In Toronto, bingeing on books


BMV's Bloor Street location, one of Toronto’s many bookstores, has rows of Canadian literature. (Paul Casselman)
July 3, 2013

I can still smell the cluttered Queenstown shop where I pried Leonard Cohen’s “Flowers for Hitler” from a stack of hardcovers. David Goodis’s noir classic, “The Moon in the Gutter,” forever conjures the musty Rio storefront where I found it. And the Paris nook where I discovered “Revolutionary Road” remains as vivid as Richard Yates’s prose.

Books are my souvenirs, bookstores my pilgrimage sites. So for a traveler like me, who can spend hours savoring stacks and shelves, Toronto’s close to Shangri-La. A massive student population, a buy-local ethos and strong neighborhood ties mean that a vibrant homegrown bookstore culture still thrives here.

If you go: Toronto bookstores

The Canadian Booksellers Association Web site lists more than 50 non-chain bookstores in the greater Toronto area alone, giving it more indie bookshops than most North American cities. It’s a far cry from the city’s literary glory days, when booksellers dominated entire blocks. But the sheer range of outlets makes Toronto one of the last places on the continent where an honest-to-goodness bookstore vacation — unhurried browsing, languid leafing, cheerful chats with passionate proprietors — still feels possible.

Downtown at least, Torontonians seem resistant to corporate retailers. “We don’t have that many chain stores,” said Alison Fryer between calls and customers at the Cookbook Store, her compact 30-year-old shop in tony Yorkville. “The stores we do have are community-based. We’re lucky to have a lot of readers and a lot of support.”

On Bloor Street West, near my home base in Toronto’s low-key Annex neighborhood, even the chains are indie. I started a recent weekend browsing binge at BMV, a Toronto chainlet with rows of Canadian literature. My serendipitous first encounters with such criminally overlooked local writers as Norman Levine, Marian Engel and Crad Kilodney happened here. Out-of-print obscurities make this place a trove; I grabbed Fredelle Bruser Maynard’s Jews-in-the-Prairies memoir “Raisins and Almonds” for $5.

At Book City, another Toronto franchise a block west, killer remainders are the specialty. I scored Augusten Burroughs’s lacerating “A Wolf at the Table” for $6.99, along with Toronto-based DIY fashion quarterly WORN ($12), nearly impossible to find outside Canada. A few doors down, I spotted a violet neon “New and Used Books” sign in a cluttered window beneath an Irish pub. It belonged to Seekers Books, a ragtag-looking shop that turned out to have a serious selection of occult and New Age volumes. Willow Books, several blocks east, felt even more under-the-radar, nearly hidden in a recessed storefront next to a convenience store. Amid messy stacks and racks of vintage clothing, I found entrancing poetry volumes and philosophy tomes too heavy to schlep around town.

A 10-minute walk south, at the University of Toronto’s eastern edge, mellow Harbord Street houses two of the city’s quirkiest booksellers. Sci-fi’s not my thing, but I spent nearly an hour at Bakka Phoenix — which bills itself as the world’s oldest science-fiction/fantasy bookstore — just to bask in contagious zeal for the form. “If someone walks in and says, ‘I read this book in 1992, and it had a unicorn on the cover,’ we’ll find it,” manager Leah Bobet told me.

The place has serious bona fides; Hugo Award winner Robert J. Sawyer once manned the register here, as did cult writer Cory Doctorow (“Homeland”). When I asked for a release that I wouldn’t find at home in New York, Bobet sagely suggested Robert A. Douglas’s fanatically researched “That Line of Darkness” ($28), a Gothic-tinged political history from Ontario’s Encompass Editions.

Up a flight of stairs a building over, I pulled open glass doors bearing a Grand Guignol list of afflictions, from Drugs and Depression to Stress and Sexism. This was Caversham Booksellers, one of just two psychology bookstores in the world, as sandal-clad staffer Neil Hendry told me; London’s Karnac Books is the other. I found a mesmerizing map of mental maladies in such tidy categories as “Narrative-focused solutions” and “Jung.” A complete set of Freud’s writings — at $580 — is “a big seller” here, Hendry said it says a lot about Toronto that Harbord Street also supports Parentbooks, one of the continent’s largest mom-and-pop — literally — bookstores, just a few doors down.

I hopped the Spadina streetcar a few blocks south to College Street, whose quirky bookstores share low-slung blocks with artisan boutiques and farm-to-fork eateries. A bookseller actually opened here in November, an inspiring sign amid seemingly endless fatalities everywhere else. Poet Luciano Iacobelli started Q Space “as more than a business,” he told me. “It’s a hangout where one can actually meet writers and publishers and artists.” Quirky Toronto publisher Quattro Books operates from a back office here; its monographs line the shelves, along with uncategorizeable used books. I nabbed “Ad Boy” ($6), a lavishly illustrated 2009 history of marketing characters, by Warren Dotz and Masud Husain.

At dimly lit Balfour Books, a couple of blocks west, I interrupted manager Lewis Rubenstein and “daily customer” Jon Redfern as they talked opera in the store’s tiny back garden. Scrabble tiles spell out names of sections here — “Mystery” or “Design” — but it’s piles of pulp paperbacks that makes Balfour such a trove. “We sell them by the busload,” Rubenstein told me.

A 1965 edition of Sax Rohmer’s “Return of Dr. Fu-Manchu,” with its camp cover, was $4. When Balfour moved here from a larger space on College in 2010, Rubenstein told me, its owners bought the three-story building. “You have to,” he said. “Rents keep going up.”

I followed College Street west into Little Italy, with its gelato shops and old-school espresso hangouts. Across from a meatball shop, I found Sellers & Newel, a store operated by a pair of bibliophile cousins. Horror and first editions are specialties; a coffin-cum-bookshelf dominated the neatly organized floor. While I browsed, a German-accented customer asked whether the store was buying horror books. “Only Lovecraft” was owner Peter Sellers’s terse, delicious answer. First editions are a particular strength here; a spectacular Arkham House edition of H.P. Lovecraft’s “Dagon” bore a $180 price tag. I reluctantly left it on the shelf.

But my browsing spree came full circle on my way home. At endearingly shabby Ten Editions Books on busy Spadina Avenue, owner Susan Duff flicked a switch to illuminate an expansive Can Lit section in the store’s cluttered rear. I found Wayne Grisby’s “A Toronto Lampoon,” a 1984 parody of what was then Canada’s dullest metropolis. Among the book’s “Top 40 Toronto Cliches”: “Toronto the Good.” “They Roll Up the Sidewalks at Night.” And “The best thing about Toronto is the 3:15 train to Montreal.”

The book nailed how much this kinetic, confident city has changed. And Ten Editions, which Duff told me has been a bookstore for more than 50 years, made me deeply grateful for what’s still here.

Kaminer is a New York-based writer.

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