The Blind Bookseller: The first in a two part profile of Hannelore Headley

As published on Retirement News Weekly/Niagara on July 2, 2010.

Admittedly, I feel nervous as I peer past the books on display in the window of Hannelore Headley Old & Fine Books on Queen Street. I have spent the day reading about my interviewee and was enthralled by her story. Born to a Jewish family in Berlin in 1936, Hannah, as she prefers to be called, became a refugee at the age of 3. She and her family escaped through Italy to Shanghai, China where she lived until the age of 17. Today, however, I will be asking her about her more recent adventures and accomplishments, mainly on how she came to be the proud owner of two used book stores in St. Catharines; Hannelore’s Downtown Fine Books and the store I am currently entering.

The shop is filled to bursting with 90,000 books, all neatly stacked or shelved along the walls. I spot Hannah sitting patiently behind her desk in the middle of the store where, at the age of 74, she spends much of her time. I ask her if she’ll ever retire and leave her post behind the desk and she pauses for a second as if contemplating for the first time that there was any other choice. Finally, she responds, “Well, yes,” and then laughs, before adding, “when they carry me out feet first. Any day I’m vertical I’m certainly coming here. I would miss the everyday things… you know, the people coming in and just walking up with a handful of mysteries. I’ve now been here long enough, 38 years, that people who used to come in as children are coming in with their kids.”

Hannah’s dedication to her bookstores is understandable. After all, book selling is in her blood. Her father was a life-long book dealer who owned stores in Berlin, Shanghai, and Montreal. Before him, her Great-grandfather’s brother William Heinemann was the famous founder of the Windmill Press in London. Her brother Stephen Heinemann owned a bookstore in Kingston before joining her in St. Catharines.

“I decided at a young age to carry on the family tradition of book selling,” she recalls. Indeed she did. At age 21, she was the youngest bookstore owner in Canada when she opened her first in Vancouver. She closed the Vancouver shop in 1962 to raise her two children, Paula, now 50, and Michal, 48. It was during this time that she became a professional collector of illustrated children’s books. By the time she sold it to a gentleman from New England, she had a collection of over 5,000 books. It wasn’t until moving to St. Catharines for her husband, Dr. Velmer Headley’s job as a mathematics professor at Brock University that Hannah once again became a bookseller. In a store on the corner of Duke and Wellington, the couple rented two rooms on the street level for what would be one of St. Catharines’ first used book shop.

Her first day of business was quiet, as she recalls, “I opened on September 11, 1972. It was my first day of business. And of course, obviously, I didn’t see anybody. I hadn’t advertised and there wasn’t a grand opening or anything like that. But at the end of the day, a man walked in. He was tall with white short hair trimmed in a crew cut. And my first impression was, ‘The RCMP already?’ Of course he was not. He turned out to be my first and very generous customer. He’d come every week and would leave with a handful of books.”

For stock, Hannah began collecting anywhere she could find books. She searched through yard sales, antique bookstores, and even at the Salvation Army. Before long people heard she was purchasing books and started to bring them in by the box load. As she tells me this she gestures around the room as if to suggest that finding stock has never been much of a problem. It’s for this reason that within two years, Hannah had grown out of her two room shop and the couple purchased the house on Queen St where the store remains to this day. It was only when this house was filled that they decided to open the second store on St. Paul St. in 2002.

Hannah has been reading since the age of three. However she claims she hasn’t read a book in its entirety for a very long time. The irony of Hannah’s story is that as a result of her diabetes, Hannah is losing her vision and has to read even prices with a magnifying glass. Laughing, she comments, “I think being a blind book seller is not a good combination.”

However this impairment has only left her appreciating books all the more. While people suggest that she try audio books, she rejects the idea. “The joy of reading; you hold a book in your hand and the paper… it’s a tactile thing. It’s a sensual thing. The book has a feeling to it. The smell of the paper. The fact you’re turning your own pages.” And, if there’s any consolation, she at least is surrounded by books every day, which she appreciates. She also has her daily intake of stories, no longer trapped between two covers, but now told to her by her customers. “The people who you encounter,” she tells me excitedly, when I ask her what the best part about owning her own bookstore is. “I mean, the door opens, people come in and sit in that chair and invite you into their lives. They want to share with you their experiences.”

I feel the same sentiment as I wrap up my interview with Hannah. Her willingness to share her experiences with me is the best part of my day.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Check back next week for the conclusion of our profile on Hannelore Headley where we explore how she went from a German refugee during World War II to Canada’s youngest bookseller.

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2 Responses to The Blind Bookseller: The first in a two part profile of Hannelore Headley

  1. Dan says:

    I lifted some text for a FB event page. We are dedicating a park to Hannelor in Sept Hoe you dont mind…

  2. Judy Marchesi says:

    How well we loved the old bookshop on Robson Street. It was a meeting place and it was beause of Hannah.

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