James Dubro's writing criminally intense; Mafia expert's first brush with the Mob came when he was 12 by Bill Taylor Toronto Star

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Toronto Star

Day: Sunday Date: 09/24/2000

Section: ENTERTAINMENT Page: D03 Edition: MET


James Dubro's writing criminally intense Mafia expert's first brush with the Mob came when he was 12

by Bill Taylor TORONTO STAR

HIS NEW T-shirt may droop over his shoulders, but James Dubro is wearing it anyway.

It says "Gotti - Mafia Men's Wear," as in John Gotti, New York's so-called "Teflon Don," jailed for life after finally losing his non-stick coating.

"And it's a takeoff on Gucci," says Dubro. "It's a little big on me, but I love it."

He doesn't love Gotti, who "gives a bad name to the Mafia," but insists that "gangsters can be really fun."

Useful, too. If you care to use them.

Dubro, 53, has his fingers in several pies. One of them is a used-book business, which he calls Beacon Hill after the section of Boston he grew up in.

Earlier this year he lost eight crates of rare volumes, many of them autographed first editions, in an alleged Internet scam. Police charged a dealer in Paisley, Ont., with false pretenses.

"A couple of mobsters I know offered to go and get the books back for me," Dubro grins. "I declined, of course."

While he's talking, he's looking - surprise, surprise - for a book. A professor at Washington University in St. Louis phoned seeking Graham Greene's 1936 travel memoir Journey Without Maps.

"I know it's here somewhere, but let me get back to you," Dubro tells him.

He hangs up and contemplates the shelves that line what was once the living room of his third-floor apartment on Jarvis St. "Look at all this Graham Greene. There has to be 35 books. But not Journey Without Maps. Oh well, can't win 'em all."

Dubro reckons he has about 15,000 books. On the shelves, on tables, on the floor. "The ones in piles are the problem. They're not exactly classified by author and title. Is Sweet 'n' Low okay in your coffee?"

You could call him a Renaissance man. But he'd probably laugh at you. A Renaissance man who's an expert on organized crime and has thoughts of writing a book about Quebec's biker war?

Nevertheless, Dubro, while giving the appearance of being pleasantly disorganized, is not only a book dealer but also: * President of the Crime Writers of Canada, with five true-crime books under his belt. * A director of the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association. "Too much of a mouthful. We call it 'Negligee.' " * A gay community activist. * A writer and producer of TV documentaries, including Connections, CBC's acclaimed show, which infiltrated the Paul Volpe mob family. * A former teacher of 18th-century literature. "Well, there was a lot of crime in 18th-century literature." * A landlord, renting out four apartments.

"I've never seen such a tight market . . . such desperation," he says, hanging up after a call from someone chasing not a book but a one-room flat.

"I've had about 150 calls from desperate people. I've had four couples call. They all wanted to live in this tiny little bachelor.

"I tend to get good tenants and not raise their rents so I can keep them. It brings in a level of income. It's what you have to do as a freelance. To rely on just one thing, on writing . . . you become a hack and do a lot of things you don't want to do.

"Tenants can be interesting. Though you don't want interesting tenants. You want nice dull ones."

Dubro has been around books - and mobsters - since he was a kid. "I was working in a bookstore part time - Laureates bookstore. I wrapped books and delivered them.

"I was one of the first to work in the paperback department, which was not held in high esteem. Laureates was a fine-bindings kind of place.

"Growing up in Boston, you saw quite a lot of gangsters around in the '50s and '60s. I had my first brush with them when I was 12.

"My mother was a bit of a gambler, and my father got involved with a loan shark. He was introduced by a state senator who was a judge. This was to cover some of my mother's debts.

"My father couldn't pay. We got a call from one of the Mob guys that he was hanging in the basement. Scary moment. We went down there, my elder brother first, then my mother, then me.

"My father wasn't hanging anywhere. He'd left town in a hurry and gone to California, San Diego. Stayed there for the rest of his life. We never saw him again."

Dubro moved to Toronto in 1970 after landing a teaching fellowship at the University of Toronto. It was the year of the Kent State massacre. "An ugly time," he calls it.

Though he'd been a part of the anti-Vietnam War movement, he wasn't a draft dodger. "I was already out of the draft. All you had to do was send them a letter signed by a psychiatrist saying you were a practising homosexual. The kiss of death. Or life. Very silly - as if homosexuals can't kill.

"I came out at 14. A lot of people don't. Weird to miss those teenage years when you're at the height of your potency. Beacon Hill then was a quarter, maybe a third gay.

"I met a lot of interesting people. Ram Dass, the great spiritual leader, who then was plain Richard Alpert. He was at Harvard with Timothy Leary, experimenting with LSD. The first marijuana cigarette I ever had was with him."

Dubro's book business had its origins in Boston five years ago. He paid $6,000 for the stock of a store going out of business, "though most of it was subjects I didn't know anything about," and trucked it to Toronto.

He wound up selling most of the books - "I advertised the sale in The Star" - for $1 apiece, met a lot of other dealers and was in business.

"Occasionally a person drops by, but mostly I'm on the Internet. And it's 95 per cent to the U.S. and overseas. I sent a book to Vietnam the other day. It got to Ho Chi Minh City in only five days. That's quicker than sending something across Toronto."

His customers have included Roger Ebert, the "two-thumbs-up" movie critic, and newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst's grandson.

"He said he thought journalism was slipping," Dubro recalls. "I thought, 'Hmmm.' He bought a rare genealogical book.

"Roger Ebert - do you pronounce that 'Abair' or what? - bought something that I was surprised he didn't already have in his library: Dr. Johnson's notes on Shakespeare.

"This was a couple of months ago. He'd just discovered you could buy books by e-mail."

British horror author Clive Barker, who produced the movie Gods And Monsters, bought science fiction online. "I'd love to get his signature on some of his first editions. I tried to engage him in dialogue about Gods And Monsters, but he didn't really want to talk about it."

Alex, Dubro's big orange cat, appears, yelling to be fed. He's bluffing though; breakfast has come and gone, and Dubro talks on about the "fun part" of book dealing.

"Auctions, estate sales, yard sales . . . I love the adventure of finding things. I got one once for a quarter that I sold for $600. It turned out to be a rare pornographic work.

"Someone in the States who deals in erotica - that's a nice word - bought it. It was probably worth thousands.

"This pile on the table, these are all waiting to go somewhere. Look at this." He waves a sheaf of sheet music that touts itself as "a new musical play," Queen Of Hearts. "Can you believe this sold? I only had $15 on it; I should have asked $40.

"Here's a book on Princess Margaret. I'm getting quite sympathetic toward her since she turned 70."

Dubro picks up a work by Colley Cibber, the English playwright. "I have a tentative offer for this. It's a first edition, 1740. I'm asking $600. It's hard to describe in an e-mail . . . leather-bound, 260 years old.

"The customer wanted to know if she could read it in bed. I said, 'Sure.' "

He has, he boasts, sold true-crime books to mobsters. And here's a signed first edition of his own bestseller, Mob Rule. "It's $50. And that's legit! That's going with the market!"

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