I was a little taken aback by how strongly my wife approved of my suggestion that for this year's anniversary trip, we should take the Clipper to Victoria, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
"Because I want to have high tea," Julie explained. "At the Empress."
Well, okay. It seemed out of character for Julie, but okay. On our anniversary I can refuse her nothing.
I'd had high tea at the Empress, twenty years ago. Back then, I had thought it a ridiculously overpriced meal that consisted of tea, sandwiches so tiny that they ought to have been ashamed to bear the name, and various similarly tiny desserts, all served by incredibly snooty waitstaff that seemed to think we should have been swooning over the privilege of sitting in an ornate white room and made to feel slovenly and classless while we ate our sliver of tuna sandwich. I'd been certain that they only kept a straight face long enough to run to the kitchen and burst into hysterical laughter at the stoopid American tourists paying thirty-five dollars a plate for a cup of tea and a couple of cookies covered in frosting.
Victoria itself, though, on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, is a wonderful city and a trip there sounded like a lot of fun. I'd always meant to go back there and this was the perfect excuse. Tea and overpriced sandwiches notwithstanding.
Besides, riding the Clipper is a great time by itself. At least in summertime.
Plus it's way easier. The regular ferry to Victoria leaves from Anacortes, up north, an hour's drive or so from where we are, and then the ferry itself takes about four hours. What's more, they drop you in Sidney, a little town that's quite a ways out of Victoria, and you're on your own from there. It would have been our whole day.
The Clipper is a hydrofoil that leaves from downtown Seattle and makes much better time, getting you to Victoria's Inner Harbour in about two and a half hours or thereabouts, and they'll shuttle you right to your hotel, too. The only downside is that you can't bring your car.
Really, it's a lot like flying commercial, except you can go out on deck and admire the view, if you feel like stretching your legs.
Anyway, not to shill endlessly for them or anything, but they took good care of us and the package deal with the hotel was amazingly cheap considering it was the peak of the summer season. Here's their web site if you live in the area and are in the market for a vacation that starts with a boat ride.
The point is, if you don't mind getting up a little early, you can board an early sailing on the Clipper in Seattle and be in downtown Victoria well before lunchtime, with most of a vacation day still ahead of you. Which is what we did.
The punch line, though, was that on the boat the staff is endlessly pushing various Victoria attractions and tours and when they announced their eagerness to assist us with Advance booking for High Tea at the Empress for only sixty dollars each, make your reservations now! my bride almost choked on her coffee. "Sixty dollars each? No way," Julie said firmly.
I hadn't said a word; it was our anniversary, I'd have done it if that's what she wanted. But I admit to being relieved she'd changed her mind.
Instead, we went with our usual vacation plan... which is to say, no plan at all, other than to bumble around and stop anywhere that looked interesting.
Victoria's built for that. Downtown, especially, is full of little touristy shops and entertainments and tour buses and what not.
Julie had seen an advertisement on one of the tour flyers for a place called Beadworld, on Johnson Street. My wife loves beads and crystal and handmade jewelry with the same fervor that I love old men's adventure pulps, and this seemed like sort of compensation for not doing high tea after all. (I try to give Julie first dibs on activities for our anniversary trips.)
So once we'd dropped off our luggage at the hotel, we struck out for Beadworld. Our handy tour map told us that the 500 block of Johnson Street was more or less on a direct line north from our hotel, straight up Government Street in front of the Empress.
But, as often happens, we were distracted by something on the way.
It really is worth it. The sheer craftsmanship involved in the construction of the things is astounding.
But what isn't mentioned in any of the brochures or postcards or websites or anything about Miniature World is that it's not just all model railroads. There is a huge nerdgeek somewhere on staff, because this is the first exhibit.
There's a whole hallway of spacescapes, spaceship models and dioramas, complete with moving ships and lights and all sorts of amazing stuff.
It's lit mostly with blacklights, so it really sells the illusion that you are standing in a tunnel in some asteroid mining station.
I think if I'd seen this when I was eleven, my head might have exploded from the sheer awesome. I probably would have tried to live in that hallway until it was time to go to college.
And when you emerge from the "Space 2201" hallway to enter the historical western section with all the tiny frontier towns and so on, you have this hanging in the hall to greet you.
I mention all this just to make the point, once again, that Our People are EVERYWHERE.
We spent a little over an hour in Miniature World, doing the tourist thing, then set out for Johnson Street once more.
Here's a brief aside. When I was visiting Chicago twenty years back, there was a section of town, Lincoln Avenue or thereabouts, called Bookseller's Row. And it was lined with the most amazing antiquarian bookstores. It was a Disneyland for book collectors. No idea if it's still there or not (I suspect not) but I'll never forget the afternoon I spent there. It was the high point of the trip.
Well, my friends, the 600 block of Johnson Street in Victoria is Comic-seller's Row. Seriously. There are four different stores there and they all looked amazing:
And literally next door to Beadworld itself was this place, Snowden's Books.
Since it was next door to Julie's bead destination, it was the first place I actually looked into. Despite the promising sign outside, Snowden's had a pretty lame selection of comics... just a cardboard box of quarter-bin trash by the front door. But I did turn up a couple of interesting finds, nevertheless.
The first was this C.S. Forester omnibus collection.
You saw a lot of these hardcover greatest-hits omnibus collections on remainder tables in big-box bookstores in the early 1980s, most all of them from either Octopus-Heinemann or Avenel Books. They're not particularly rare or valuable or anything, I just like them.
And I'd been meaning to get around to C.S. Forester for years, anyway. (Most every old-school Star Trek fan adds Forester to the reading list once we find out Gene Roddenberry based Captain Kirk on Horatio Hornblower.)
I poked around for a little while longer, but nothing really jumped out at me. I bought the Forester and was on my way out the door when I saw, right in the vestibule, a wall of hardcover juveniles. (It was largely hidden behind the open door, as you entered -- you couldn't really see it was there until you were on your way out.)
So I gave it a glance, not expecting much... and by God, almost invisible, eighteen inches from the floor, were two pristine Trixie Belden hardcovers from 1971.
Now, these were the least-collectible editions, dubbed 'the uglies' by Trixie fans in the know. But still, only five dollars each. Five dollars Canadian. I could easily double that on eBay if I felt like it, and anyway after researching them and writing about them just as collectibles, I thought maybe I'd take the time to actually read one, just to see what the shouting was about.
So I took them back to the proprietor and bought them. He smiled at me and said, "Yeah, these are getting really scarce lately."
I hoped my inner gloat didn't show on my face. A bookstore guy that's a little behind the curve is what bookscouts live for.
When I found Julie in Beadworld, she was just getting her purchases rung up. I showed her my finds and Julie was duly impressed at the Trixie Beldens, but what made us both smile was the clerk also straightening up at seeing them and saying, "Oooooh, I used to love those!"
Back out on Johnson Street once more, we tried to decide which of the comics retailers were the best bet. One of them had a gaming tournament going in full swing, so we ruled that out. Most of the others looked like they were primarily selling new stuff.
But Yellowjacket looked more like a place that had a good back-issue thing going on.
The display case that greeted us when we stepped inside instantly confirmed that impression.
The proprietor, an older bearded fellow, greeted us with a smile and a nod as we came in, and we shot past the new stuff in the front to the longboxes of back issues in the rear of the store.
All kinds of good stuff, reasonably priced, but I made myself stop and consider carefully if something was getting reprinted soon or not. (When things like Gold Key's Land of the Giants get the high-end hardcover treatment, you kind of have to assume that anything before 1975 is probably going to get collected sooner or later.)
What I settled on were some of the 1970s Charlton Phantom comics, by the amazing Don Newton.
Don Newton didn't do the Phantom book for Charlton all that long, but what he did was magnificent. For me it often outshone his later work on Batman for DC.
I found one more non-Newton Charlton Phantom, and threw it on the pile just because it was cheap. We took it up to the register and there was League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: 1969 in a standup display. I'd missed it earlier that week and so I reached for it, then stopped.
"What?" Julie wanted to know.
I tapped the back cover. "Canadian pricing."
"Oh, it's all American pricing here," the clerk explained. He waved a hand at the shelves. "We always use the American price on all our books."
Well, that was a different story. American pricing in Victoria B.C. was -- I think, that weekend, anyway -- cheaper than it would have been from my regular store in Seattle. So I went ahead and got it along with the others.
By then it was late afternoon and we were too tired, really, to keep going, and anyway this was the first day of four.... no reason to burn through all the shopping on one day. So we decided to catch a bus back to the hotel.
That was actually a nice haul for an entire trip, let alone one afternoon... and I'd have thought we'd have peaked with comics at least after Johnson Street. But the best was yet to come. Victoria is a great book town.
...But this is getting rather long and this seems like a natural stopping place, so we'll pick it up again... next week. See you then.