Well, North America, I had almost given up on you.
Over the years, I have watched in horror as every time I visit Toronto, one more of the few struggling independent bookshops has closed its doors for good and no one has kicked up any fuss about it. Long have I shaken my head in dismay, long have I wagged my finger in disapproval, long have I made (possibly unfair) pronouncements about the defects of an entire continent that is more interested in the latest gadget than preserving books, art and music, the little places (bookshops, libraries, museums and galleries) where peaceful spaces open up into a world of adventure.
I was just about to give up, become world-weary before my time and conclude that future generations of weird kids with over-active imaginations and more creativity than social skills will have to go without the comfort and the joys of real books and rooms full of them.
Then I met Type. Hallelujah, I thought, there might just be hope for them yet. For even in a difficult economic climate, and in a social climate that is wholly disheartening to those who want to live by books, Type has succeeded. I, for one, am relieved to know that even if other great bookshops in this city (a moment of silence, please, for the late and great Nicholas Hoare Books) are dwindling in numbers and having to close, Type marches on in its quest to bring a bit of colour and a bit of joy back into the lives of Toronto’s bookworms.
That sense of joy hits you before you even enter the shop. The display in the front window of the bookshop changes regularly, but is always inviting. In late August when I visited, a back to school display featured pieces of white paper, covered in handwriting whimsically floating through the air, suspended above a selection of relevant books. The effort put into creating such an inspiring and imaginative display, sure to draw in even the most school-resistant child, suggests that this is a place where the beauty and magic of a book, the miraculous potential of a blank page, does not go unnoticed or uncelebrated.
Inside, the large shop has a spacious layout, which might seem a bit too impersonal with its cold bare floors, were it not for the stubbornly unfashionable, but comforting and homely decorations on the walls. Several different colour schemes and loud patterns dominate different parts of the shop and multi-coloured bunting pops up here and there so that the whole place feels a bit like your wacky aunt decorated it. But at Type, it works. The walls are as colourful as the books themselves, which are the main focus, as they should be. Type illustrates their understanding of the charm of books themselves – without gimmicks or cross-promotional merchandise – in their creative and stunning video advert called The Joy of Books. If you have been living under a rock for the past year and still haven’t seen it, watch this video (once, twice or on repeat) to be reminded of the potential for magic that is latent any time a reader is presented with a shelf full of books. I always feel awe when I enter a bookshop or a library or the house of a particularly accomplished collector and see, standing in front of me, a small sample of mankind’s genius, the creative and intellectual output of our civilisation, expressed in more words than I could even hope to read in a lifetime, right there, available, waiting to be opened and for the dance of the words on the page begin. A Kindle or an Ipad fails to give that impression of greatness, durability and possibility. Even if it contains a million ‘books’ (or files as I call them, since that’s all they are) the Kindle cannot impress the reader in the same way a good bookshop does. It will never make us realise – through the sheer presence, the endearing physicality of paper pages you can touch – the amount of words we have not read, and the possibility that they might all change our lives the way a shelf of unopened books can.
At Type, I could sense the legendary words and timeless expressions of thoughts and emotions around me. Surrounded by so many beautiful and important books, I could almost hear them whispering, promising to share their secrets if I was willing to pick one up and sit with it for a while. The collection that the booksellers at Type have accumulated is so brilliantly-curated that browsing through it, you can tell that any book in the selection might change your life. A well-stocked selection of classics is of course mandatory, but the wide range of fiction titles available is refreshingly contemporary. The balance between old and new is just right, as if to remind us that we are nothing if we do not know our past, but that that past should no longer define us. In order to help us break free from it, Type offers novels by the greatest writers of our generation and less famous authors who nonetheless deserve our attention. The poetry section also mixes old and new in exciting ways and encourages the browser to try something they never would have found on their own. The selection of graphic novels is large, which is appropriate for a form finally coming into its own and being taken seriously. Personally, I think it might prove to be an invaluable new genre for the internet generation to express its understanding of its own time. Despite how new and fresh the genre is, at Type, a small typewriter is nestled in a the base of this section, perhaps so that we don’t get too carried away and forget that all books, no matter how innovative the format, are simply the result of the miraculous combination of black letters on a white page.
There are also superb history, politics, philosophy and religion sections where the range of inspired and significant titles simultaneously excited and intimidated me. And in the back room, beyond the cook book section and books on all kinds of crafts and activities, there is the children’s section. It’s a small room and contains a few too many toys and other non-book items for my tastes, but it is cosy and bright, with little child-sized chairs dotted around and a great selection of books for all ages. As a child who spent many hours curled up in the children’s sections of libraries and bookshops, I can tell you that a small and quiet nook at the back of a bookshop is all you need to bring to life the magic that grown-ups need videos and fancy editing to be reminded of.
So shame on us, the adults. The ones who have accepted this opinion (whose opinion, again?!) that magic is kids’ stuff, that the closest we can get to it is a touch-screen smartphone or a device that is nothing but a pale shadow of a real book. What Type reminds its readers is that all that stuff is just a distraction for a distracted age impressed with its own petty party tricks. The real magic starts when you open a book, and let it open something in you, too.