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Some Comments of the New Bookstores of Toronto


The trouble with commenting on new booksellers is that so many of them are gone. But since my real purpose here is to again stress how important bookstores are I intend to talk about “the missing ones” – los desaparecidos – as well.

There were once twenty-seven bookstores just on Queen Street alone, mostly Used and Rare, but there were also several very good new ones; the specialist niche stores that all places need an order to find obscure and important books in various specialized areas. There were, for instance, stores selling Craft books; How to do, How-to make; Science-fiction (Bakka); two exemplary design stores. Things like that were possible. People who knew these fields focused on supplying their personal niche. Elsewhere in Toronto were Theatre Books (just gone too, after all those years, rent again), Glad Day, one of the pioneer gay bookstores in North America. In fact there was a bookstore in Toronto for every interest and all run by knowledgeable aficionados – mostly people persisting in spite of indifference and poverty level incomes. There's one or two left.

Of the new bookstores I've known it all has to start with Britnell's a truly great bookstore, an institution, even if one could easily write a satire about it. Almost every old frequenter I know mentions the staff as “ladies of a certain age,” derogatory you might think but it wasn't. All those middle-aged woman, knew the stock well, knew you if you went in there more than twice, and knew the books and where to find them. If not they'd order. The entire second floor was devoted to ordering and supplying books. I liked and I revered Roy Britnell even though, according to Robertson Davies, Roy never read a book in his life, excepting one cookbook.

I mention Britnell's here though because it illustrated what is true of any good bookstore in fact, what is the first essential of any good bookstore: the personality of the owner. A good bookstore always will reflect the personality, the tastes, the likes, and dislikes of the owners.
Now Britnell's venerable old building with Albert Britnell's name still on the lintel in increasingly greened bronze letters houses a Starbucks. I doubt that there's an old customer who, like me, doesn't shudder in distaste every time they pass.

In my early days there were four very good independent bookstores in Toronto, five counting Frans Donker's Book City, which became in effect a mini-chain but never lost its character or personality. The only one left is Ben McNally's easily the best bookstore in Toronto and probably one of the contenders for best in Canada. Ben not only sells books, he reads them, and I ask him for recommendations in several areas which I explore regularly. So far Ben is batting a thousand with me. One day he said, “Try this, it's most remarkable.” After I read it I made a deal with him to get me fifteen copies that I could give away to friends. Another day I bought a book, a mystery set in Cadiz, a city I once lived in, so I bought it out of curiosity, to read the background. I wasn't concerned about the plot.

Ben, saw it and actually yelled, “Julian Porter hated that book,” warning me off. Julian Porter also buys his books there and I expect takes Ben's recommendations as well. He is also one of a number of thriller/mystery aficionados I know, all of whom inform each other of interesting new discoveries, trading useful tips. All are incessant readers of thrillers but much more else as well.

That's what a real bookseller does, he doesn't just sell the latest, he guides, he counsels, knows his customers' tastes and he sees that they are made aware of what might interest them. I didn't frequent Nicholas Hoare when Ben ran it but I now buy almost all of my new books from Ben's store. Usually it costs $200.00 before I even get out of the mystery section.

Although I no longer open my shop on weekends I still go in and I had developed a ritual every Saturday which I've lost. I would putter for a while then go up to Pages, Mark Glassman's store at Queen and John. There I would see the avant-garde in its best personification in Toronto. All the latest weird trends, experimental stuff, and the best film section in town, not surprising since that is Mark's personal passion. I'm not much interested in the literature of film myself but my son works in films so I bought all his presents from Pages. They also had very good sections on modern thought, biography and a great design section. And an area of great personal interest for me from which I often bought – children's books. I must confess I was buying the children's books for myself. If you think an old man being interested in children's books is weird you don't understand a few important things.

Pages was one of the great stores but they raised Mark's rent past what was possible (booksellers don't mind hardly making any sort of living, but capitalism does demand that we be able to pay the bills; and everyone has a right to feed their children). So, Mark left and Pages is history because of capitalist greed. The store stood empty for two or three years because, I guess, no one else was stupid enough to take on that rent.

After Pages I would go down to Richmond and John to Chapters. I always walked by the new bestseller and fancy non-books book section because I'd get any new release book I wanted at Pages or McNally's. I went by these sections while always noting how the book section had shrunk more every month, retreating in the face of ever more silly, useless knickknacks. I went up to the remainder sections where I bought books to read, thrillers I'd missed when they were new, at the cheapest price they ever will be; a lot of history to read, but my greatest love the remaindered children's books.

I have built several collections of children's books and I also just buy lots of them that appeal to my taste. I love to give children's books, all the kids who live on my street get free books – who knows, if it rubs off on one in thousand, I've done a great thing. They get books before they can even understand the pictures which tends to bemuse their parents. I give out books with the candy at Halloween. I give books to children of the people who work in the office beside ours and, to come clean, I keep a lot of them myself. Why shouldn't I? Sometimes a kid's book will give you part of your childhood back, if only for a moment.

I had a niece who took an interest in pop-up books and I urged her to buy them as they get remaindered and kept telling her that she could build a good collection. So enthusiastic were my lectures that I ended up building a huge personal collection of them for myself. Kids destroy pop-ups by using them and they quickly become rare which is why early ones from the 1930s can be quite expensive. Nineteenth century ones will shock you at the prices.

The technology of the pop-up is extraordinary and I cannot understand the kind of mind who can coerce an intricate design where on opening a page a huge scene rises before our eyes. There is a huge society of pop-ups aficionadas and there are at least three or four practitioners of the art who I believe are geniuses. I buy every Robert Sabuda creation new when it comes out, when they get remaindered I buy a dozen. They make remarkable gifts for any age.

So Chapters, the devourer of the indies, has its uses too. All bookstores do. BMV on Bloor Street I go to for two reasons, I go to buy thrillers as remainders. They aren't really a used store they flourish selling remainders of the reprints done in large format wrappers of earlier books. Often I'll find a first edition of a book I want priced at $3.99 while the same book in paperback reprint is selling for $7.99. So I buy to fill out the long list of those popular writers when I want all their books. There are a lot of very, very good writers doing historical fiction or detective books now. Robert Harris and John Sandford being two where I have complete collections of all their books.

My other great pleasure in BMV is to survey the reprints, to assess what modern publishers have seen fit to reprint. It's fascinating to me because unlike those publishers I know something of the true scarcity of the original editions they are reprinting. One expects to see all of Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and the other moderns reprinted but to me, a complete set in hardcover of all P. G. Wodehouse's classic books at $10.00 each tells me something very important.

But, here is where my greatest pleasure comes from in that store. The store is always full of browsers and they are all buying books and they are predominately young. No doubt many are students but many are just young people and it demonstrates to me and lifts my heart every time I go in there because it shows that the young do still read, they do still want books, and they still do buy them. I don't see what they buy I just love to see it. The book is not dead and never will be and my monthly visit renews my spirits and makes me feel I haven't wasted my life. And, I always spend a hundred or a hundred and fifty dollars on myself while I'm doing all that studying.

Writers and Company, again different, was run by a woman, Irene McGuire, I never got to know personally although I knew her reputation very well, because every writer I knew spoke so highly of her store and her taste and knowledge and commitment to literature. I don't know if she was pushed out or just retired but Toronto lost another great one there.

For me the saddest in this whole melancholy account is Charlie Huisken of This Ain't the Rosedale Library. I always hated the name of that store, I found it too clever, not as dignified as a bookstore's name should be, but it was one of the great ones. Located on the lower edge of the gay village they flourished for many years until the usual gentrification forced them out. That store was known to have the best stock of books on baseball in Toronto (probably in Canada) and as an avid baseball fan that's what I sought. Charlie Huisken didn't just produce a great bookshop he produced a writer too, his son Jessie, who writes poetry and works some in the used and rare trade to get by, while he writes those books.

Somewhere I saw a great postcard which, I think, Coach House Press produced, bearing a picture of Charlie, his wife, and Jessie as a baby, standing beside the usual unsmiling William S. Burroughs, in his usual “banker's drag,” At least Charlie got that wonderful picture from it.
Charlie's ending though is one of the saddest I know of. Forced out of Church Street he tried to establish a bookstore in Kensington Market, a place where I would have thought a bookstore could, and would, flourish. But it didn't and one day Charlie came to work and the landlord had locked him out. I heard the fuss and negotiations went on for a while but in the end the despicable, but I guess businessman landlord took all of Charlie's books for money owed. Thus a bookseller who had worked all his life and contributed so much to Toronto's culture lost everything.
I walked into a store along Queen Street one day a couple of years later and found an amiable but complete neophyte proprietor running a new shop. He told me it was a retirement business he had bought and I recognized Charlie's stock. The landlord took Charlie's books and sold them and, I guess, that's how it works; we are, after all, capitalists.

But the worst for me is I still run into Charlie in various book places a few times a year and I always ask him if he's found work and so far he's always said no.

So, we have a man who ran a great bookstore and has thirty or forty years' experience and an enormous wealth of knowledge about books and everything in them, and he can't even find a job. What good to the world is a sixty years old bookseller?

The only real advantage me and my used and rare colleagues have over our hapless new colleagues is that it's almost impossible for a used bookseller to ruin himself, except through drink or tragedy, like fire. This is because our one edge is we pay for our books when we buy them, we don't owe some publisher 60% of every book we sell. We have learned to stop buying when it's bad and that has saved us.

But, when I see Charlie Huisken, who was a very good bookseller, and he can't even get a job I admit to feeling considerable bitterness. He deserved better, we deserve better.

The French, from whom we can learn much, have designated and protected and subsidized areas so that France will always have bookstores. They understand culture in a way we seem unable to comprehend.

I am not one of those people who has ever suffered that horribly debilitating disease, self-pity. I wake up every morning thankful for the great gift I received by spending my life amongst books. But every time I see Charlie Huisken with his sad acceptance of what others did to him and his wistful smile when I inquire about his prospects it leaves me quite depressed for a couple of days. When they can do such a thing to good ones, how long can the rest of us be safe?

-David Mason

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