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Legendary bookseller Abe Bonder left imprint on people

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Abe Bonder

Abe Bonder wasn’t just a bookseller, nor was his little store only a place of business.

Bonder, who died on Feb. 25 at age 96, was a gregarious idealist who was more interested in getting people to open their minds than their wallets.

“In truth, Abe was a lifetime communist forced into the capitalist system, but who rebelled by doing his best never to make any money,” said his grandson Jon Bonder.

Bonder and his wife Sala founded Bonder’s Book Store in 1953, which is still in operation and located near the heart of Montreal’s Jewish community.

As the outpouring of condolences since his passing attest, Bonder’s Book Store was an oasis where generations came not merely to buy books, but to engage in dialogue and learn from one another. Its owner, who was always behind the counter, invited them to speak their minds on any subject without fear of judgment. (Though Bonder would often gently direct them to political writings that fit his worldview.)

Bonder described himself as a “universal, secular, scientific, humanitarian socialist.”

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“Books weren’t the end to Zayde, they were a means to an end,” said grandson Dan Bonder, “a vehicle through which he could push the ‘Abraham Bonder manifesto.’ … Creating a sense of community among strangers was Zayde’s ultimate end goal.”

Arieh Bonder said his father’s idealism never dimmed, and he left behind a manifesto for “an alternative society … from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs.”

It’s a philosophy that probably drove Abe and Sala Bonder to become pioneering kibbutzniks. A little of that communal spirit was replicated when they were among the first to build a cottage in Weisbord Acres, near St-Hippolyte in the Laurentians, which became a tight-knit community.

“He challenged and cajoled us, and it was always with a purpose, and that is to make us think critically about what everyone accepted as true and to see the common humanity and motivations we all shared, whatever the differences or conflicts were,” said Arieh Bonder.

The same happened in the bookstore. “Years later, people would tell us things like, ‘I learned so much from your father,’ or ‘Your dad had a seminal influence on my life,’ ” he said.

Long after they sold the shop, people he didn’t recognize would come up to Bonder to thank him.

Bonder’s influence was felt well beyond Montreal. Ely and his wife Shelley Bonder recall the time when they checked into a small bed and breakfast in Florence, Italy, a few years ago. The clerk asked if they had any relation to Bonder’s Book Store in Montreal.

Abraham Bonder was born in Montreal to immigrants from Teplek, Russia, who arrived in 1919, after fleeing the pogroms. His parents had a butcher shop in the old Jewish district, where Bonder worked while attending Baron Byng High School.

As a youngster, he was attracted to socialism and left-wing Zionism, and joined the Hashomer Hatzair movement. Determined to go to the dawning Jewish state, he studied agriculture at Macdonald College.

But first, he joined the fight against Nazism, enlisting in the Air Force and working as an aircraft mechanic.

Just after the war ended, he met the love of his life, Sala Solarz, a Polish Holocaust survivor, in a displaced persons camp in Hanover, Germany. She was alone in the world.

Conversing haltingly in their common language of Yiddish, he promptly asked her to marry him.

They wed in Paris and headed off to Israel, where, in 1948, they helped found Kibbutz Ein Dor in the lower Galilee, the first Jewish settlement after statehood. They built and lived in a tiny cinderblock house.

Sala, left, and Abe Bonder outside their shop on Bernard Avenue, circa 1955.

A few years later, Bonder returned to Montreal with his young family. Faced with making a living, the couple, with the help of Bonder’s brother-in-law, opened their first bookstore, next door to the Outremont Theatre on Bernard Avenue (now the theatre’s ticket office).

A few years later, they moved to a bigger location a block away at the corner of Bloomfield Avenue. The Bonders would run it until they retired in 1984. Today, the business belongs to Irving Fransblow, Ely Bonder’s brother-in-law, and is located on Westminster Avenue. It’s one of the few independent booksellers that’s still around.

In retirement, Bonder volunteered at the Canadian Jewish Congress’ archives. He also took care of his wife, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease, until her death in 2008. According to their sons, they were a doting couple to the end.

Bonder remained active into his 90s, continuing to enjoy cultural activities in particular. Only at 94 was he persuaded to sell the family house and move into a retirement residence nearby, where he continued to make new friends.

“This exuberance can be expressed by the one word he used over and over again for everything he enjoyed … ‘wonderful, wonderful’,” said Arieh Bonder.