If you walk down Mayne Street in Mariposa you will be astonished at the number of bookstores. That is, you will be if you have not already heard of the place, or have heard but don’t know much about it. If you take the Professor’s old description at face value, and think that the place could not change in the ensuing century-plus, then your astonishment will be fully justified, not to mention the moment when you first behold the amazing edifice that is the Peter Pupkin Memorial Public Library, and all those people in the parks and coffee shops reading or talking about books.
Just to get one point out of the way: the Professor who first described Mariposa, in the old days when it was only a little town and had not yet flowered as a city of literary refuge, was not the Stephen Leacock of McGill University and Old Brewery Bay near Orillia, Ontario, but another summer-cottaging professor of the same name. If you want to understand Mariposa past or present you must learn to distinguish between the two.
A quick recapitulation of the history: You probably recall that Zena Pepperleigh married Peter Pupkin around 1910 and they promptly (too promptly, according to gossip) had an enchanted baby, Lena. Then, a year or so later, they had twin boys, Marval and Norval. Then in 1914 Peter went gallantly off to war and was killed. Zena eventually married Josh Smith’s son Hector and had more children. In time she inherited all the property accumulated by Judge Pepperleigh in a long career of crooked judging; Hector inherited the proceeds of his father’s graft; Lena, Marval, and Norval inherited the Pupkin real-estate fortune. In 1946 the whole clan of them — Zena, Hector, her children, their children and their spouses, all significantly bruised by the record of the times — perceived how the wind blew and decided that three ill-gotten fortunes should not simply be allowed to grow with the flow, but should be put to some radically alternative purpose. By now they owned most of Mayne Street and a good deal of the rest of Mariposa besides, so were in a position to make things happen, as soon as they could figure out what they should be. Since they had also inherited the Professor’s library and were all tremendous readers, they decided to go with books. They would turn Mariposa into the most bookish little town in Canada, if not the world.
Thus was born a new Mariposa, a City of Literary Refuge. Of course, in order to be that, it had to be a City of Much More. You can’t hide behind a book, by itself. You have to meet the book in a protected place. Eventually I will tell you the whole story. For today I will simply describe, very superficially, what Mariposa looks like now.
The population, by the latest count, is 47,620, and if all of them lived in a heap it would indeed deserve to be called the City of. But in fact less than half live in town; the rest are scattered among the rural areas that were amalgamated with the urban into the present municipality. Calling it a City was simply a sudden effusion of side on the part of the Council of the day, now long diluted of Pupkin family influence, although not of memory.
Mayne Street, formerly a short stump running westward up-hill from the old bridge over the Missinaba River, now runs a considerable distance on both sides of the new one. The literary area, however, is confined to the old, west side, the east having been zoned commercial ugly in accord with current fashion in urban design. Its ethos, however, permeates the whole place. You may find people reading books even in the Tim Horton’s out at the Junction where Mayne Street meets the By-Pass, and as for the motels along the way, you have to book ahead at almost any time of year if you want to get a bed before the literary refugees. Most likely, however, you will be one yourself, because the proprietors of establishments of all kinds, having learned that literary folks are prepared to pay above the going rate for what they crave, and also tip often and well, make no effort to attract other kinds of tourists. Occasionally a party will stray in, and quickly move on.
The Pupkin clan, now swelled by another two going on three generations, still owns the whole square in front of the Peter Pupkin Memorial Library and intentionally nurtures the bookstores, galleries, coffee shops, and bistros that surround it. These overflow into the blocks behind and along the river, where cunning remolding and restoration have turned the old linear lanes into pedestrian pods where conversation reigns. The river is a little too large and lively for recreational boating of the leisurely kind, and since the other kind is resolutely inhibited by low speed limits and a ferocious municipal noise by-law, most of it stays away. If you want to swim you can take a bus to one of the beaches on Lake Ossawippi or Lake Wissinotti. Nobody ever calls them that, by the way — they are the “north” and “south” lakes respectively — any more than anyone calls the Missinabi anything but “the river”.
What makes Mariposa exceptional is not only the magnificence of its public library, the rich number and variety of its bookstores, coffee shops and bistros, the size and excitement of its four annual literary festivals, its Mariposa Literary Hall of Fame, or the pervasive bookishness of its public spaces, but the way it has woven the book, and now the electronic writing and reading device, into its whole society and economy. When I have room I will tell you about its fine paper mill, its book binderies, its publishers, its editors, its writers tapping away on their keyboards, its poets declaiming in the parks and places, its songs, its plays, its accommodations for readers and for conversation, its money and influence and authority behind them all, and in short the whole wonderful interconnected vitality and verbosity of the place, but not today.
The Train to Mariposa still goes there, but in a very different way.
Posted April 23, 2018, 339 days before the Stephen Leacock Sesqui-cum-triaquarteria-centennial officially begins.