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.