a “spectacular conflagration” consumed the Hastings Street building where Thomson Stationery was located. First breaking out in the basement furnace room of Foster Fit-Reform next door shortly before 4 p.m., the fire quickly outgrew the fire crew’s efforts to stop it.

“The Thomson Stationery Co., who carried a stock valued at $140,000, were unable to estimate their loss last night,” the newspaper reported the next day. “Owing to the nature of the stock it will take weeks of stock-taking before they can get at even the approximate loss.” Most of the firm’s spare stock was in the basement under three feet of water (6).

The company seemed to weather any financial concerns caused by the fire, and evidently, their 325 Hastings Street location was rebuilt, as this address remained on company ads. In the ensuing few years, the regular appearance in local newspapers and industry publications of both of Gaskell’s enterprises gave the impression of great success.

Thomson Stationery’s edition of Pauline Johnson’s Legends of Vancouver featured three more stories than appeared in the “official” version published by rival bookseller G.S. Forsyth (7) (image: British Columbia Magazine, December 1912)

In February 1914, Gaskell’s firm added a Thomson Stationery branch in Victoria, bringing that company’s payroll to 120 employees.

But during the war years, cracks appeared in the polished surface of Gaskell’s bookselling and stationery empire.

I’ll pick up from there next time.


(1) “Manfred James Gaskell,” in British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present: Biographical, volume IV (Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1914), 711-12.

(2) Ibid.; “Edward Faraday Odlum,” in British Columbia from the Earliest Times to the Present: Biographical, volume III (Vancouver, Portland, San Francisco, Chicago: The S.J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1914), 627-28.

(3) “Manfred James Gaskell.”

(4) Daily Building Record (June 4, 1913): 1.

(5) “Manfred James Gaskell.”

(6) “Spectacular Conflagration in Heart of Shopping District Watched by Curious Crowds,” Vancouver Sun (April 4, 1912): 3.

(7) “Introduction,” in E. Pauline Johnson, Tekahionwake: Collected Poems and Selected Prose (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2002), xxiii.

(8) “Thompson Stationery Co. Opens a Branch in City of Victoria,” Vancouver Sun (February 27, 1914): 4.


Thomson Bros., Part 2

When Thomson Bros. incorporated as Thomson Stationery Company in 1896, one reason may have been to raise capital for business expansion.

Over the next few years, the company added space to “its already commodious quarters” in Nelson and moved to larger premises at 325 Hastings Street in Vancouver (while still hanging on to the Cordova Street location) (1).

The firm also became “an important name on the [publishing] scene,” with titles like Gold Dust: How to Find It and How to Mine It (2). 

The photo below shows the bustling scene outside Thomson Stationery’s door on Hastings Street, their “Book Shop” sign readily visible down the street on the right side (3).

Thomson Stationery’s location at 325 W. Hastings, between Hamilton and Homer, c. 1902-9. (City of Vancouver Archives, AM336-S3-3-: CVA 677-642)
This view of Thomson Stationery features the company’s logo, seen below in larger detail. (Vancouver Public Library 7134)
(Seven Roads Gallery of Book Trade Labels)

In May 1903, James and Melville announced that Thomson Stationery was for sale (it was operating only in Vancouver by this time) (4). But nothing seems to have come of their plans to withdraw until 1908, when Manfred J. Gaskell appeared on the scene. Formerly of the Musson Book Co. in Toronto and later with D.J. Young in Calgary, Gaskell took charge of Thomson’s retail operations.

Then, in June 1909, the Thomson brothers retired and Gaskell took over Thomson Stationery with partners Edward F. Odlum and Albert Stabler, both of whom were also with the business for several years prior to the purchase (5).

A three-page profile of the company in Bookseller & Stationer gives us a great picture of the extent of Thomson Stationery’s business in the fall of 1909:

The success of the Thomson Stationery Co. has been built on an aggressive policy of anticipating the needs of the growing West, and much money has been invested in plant, etc., which succeeding years have fully justified, though at the time the undertaking looked like a visionary project…

On the main floor…are situated blank books, fountain pens, engineering and surveyors’ supplies, leather goods, note papers and commercial sundries…It is said there is not another blank book department in Canada as complete…

The centre of the store in the front section is devoted to displaying souvenir leather goods, scenic view books, post cards, etc., while the centre sections in the rear are utilized to show a general display of office devices from cash boxes to rotary mimeographs. To the right of the main entrance and extending the full 134 feet of the store in length, is the book department. Under the capable management of James Pollock and his experienced staff, this department keeps abreast of the times in all that pertains to a well stocked book store.

The second floor is utilized to display the vast range of loose leaf supplies handled by this firm. Under the watchful eyes of Mr. Stabler and John E. Clark, this department has become famous for the home of labor saving systems in loose leaf. On this floor the typewriter also holds sway and dozens of machines suggest a heavy turnover…

The first floor below the street level contains the office furniture show room, the stock in which consists of flat, double flat, roll top, standing, library and typewriter desks, office and library chairs, sectional book cases, etc. This floor also contains the map dept. and blue print dept., which is one of the company’s specialities…

The second floor below the street level is used entirely for wholesale stationery, flat papers and shipping department…

Up to the year 1906 the printing and manufacturing department had been confined to the fifth and basement floors, but increasing business necessitated enlarged premises. To-day it is found in a splendid three-storey brick plant in the rear of the Hastings street premises. (6)

In a future post, I’ll take up the rest of Thomson Stationery’s history under its new owners, but for now, let’s conclude with what happened to the Thomson brothers themselves.

James and Melville may have retired from the book business, but they were far from done as entrepreneurs. Not long after selling Thomson Stationery, they became directors of and then gained controlling interest in The Trustee Company, a real estate development firm. In 1913, the company was renamed Mercantile Mortgage Company Ltd., and over the ensuing years Mercantile Mortgage and a spin-off business called Estates Investment Ltd. amassed significant real estate holdings in Vancouver and elsewhere in British Columbia, including many in Gastown. The Thomson family maintained control of Mercantile Mortgage and Estates Investment until the early 1990s (7).

By this time, of course, James and Melville were long gone. James died in 1926, and Melville in 1944 (8). They are both buried in Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery.

This photo of Melville Patrick Thomson, one of the founders of Thomson Bros., appeared with his obituary in 1944 (Vancouver Province, October 6, 1944, p. 10)


(1) The Miner (August 28, 1897), 1; “Books, Stationery and Fancy Goods: Thomson Bros,” Vancouver Daily World (December 17, 1898), 3.

(2) Glennis Zilm, “An Overview of Trade Book Publishing in British Columbia in the 1800s with Checklists and Selected Bibliography related to British Columbia” (master’s thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1981), 277.

(3) CVA dates this photo as 190-, but the earliest it could have been taken was 1902, when Clubb & Stewart (also seen on the block) moved to Hastings Street.

(4) Bookseller & Stationer (January 1902), 11; Bookseller & Stationer (May 1903), 124, 150, 152.

(5) Bookseller & Stationer (June 1909), 36; Bookseller & Stationer (September 1909), 54-56.

(6) Bookseller & Stationer (September 1909): 54-56.

(7) City of Vancouver Archives, “Mercantile Mortgage Company Limited.”

(8) Vancouver Sun (February 1, 1926), 12; “Pioneer City Stationer Dies at Oliver Home,” Vancouver Province (October 6, 1944), 10.