“The first bookstore in Victoria was Kierski’s,” wrote Glennis Zilm in her 1981 thesis about the history of trade book publishing in BC in the nineteenth century (1). “Little is known about Kierski’s,” she added, and with that, Kierski’s story seems to have rested in silence ever since.
And little wonder. Unearthing anything about Kierski has been a bit tricky, even in this Google age.
In her thesis, Zilm included an image taken from an 1858 issue of the Victoria Gazette in which Kierski’s first initial is shown as “L.” But flipping through the original pages of the Gazette at UBC Rare Books and Special Collections (a marvellous experience that I highly recommend), I discovered that his initial appears as a “W” in all later instances. Hmmm.
With the “Wm.” to work from (see the above ad), presumably short for “William,” I started googling and trying every source I could think of. Soon I found evidence of Kierski & Brother, booksellers and stationers in San Joaquin County, California, around the same period. It couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought.
Kierski & Brother, I then learned, were William and John S. Kierski, immigrants of Prussia who started their American lives in New York before setting up shop in Stockton, California, in about 1856 (2).
No mention of a stint in Victoria, though.
Fast-forward over months of periodic yet unsuccessful searches for more information, and a grainy online image from an October 1858 issue of the San Joaquin Republican finally provided the missing link. William Kierski’s time in Victoria had been brief (about four months), but there is no doubt that the Stockton bookseller is the same person as the first bookstore owner in Victoria:
“BACK AGAIN,” the article reads. “Our old neighbor, Mr. Wm. Kierski, has returned from Fraser river, or rather Victoria, where he has been engaged in business for some months. He went at the right time, and has done a good business as a newspaper dealer, and what is more, had wit enough to sell and return at the right time. Mr. Kierski brings some eight or ten ounces of the different varieties of gold dug from Hill’s, [unclear] and Murderer’s Bars. The specimens are [unclear], though not as bright as the gold dug upon the lower bars in this State. He intends to return when he learns of the discovery of dry diggings and [coarse?] gold. The only specimens of the latter that he has seen in that country are the [unclear] stamped with an American eagle.”
The sale referred to above of Kierski’s Victoria business was to T.N. Hibben, whom the Victoria Gazette announced as the successor to W. Kierski on October 9, 1858. The San Joaquin Republican may have felt that their man Kierski was wise to get out of Victoria when he did, but Thomas Napier Hibben would go on to become the premier bookseller in British Columbia for the next several decades.
Meanwhile, William and John Kierski remained in the book and stationery business in Stockton until at least 1875, judging by ads in the San Joaquin Republican. They also published a number of maps, such as Map of the City of Stockton and Environs in 1861 and A Map of the Seat of the War in Europe in 1866 (3). There is no evidence to suggest that either of them ever returned to Victoria for those “dry diggings.” John died in 1894 (4) and William in 1903 (5).
(1) Glennis Zilm, “An Overview of Trade Book Publishing in British Columbia in the 1800s with Checklists and Selected Bibliography related to British Columbiana” (master’s thesis, Simon Fraser University, 1981), 59.
(2) Peter E. Palmquist and Thomas R. Kailbourn, Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865 (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2002), 349.
(4) Obituary in San Francisco Chronicle (May 30, 1894): 10.
(5) Obituary in San Francisco Chronicle (July 23, 1903): 10.