I have no idea what it means to have a "vibrant literary scene" in a city. Any time I try to imagine writers together in one room I am forced to recall some of the most stilted, self-interested conversations I have ever been a stilted, self-interested part of, conversations that made me wish I was home instead, reading a good book, or, on an ambitious day, writing one. That's my idea of a vibrant literary scene: a person, alone, reading a book written, alone, by someone entirely elsewhere. Or, in my wildest, most orgiastic of scenarios: many people in the same room, each quietly reading their own book.

So if I was going to investigate the literary scene across the border in Vancouver, it wasn't going to be by taking local stars Lynn Coady or William Gibson or Evelyn Lau out for drinks, it would be by wandering lonely into bookstores, thumbing through stacks, standing in the middle of the city's commerce trying to gather the hush of a story around me.

And so I drove the two-plus hours to Vancouver, where I spoke hardly a word to anyone, not even to the junkies (I assume) who broke into my car. I began at Duthie Books (2239 West Fourth Avenue), once Vancouver's flagship chain, now reduced by the clumsy paw-swipes of Chapters, Canada's big-box Godzilla, to a single store in the hippie-gone-yuppie neighborhood of Kitsilano. This last Duthie is far smaller than its national reputation had led me to expect, but it's a solid, general-interest place. Among my purchases: The Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage, because I can never remember if it's "licence" as a noun and "license" as a verb, or the other way around.

Farther west on West Fourth is Black Sheep Books (2742 West Fourth Avenue), which features the kinds of books (Bukowski, Kerouac) more often shoplifted than paid for, and, not coincidentally, posts pleas for the bookstore's survival. Imagining that my Visa card could keep the store afloat for another day, I purchased the recent Canadian debut novels by Andre Alexis (Childhood) and Mark Anthony Jarman (Salvage King, Ya!), the latter of which turned out to be fantastic: funny, cluttered, driven, as if Denis Johnson had written a hockey novel.

Near Gastown, a neighborhood in the city's central peninsula that my car will not soon forget, I checked out MacLeod's (455 West Pender Street), a used-book shop. MacLeod's is all that you would want or expect from such a place: books crammed into shelves and lying in heaps on the floor. The largest heap, smack in the center, is draped with a "Do Not Disturb" sign. I escaped with a small stack of purchases, among them Hubert Aquin's Quebec separatist classic Prochain Episode and Canadian expat Kate Pullinger's recent novella of vampirism, Where Does Kissing End?

Only a block north of MacLeod's dark nest is the bright marvel of Sophia Books (492 West Hastings Street), a place so goofily cosmopolitan that it would be frankly incomprehensible in provincial Seattle: French art books, Arabic dictionaries, Japanese magazines. Manga next to Asterix, Harry Potter in Spanish, German, and Italian. A white 10-year-old boy politely requested a Japanese phrase book; a black Francophone staffer embraced a white Francophone customer. I bought Michel Tremblay's Bambi and Me, a love letter to the movies by Quebec's leading novelist, and went on my giddy way.

Sure, I stopped by both Chapters in town (2505 Granville Street and 788 Robson Street), and found exactly what you'd expect: decorative crockery for sale by the cash registers, and upstairs the undeniable pleasure of finding seemingly every book in print (made possible, I know, by reckless return policies that have nearly been the ruin of Canadian publishing). But my favorite stop is a seven-story palace not far away: the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library (350 West Georgia Street), completed in 1995. At first it looked a little gimmicky, straining for landmark status with a round building cut out of a square block, flanked by a ring of retail that screams, "Public space! Private partnership!" But once inside, my skepticism dissolved. Each floor feels suspended in air, with so-called "reading galleries" accessible by footbridges that arc away. It was 10 minutes before closing, and the place was still packed with readers, strollers, borrowers. I wanted to sit down right there and disappear into my new purchases, but I had to get back on the road to Seattle, to wait until our own new temple of loneliness opens on the site of the old downtown library in 2003.