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.