The Unusual Life of Ruby Kay, Bookseller

Ruby Ellis was born in Bradford, England to Angus Ellis and Charlotte Emily Hudson in November 1905. There is no record of Charlotte having a career (but it’s likely she stayed at home to raise Ruby and her sister, Beatrice Maud). Angus was a factory worker. A year after Ruby was born, the Ellis family immigrated to Canada and by 1911 they had settled in Montreal.1

By the late 1940s, Ruby had hooked up with an American lad named Wesley John Kay, who supported himself by working in a gift shop in Niagara Falls, NY. When Ruby tried to cross the Canada/U.S. border in 1947, presumably to live with Wes in New York state, she was “debarred”. It isn’t entirely clear what the most important reason was for her debarment; it seems likely to have been due to a combination of factors: she wasn’t married to “boyfriend” Wes; she wasn’t an American citizen; she had no money on her person; and her reasons for entering the U.S. weren’t clear.

In 1955, Ruby and Wes Kay had moved together to Vancouver. They apparently got hitched at some point in the decade after Ruby’s debarment from the U.S. They were co-proprietors of Kay’s Magic Shop at 666 West Cordova, 1124 Commercial Drive, and 6166 Fraser St (they seemed to reside at the latter address).

CVA SGN 1070.05 – East side of Granville Street just south of Nelson, 1912? I figure that the Magic Book Store in 1961 (the time of Ruby’s arrest) was located just south of Cunningham Hardware in the structure with the narrow facade and the two 2nd floor bay windows.

Their 1955 ads in local papers claimed that they carried “party jokes, magic tricks, and model kits”. Another ad, a couple of years later for a shop at 1026 Granville, indicated that “DOLLS repaired, dressed. We buy and sell.” There was no mention made of books being on offer at this stage of their careers.

That had changed by 1961, when Ruby was described in Vancouver newspapers as being “a bookseller” at the same Granville Street address. In March of that year, Ruby was sentenced in Assize Court to do 18 months jail time for possession of stolen property. She had an adding machine, a typewriter, and a record player stolen from different people. Said Mr. Justice H. W. McInnes to Ruby: “The evidence indicates to me that you were carrying on the business of a fence. You were an inducement to thieves to steal by providing a ready market for their loot.” (Vancouver Sun 17 Mar 1961).

So Ruby spent the next year and a half in the hoosegow courtesy of Her Majesty’s Government. Chances are she spent that spell either in Oakalla prison (which by 1953 could accommodate 12 female inmates) or in Twin Maples Farm for women.

Wes kept the Magic and Book Store operating while jailbird Ruby served her time.

In 1965, the following incident was reported in the Sun:

An armed bandit bound a bookstore proprietor’s hands with her nylon stockings Friday night, robbed her and escaped with about $35. Ruby Kay, owner of Kay’s Magic Book Store, 307 West Pender, told police the well-dressed bandit entered the store about 8:30 p.m. and demanded money. She said he threatened her with a gun and a knife before forcing her to take off her nylons.

Vancouver Sun. 6 Feb 1965.
Crop of CVA 780-16 – North side of 300 block W. Pender, 1960-80. I’m guessing that 307 (the Kays’ shop when it was robbed in 1965) was just east of the building with the light blue facade.

I imagine that after this development, Ruby was feeling as though she couldn’t catch a break from either the cops or the robbers!

In 1967, Wes died. His early death at age 65 seems to have been due to a combination of acute renal failure and heart disease.

The Magic Book Store seemed to fold upon Wes’s death. There is no sign of it being in operation in the 1970s or 1980s. The bookshop was a second-hand store, dealing in, primarily, used paperbacks and magazines.

Ruby died in her 90th year in 1995.


1I am indebted to Robert Moen for his invaluable genealogical research on Ruby & Wes Kay for this post. He is the author of his own blog at

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4 Responses to The Unusual Life of Ruby Kay, Bookseller

  1. Laurie says:

    Another interesting story about past Vancouverites, it is always intriguing.
    Thank you, I really enjoy your stories!

  2. Scotty Henderson says:

    You stirred some memories. While my mom and I had moved to the West End from West Van in 1955, I can’t recall if at that time in grade 5 I was visiting used bookstores. We moved to Kits then Cambie & 21st then back to Kits then back downtown. By this time I was in grade 7 going to Dawson Elementary and living at 961 Howe St, about a block from Kay’s Used Books & Magazines. We lived there until the end of 1962 when I was half way through grade 11. It wasn’t the only used book & magazine store on Granville as I recall at least one other (maybe 2) the same 1000 block close to Kay’s. Then there was Fraser’s Bookbin in the 1200 block. I explored them all looking for SF pulps and digests, comics. and for school work NGS magazines for assigned class articles. I remember the word Magic but I’m not sure if it was Kay’s Magic & Used Books or Kays Magic Used Books. Anyway I wasn’t interested in the magic part. i used to sit in the rear going through stacks of mags. I remember dealing with a woman there but don’t recall a man. I went there less and the Bookbin more when I got a bicycle delivery job at Granville Stationers beside the Austin Hotel, just a short hop over to the Bookbin. So I have a strong memory of Kay’s and as far as I can recall i was going there from 1957 through to 1962 which sounds like it may be a bit at odds with your information. However, in those days, shops didn’t seem to move around too much as I don’t recall hardly any changes along the Granville downtown corridor in those years.

    • mdm says:

      Thanks for your recollections of that time. I appreciate it. I don’t think we are seriously at odds in terms of the info you provide. The principal area in which we might disagree is on Ruby having a store on Pender (on book row) in 1965. I got this from the Sun at the time of her robbery. Thanks again!

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