Category Archives: Toronto

She Said Boom!

IMG_2134She Said Boom!, 372 College Street, Toronto, Canada, M5T 2N9

There’s a lot of pessimism about books at the moment.  When I tell people I’m devoted to real books they look at me like I’m a bit sad and hopeless; when I tell them I want to own a little bookshop one day they say things like ‘Well, if people still read books in ten years, that is…’ or ‘But there won’t be any bookshops in the future…’  and other nonsense.

We’ve all watched in horror as, in America, Borders closed, in Canada,Indigo replaced books with slippers and throw pillows and in the UK, Waterstones dropped the apostrophe and added Kindles to its shelves. We’ve all seen a local independent close.  We’ve all heard the by-now trite advice that if a bookshop wants to survive, it has to up its game, becoming a cafe on the side and selling games, toys and household trinkets that have only the most tenuous relation to actual books.

It’s a sad day for our culture when books aren’t enough, when the hundreds or thousands of titles available in a bookshop can’t hold our attention.  Because, you know, it’s just the entire creative and intellectual output of an entire civilisation, but you’re right, it’s just boring when we can’t also buy chaimochafrappacinolattes and throw pillows in the same place.

The sooth-sayers are loving it, saying that bookshops are doomed, saying that consumers are too lazy to leave home and too apathetic to support local businesses. Frankly, it’s all crap.

I know that because yesterday I went to She Said Boom!, a used bookshop in downtown Toronto, which thoroughly lifted my spirits.  She Said Boom!, which sells books, comics, CDs and records, is not gimmicky or touristy or sexy.  It’s just a good bookshop.  All that means and all that should ever have to mean is that it has knowledgeable staff, a good selection and a bit of room to browse.  A beloved institution on College Street, She Said Boom! was bustling when I visited.  It does this old heart good to see that a good local bookshop can still draw a crowd.

The College Street location is a kind of satellite store for She Said Boom!’s main IMG_2133location in Roncesvalles Village in the West End of Toronto.  Both have excellent and very broad selections of books, but specialise in Literature, Philosophy (of the Eastern and Western varieties), History and Politics.  The College Street shop also has an interesting selection of books on Religion and a great poetry section, where one of the booksellers had a  really sweet conversation with an older customer about his love of Robert Frost as she helped him find Frost’s Collected Poems.

At the College Street location, the books get the most attention.  Bookshelves cover all available wall space in the shop, jutting out into the middle in places to create nice little private nooks where mousy booklovers can follow the alphabet from A to Z as the Fiction section snakes its way over many shelves and in and out of corners.  All the books are used, so they are always significantly cheaper than retail price.  Even though I really shouldn’t be buying too many books while I’m away, I bought Luka and the Fire of Life by Salman Rushdie for $8 (£4.75) and I love it so far.  Salman Rushdie is one of those authors whose writing I trust so deeply that I will gladly buy anything he wrote without reading the blurb; his name is enough for me.

She Said Boom! has a section devoted to the Classics, by which they do not mean Jane Eyre and David Copperfield, but actual Classical writing from the Ancient Greeks and Romans.  I love when bookshops have a selection of Classical literature that has more in it than The IliadThe Odyssey and The Aeneid.  Here, you can find Greek tragedy, epic poems, Roman comedy and all the greatest writers of antiquity, including Sophocles, Euripides, Catallus, Cicero and Ovid.  Like any good bookshop, She Said Boom! has a selection that does more than just satisfy your cravings and demands, but inspires you to explore different books and give them a chance.

IMG_2131In the middle of the shop, there are tables and boxes full of records, CDs and even the odd cassette tape.  Now, I may know my way around a bookshelf, but (as that statement perhaps proves) I’m not very cool. The people rummaging through these boxes of old records like they were on a treasure hunt definitely are, so I was reluctant to budge in and push them out of the way; they looked like they knew what they were doing.

I was a bit intimidated at first by these objectively cooler browsers (not to mention the tattoo-ed, incense-burning, Velvet Underground-playing, grumpy-looking staff).  But then I saw the looks of joy and contentment on the faces of all different kinds of browsers, whether they were mouthing Robert Frost poems to themselves, gingerly turning the pages of vintage comics or quickly flipping through piles of records like they were magazine pages.  And I realised that what’s so great about She Said Boom! is that they have something for everyone, and a way of bringing out the geek in each one of us.

Bookshops like this – good bookshops – are places where it’s okay to get excited about silly little things like paper books and vinyl records that other people will IMG_2132try to tell you are behind the times.  Good bookshops are places where we come together to acknowledge our common weirdness, our geekiness, our passions for things that other people tell us aren’t worth it. I’m partial to books, but I think that what I’m looking for between the pages is the same thing that other people find through their favourite lyric or a single burst of colour on a canvas.  We’re all just looking to know that someone else in the world shares (or once shared) our passions, our thoughts, our feelings.

That’s why we still need bookshops like She Said Boom!, where the passionate weirdos and misfits who’ll one day rule the world can discover new things to get inappropriately excited about and fan the flames of lifelong passions.


Balfour Books

IMG_2129Balfour Books, 468 College Street West, Toronto, Canada, M6G 1A1

I finished a book last night.  Curled up in bed to protect myself against the cold weather in Toronto, Umberto Eco took me away to an uncharted island somewhere in Polynesia in 1643 in The Island of the Day Before. I always leave myself one sleep before starting a new book.  If you close one and immediately open another you do a disservice to the new book, since you’re still really in the world of the other.  So I went to bed, and woke up this morning feeling a book-shaped void in my life.  I have 6 days left in my trip to Toronto and, finding myself out of books, I headed out to Balfour Books in a panic.

Buying books for or while on a holiday is a tricky business.  You don’t want to bring War and Peace because you might well spend the whole time reading one book, which seems a waste.  On the other hand, you don’t want to bring five or six shorter books because – as the Kindle Zombies will tell you – IMG_2127books are sooooo unbearably heavy that I don’t even know how anyone ever carried one.  (My answer to said Kindle Zombies: ditch two or three pairs of shoes and all your gadgets for a few books so you have something actually interesting to do and stop moaning.)  That said, I do try to bring only a few books on holiday – the more books you have the more likely you are to forget one or leave an old one behind to have space for a new one.  And, for me, part of the fun of traveling with books is bringing them home again, with a ticket stub or metro pass from another city tucked in somewhere, to sit on my shelf and remind me of my travels.

But if you don’t bring enough books you may end up with six days left and no reading material.  This gives you the chance to go book-hunting in a new city, but suddenly you are looking for just one book to get you through.  Suddenly you have to worry about how long it you should buy to keep you busy and how thick or thin it needs to be to fit in your bag.  It’s stressful.

I thought a lot (probably too much) about all these questions and in the end IMG_2122decided to visit Balfour Books, a used bookshop on College Street, to find something relatively short but interesting and challenging enough that I wouldn’t speed through it too quickly.  I had Virginia Woolf in mind because her novels meet those criteria, and because she’d prepare me to go back to London.  I walked for ages along a grey and dreary College Street so by the time I finally saw Balfour Books I was more than ready to get out of the cold and the harsh banality of downtown Toronto and wrap myself up in the soft, comfortable glow of the bookshop.

The advantage of book-hunting at 11am on a Tuesday is that everyone who IMG_2127actually lives here is at work, so I was the only customer.  As I wandered around the shelves and in and out of quiet enclaves, I was alone with books, classical music and the quiet chatter of the lovely bookseller and another woman I suspect was an employee or a friend.  They politely welcomed me when I came in, offered to help and then left me to browse silently, which is all I ever want to do.  I love booksellers who get that.  While I planted myself down in a chair near the Fiction section, the two ladies continued their conversation which meandered from books to art to wildlife to travel and back to books again.  I could have sat there for hours listening.

IMG_2120The bookshop has a great selection of books from many different genres.  The fiction selection is huge and includes everything from ancient Greece to the present, with books that range from cheap paperback editions of classics to beautiful hardcover copies of contemporary novels by the biggest authors of recent years.  Speaking of which, atop a lovely old chest of drawers at the front of the shop, short story collections by Alice Munro catch the eye and remind the world that, finally, a Canadian has actually done something worthwhile.  I tease, but Alice Munro is brilliant and deserves the attention.  IMG_2124Besides, it’s always good when a bookshop makes the effort to get its customers to pay attention to good writing.   Balfour Books also has travel, cooking, science, art, architecture, mystery, poetry and drama sections which are excellently stocked and have labels on the shelves made of Scrabble letters.  It’s so cool.  The books range from pristine almost-new copies to battered old ones which are nearly falling apart!

There is also an excellent children’s section, where you’ll find classic and contemporary picture books, the very best of chapter books as well as some IMG_2125young adult and teen titles.  My favourite part of the children’s section, though, are the ancient (or at least vintage!) hardback copies of well-known children’s favourites and their lesser-known contemporaries.  There are lovely old copies of The Jungle Book and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and an 1865 children’s book called The Brownies by Juliana Ewing, about magical little creatures who sneak into homes and night and help out.  This was the book that gave the Baden-Powells their name for the younger division of the Girl Guides.  I’m a Brownie leader in London by night so this made me very happy and I nearly bought it.  Had I not been on holiday and worried about the weight of my bag I would have.

After being distracted from my Virginia Woolf search by several IMG_2128novels, a book of poetry and a biography of Hillary Clinton I knelt down and rummaged through the pile of paperbacks and pulled out two of Woolf’s novels that I haven’t read: Jacob’s Room and Orlando.  They were both only $4 (£2.40) and I’m sure I would have loved either.  But something made me put them down. I love Virginia Woolf.  I love the way her tales of London are 90 odd years old but still add something to my own experience of that city.  But sitting there, crouched over the bottom shelf, I realised that when you’re traveling, even somewhere not really new, it seems like a cop-out to pick out a book that reminds you of the place you came from or are going back to.  There will always be time for the familiar, but when you’re far away it’s good to embrace someone else’s familiar.  Surely that, above all else, is what books teach us.

Nothing would have been nearly as interesting if Bilbo Baggins had got his way and stayed at  home living his normal happy life.   I would have had IMG_2121nothing to entertain me last night if Umberto Eco’s Roberto had never left his little Italian village and made his way toward the lights of seventeenth century Paris.  The adventure plot is one of the oldest in Western literature and there’s a reason we’re still fascinated by it.  It’s why we travel.  It’s why we go to new places and it’s why we return years later to the old ones.  There may not be dragons, there may not be gold, there may not be a fair maiden, but if we listen to the songs and stories of the people in the places where we find ourselves, sometimes, we really do find ourselves.  So I took the hint.  I bought The Progress of Love by Alice Munro for $7.  I hope that reading it will help me find a way to link the stories of the place I came from with the stories of the many places where I’ll find myself.

Type Books

IMG_2083Type, 883 Queen Street West, Toronto, Canada, M6J 1G3

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.

IMG_2076Then 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.

IMG_2082That 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 IMG_2080unfashionable, 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 evenIMG_2075 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 IMG_2079mixes 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 IMG_2074intimidated 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.

Love Your Local Library

By this point, you all know that I like bookshops.

I like them because they are places where adventures start, conversations happen and lives are changed.  The only other place in the world that can have the same influence on the development of imagination and a love of reading in a child is a library.

Many of you have commented telling me the stories of how you became life-long bibliophiles.  For some, like me, the journey began in an independent bookshop in your area, but for many others, it was the local library which got you hooked.

With that in mind and because, coincidentally, it is National Library Week in America, I’d like to ask you to do me a solid.

A few years ago, Margaret Atwood did something great.  Okay, she probably did a lot of great things but one of my favourites was that she lent her support and star-power to a campaign to stop proposed cuts to the public library system in Toronto.  As someone who lived in Toronto for many years, I can tell you that its public library system is one of the best in the world; I often refer to it as ‘the one thing Canadians do better than the Brits.’  I cannot tell you how useful the Reference Library at Yonge and Bloor has been to me over the years or how many childhood hours I spent at the Deer Park branch buried in picture books.

I signed a petition a few years ago to help this campaign and got signed up to their mailing list.  Last night I got an email explaining that a new provincial leader has just come into office and is in the process of reviewing the budget, so this is the perfect time to petition the government for some of the funding for public libraries province-wide to be restored after years of successive cuts.

If you have fond memories of a public library where your love of reading was fostered as a child, if you still use one today for the odd research project or better still, if you frequently use your local library as your primary source for new books, please sign the petition to give back some of the funding to Ontario’s libraries.  It takes about a minute and you can opt out of future emails from them.

And while we’re at it, Happy National Library Week if you’re in America and for those of us in the UK and elsewhere, well, shall we just pretend?

Nicholas Hoare Books

Nicholas Hoare Books, 45 Front Street, Toronto, Canada, M5E 1B3

“Hoare” sounds like “whore”.
There it is, out of my system.

Today, on the recommendation of a couple of friends, I decided to visit this popular bookshop on Front Street.  Walking in feels just like how I imagine it would feel to walk into a book; the colours are richer than the drab street outside, the sounds of cars and voices is washed away by calmness and the fast-paced world of iPhones and Kindles falls away to reveal a world that really really loves books.

Nicholas Hoare has erected (okay, so the smutty jokes aren’t quite out of my system, perhaps) a monument to the comforting feel of a thick book in your hand.   He has built a stronghold against the advances of “real life”; a castle for books.  It’s silent inside except for the wincing of floorboards underfoot.  The impeccably organised bookshelves stretch up to the ceiling, so that if you wanted to reach all the way up the alphabet to Auden or Arnold you would have to step up on the wooden ladders painted dark green with gold braces.

This is a shop that seems to be continually unfolding; long and narrow, it stretches back further than you expect at first, revealing couches and chairs, an old (sadly not functional) fireplace, an upper level that looks down on the rest of the shop as if from a balcony, a children’s section where books are arranged around turrets and, delightfully, a tree!  No one seems to question the fact that there’s a tree in the middle of a downtown store and I’m sincerely glad they don’t, since its insistence that it belongs there made me feel like I had reached the top of Jack’s Beanstalk. I think that all fairy tale castles (on top of beanstalks or otherwise) should look like this.   In fact, I think heaven should look like this.  

The idea of Nicholas Hoare’s as a sanctuary for books is driven home by the selection of books that line the shelves.  Naturally there are well-stocked fiction and poetry sections; it’s not the widest or most complete range I’ve ever seen but the books in the shop and particularly the ones on display are clever, beautiful books that have no doubt been chosen very deliberately. There is a wide selection of books about politics in Britain, America and Canada (assuming that the latter can be classified as such…don’t get me started) and books about economics (but only the interesting ones).  There are also big, beautiful books about art, fashion, gardening, design and cookery which I loved flipping through.  I was very excited to find a copy of a book called Treehouses of the World.  About a year ago I came across another large book of pictures of treehouses called Exceptional Treehouses and ever since I have been obsessed with the idea of living in a little wooden house high up in an oak or sequoia with no internet, no TV and just walls and walls of books.  Okay, maybe a TV.  I also found a book called Books DO Furnish A Room (a little nod to Mr. Powell) which gave me even more ideas of how to decorate said treehouse.  I decided that if it looks anything like the inside of this shop I’ll be happy.

And finally, I noticed an exceptionally high number of books about books.  This may be because a bibliophile looks out for these books and seems to see them everywhere, but I think that perhaps whoever chose the shop’s selection is, like me, hoping to celebrate the importance and centrality of having books around us, whether it’s in libraries, in our homes or just kicking around in our brains making us associate any old tree with Jack and the Beanstalk.  Two such books that I discovered in the shop today and which I promptly added to my reading list are The Library at Night by Alberto Manguel and Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet.

The only disclaimer I feel obliged to provide as I describe all these wonderful books is that they’re quite pricey.  I started these bookshop adventures to prove that bookshops are just as good as Amazon etc. and in many cases even the prices are comparable.  In this case they’re not, but I hold to my belief that the setting of a beautiful bookshop that forces you to find titles you never would have found otherwise and open your mind is still a better way of doing things. 

As you can probably tell, I spent a very long time snooping around in this bookshop under the jealous eyes of the man at the till who seemed to be watching me the entire time, wondering why I had made six or seven laps around his precious printed empire.

The truth is, I needed to walk around madly in circles in order to fully appreciate the quirks of the shop itself, the geography of the long, thin space and, of course, the phantoms on its shelves.

BMV Books

BMV Books, 2289 Yonge Street, Toronto, Canada,  M4R 2H1

When I lived in Toronto, the BMV at the corner of Yonge and Eglinton was my go-to bookshop.  There are two other BMV locations in the city, one at Yonge and Dundas and one in the Annex and what they all have in common is an impressive collection of books from every genre imaginable at very reasonable prices.  Every year at Christmastime I would bring a big empty bag with my to one of the locations and leave with a bulging bag of presents for my family.

As a bookshop, it’s really very nice, with wooden shelves stretching up the the ceilings which, though they cause problems for shorter customers like me, give you the feeling of being surrounded from every side by pages and print.  It checks all the boxes for me, I think: small corners to hide away from other customers, an upstairs floor to escape the interested but not invasive eye of staff, a range of unusual and unexpected genres, quiet music and little splashes of character and uniqueness throughout.  The humorous indication that the European history section has been “annexed” by American history is one such splash.  Speaking of the American history section: am I the only one who didn’t realise Romney had published a book about the greatness of America? Give me a break, Mitt.  Anyway, I found a copy of it in the bookshop today and was caught by another customer as I rolled my eyes.  His sly smile seemed to suggest that he shared my amusement. The upstairs, where Military, American, European (annexed and otherwise) and Middle Eastern history are found also has a whole shelf of plays and another whole shelf of Shakespeare plays, rows and rows of new and vintage comic books (DC on one side and Marvel on the other of the long table in the middle) and an impressive collection of children’s books from picture books to classics and all the way up to teen books.  I’ve seen families bring their children in and sit on the carpet  by the window reading to their children.  There isn’t a toy or piece of cross-over merchandise in sight.  It’s a beautiful thing.  

The bookshop is entirely pleasant.  But no, it isn’t the most original or different or unique bookshop in the world or even in the city.  I’ve been in many shops in my life that have creakier steps, mustier smells and quirkier staff and so it isn’t for any of these, my usual criteria, that I love this particular shop.

I love it because there’s something very dramatic about its location.   Across the street from it looms a giant shopping mall whose east-facing side is almost entirely eaten up by the dominating front of one of the big bookstore chains.  It remains nameless because I’m impartial.  Or maybe because I used to work there.

Shoppers flit in and out of the loud and busy shopping mall on the west side of Yonge, perhaps unaware that they are merely accessories to the drama unfolding underneath their feet as the two bookshops are locked in a staring contest, each hoping the other will blink first.  But despite its smaller size, BMV seems to have a devoted base of loyal customers, including yours truly, of course!  It seems like every time I come to Toronto I can count on seeing the little old man who wears a Tilley hat and seems to love John Grisham on my mandatory trip to BMV.  

Today, I wasn’t planing on buying anything but, of course, walked out in the end with three new books.  The first was the collected stories of Willa Cather, an American writer whom I love as a novelist but whose short stories I’ve never read.  The second was the Pocket Poets series edition of Allen Ginsberg’s Kaddish and Other Poems which I bought because I read several drafts of a friend’s dissertation on “Kaddish” and now feel like I know everything there is to know about it but still, inexcusably, haven’t actually read it.  But now I can remedy that!  The final one was Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities.  Anyone who follows my book-hunting spree will know of my obsession with Calvino.  These three books cost me $21 (£13.50), while across the street I would have spent closer to $40.

Speaking of the across-the-street rivalry, I’d like to point out that whenever I’m in the store, I can usually count on hearing the owner at the front desk taking calls from people who have used books, comics, CDs or magazines (incidentally, they sell Books, Magazines and Videos, as the name indicates, as well as other media forms) they want to sell him.  On occasion, I’ve been there when a customer walks in with a box full of books to be sorted through to decide which ones can be resold.  Mr. BMV (that’s what I’ve dubbed him) is very particular about what books he’ll accept.  

Today, I was interested to overhear him on the phone with a customer explaining that the store’s policy on pricing is to sell everything for 50% or less of the cover price.  It was the way he phrased it, though, that was just brilliant. He told the customer, “Yeah, you know those guys across the street?  Yeah, we want to sell you the same book for half the price.”  How very cheeky of you, good sir.

Doug Miller Books

Doug Miller Books, 663 Bloor Street West, Toronto, Canada, M6G 1L1

It’s not exactly often that you walk into a store and hear “Twisted” by Joni Mitchell playing, but let me tell you, when you do, you can safely bet that you’re in a good place.

Doug Miller Books is in the heart of Toronto’s Koreatown between two Korean restaurants and if you don’t know it’s there you might walk right past it. But wouldn’t it just be a crying shame if you did.  Jazz Radio was playing in the background when I walked in which immediately made me feel like this was a bookshop that’s got it right.  I’ve never understood how big chains think that I’m going to want to buy a book when they’re blasting Katy Perry and the Glee soundtrack at me; who can really read with that in the background?  I’ve found that the perfect conditions for reading are in fact very particular.  They differ from person to person, but for me, I have to have my feet up, a cup of tea and, though music isn’t necessary and in fact sometimes silence is better, I’m usually happy to have a mellow acoustic folk song, Ludovico Einaudi, classical music (preferably Bach, not in general, just for reading) or a bit of jazz playing softly in the background.  All of this is to say that hearing the jazzy Joni when I walked in made me feel like I was welcome to pull out a book, plop down on one of the many cardboard boxes (full of books) that threaten to block all walkways and thumb through one of the shop’s old copies of the Hardy Boys or Nancy Drew books.

I was pleased to find that many of the used books in the shop are for children and teens and, of course, those who act and think like a child or a teen.  Being a member of the latter category, I was very excited to find a copy of Bootleg by Alex Shearer, which is about a dystopian world in which the Good-For-You Party bans chocolate.  I read it when I was twelve and absent-mindedly left my copy outside when I went in for dinner, only to remember it a couple of hours later.  In the middle of a thunderstorm.  Being responsible for the death of a book at such a young age scarred me quite a bit so it felt good to redeem myself by paying a measly $5 for a used copy.

As my adventures in book-hunting – my chronic addiction – take me in and out of these bookshops in different cities and different countries, I think I’ve learned that what appeals most to me is a place that seems just a little bit out of control.  That’s not to say that I don’t respect booksellers who keep their shops highly ordered and structured or designs that are neat and clean.  However, there’s something about the piles of books on top of rows of books on bookshelves and the overflowing cardboard boxes housing untold treasures in Doug Miller’s that I find thoroughly satisfying.  It’s all well and good that the shop has a huge selection (most of which, it seems, is hidden in boxes and not on the shelves) and that they’re organised in a logical and easy-to-follow way.  But what good is a rule without an exception; a shelf without a book out of place? With this in mind, I’d like to point out that I did take pictures, but can’t post them immediately since I’ve somehow lost the connector for my camera.

In other words, my life, like the shelves in my favourite bookshops, is a bit of a shambles.

P.S. I found it.

Week 9: Eliot’s Bookshop

Eliot’s Bookshop, 584 Yonge Street ,Toronto, Canada,  M4Y 1Z3

There’s a little pub in London that I think you’d really like.  It’s quiet inside and made of warm burgundy and brown colours.  It’s asymmetrical, it has an old-fashioned chimney and the paint on the outside is beginning to look a little worn.  It stays low on the horizon, crouching a little awkwardly, but still with its head up, surrounded by the Broadway-style theatres, glass business complexes and chain coffee shops of Victoria station.   It’s a wonderful pub because it seems alive, like an old grandfather who sat down in his armchair long ago and despite the racket of his gauche children and annoying grandchildren, he staunchly, and yet with a subtle recognition of the humour of it all, refuses to move.   It’s good to know that on the other side of the ocean, there are still stubborn little establishments like my London pub.

Eliot’s looks like it used to really belong on downtown Yonge Street.   I don’t know anything about the history of the shop or of the Yonge and Wellesley area (though the talkative owner would surely have told me if I had thought to ask), but it just looks like it was the original inhabitant and the sex shop to its right and what I think was once a shoe store on the left just sort of nestled in there on either side.

Stepping off of busy Yonge Street, the inside of the shop struck me immediately for its neat rows of wooden bookshelves.  There is something reassuring and comforting about things made of wood.  Hardwood floors, crafted wooden bookshelves and creaky wooden staircases are evocative of small country houses and old chests in grandparents’ basements and, in a perverse and backward kind of way, of bonfires and of a guitar singing out into a summer dusk.  Eliot’s feels a bit like being in an old attic, where you feel warm and comfortable and happy to be there, despite never knowing exactly what to expect. Unfortunately, today was a beautiful sunny day of 29 degrees, but I can only fantasise about being trapped in Eliot’s in the middle of a blizzard.

The ground floor doesn’t quite have that cosy attic feel; it’s more like a library.  Paper letters poke out into the walkway between the shelves, but these books are no simple “Fiction A-Z”.  What the ground floor lacks in cosiness, it makes up for in quirkiness, with shelves full of Vintage Magazines, Comic Books, Mystery, True Crime, Occult, New Age, Science Fiction, Psychology and Mythology sections, while the stand-bys like “Poetry” and “Drama” remain conspicuously missing.   In the Mythology section, I found a beautiful hard cover book of Grimm’s Fairy Tales from 1936 with gorgeous illustrations and those thick, yellow pages you only get in older books. The book was $12 and it took a veritable act of will for me to pry myself away from it.  Anyone else interested in the book should be warned that I did put it back but I hid it elsewhere on the shelf for myself in case I decided to come back and give in to temptation.  You’re welcome to try and find it, but it will be a challenge.  It’s probably the only book in the shop that’s not properly alphabetised.

As I passed the front of the shop to walk up the stairs, I stopped to talk to the owner.  He  was listening to “Paint it Black” and turned to me with a sincere grin on his face and said “This is the best song of all time.  Am I right?  This is just the best song ever written!”  I expressed agreement.  I figured, why not?  He told me he was playing a video of a live performance of the song on Youtube and then asked if I needed help finding anything.  The shop has three floors and a truly overwhelming selection of books, so the offer was hardly misguided or unnecessary.

I walked up the wooden stairs and peered up at the floor above like a child on Christmas morning.  I was amazed by the number of beautiful old hard cover volumes I found on the shelves.  The Literature and Poetry sections were incredibly well-stocked and when I do get trapped there in the middle of a blizzard, I certainly shan’t be bored.  I was lucky enough to be the only customer on that floor at the time, so I didn’t hesitate to walk around with a grin on my face and my mouth wide open in awe.  The shop’s collection of art books, in particular, was impressive, with everything from Man Ray to Rembrandt to Fabergé.

The second floor mainly houses books about business and law and other practical and considerably less exciting things.  It’s worth going up though to have a peek at the stain glass window looking out onto the street and for the bird’s eye view of the first floor.

On my way out of the shop, I passed by the front desk again, where the owner was talking on the phone to someone, quickly and excitedly, about how “Paint it Black” is the best song ever written and how he’s watching every video on Youtube of it being performed live.  He strikes me as the kind of guy who takes these important things seriously and who is enthusiastically devoted to beautiful little things, like songs and books and wooden bookcases.  Frankly, I think I’d like to be his friend.

Week 8: Ten Editions Bookstore

Ten Editions Bookstore, 698 Spadina Avenue, Toronto, ON M5S 2J2, Canada

I first discovered this bookstore the last time I was in Toronto, last Christmas. I was strolling around downtown (and when I say “strolling”, read “battling through the wind and snow on streets I could barely see through the tiny slit I had left exposed between my hat and my scarf”)  looking for a Christmas presents.  Ten Editions is on the corner of Spadina and Sussex Avenue, the latter street name providing yet another subtle reminder that this country is basically a small-scale copy of Europe, made up of counterfeit versions that are always smaller and worse than the originals.  But this bookshop is fantastic and very nearly redeems my faith in a continent that has largely lost all of its charming, characterful bookshops to big box giants.

Now this is a proper bookshop, the books-from-floor-to-ceiling kind.  When I was a child I imagined that my future house would have books all over the walls and the floors and on every available surface and no one would ever tell me to pick them up. Being in Ten Editions for half an hour today somehow satisfied that need for chaotic beauty.  I think the thing that first got me hooked were the ladders.  Remember that scene in Beauty and the Beast where she goes into the bookshop and jumps up on the wooden ladder which slides across the shelves?  (If not, you have no soul and need to re-watch Beauty and the Beast.) Anyway, it’s exactly like that; a big wooden ladder that goes from the floor to the top of the bookshelves (which go pretty much to the ceiling) and  a metal bar that the ladder slides along from one end of the shop to the other.  It took a great deal of self-control not to jump up on it.  In fact, there was even a book I wanted which was high up and would have given me the perfect excuse to do exactly that, but I started to feel socially awkward and chickened out at the last minute.  Instead I looked around at the many many second hand books while remaining on the ground like a good girl.  The books were all in great condition and I imagine you’d be able to find just about anything you’d need in there.  There were also shelves upon shelves of antique books, a box of almanacs from the 20s that looked like they’d crumble if you touched them and, excitingly, an early edition of  The Bobbsey Twins in the Country by Laura Lee Hope which was given to a little girl named Patsy for Christmas in 1943.  I could happily spend an entire day browsing through the shop’s literature, history, biography, psychology, poetry, children’s books, crime, drama and classics shelves and its little bit of medieval poetry.  This place is heaven.
The shop is owned by one woman who sits behind her desk all day.  I don’t know her.  But I love her.  Last Christmas, as I was poking around the poetry section in the back room, I heard the door open and peeked through to see a young man with too-low trousers, one of those moronic trucker hats and giant headphones barge in and walk straight up to the woman at her desk.  He took his headphones off but left the  loud (and bad) music blaring while he abruptly stated the name of the author whose book he was looking for.  She looked puzzled (and I imagine this is a woman who doesn’t often look puzzled) and said she hadn’t heard of the writer and asked what kinds of books she writes.  He answered “It’s like…those vampire books!” in the most clueless voice, as if his question were the most obvious thing in the world.  The owner scrunched up her nose and said “You won’t find that kind of thing here.  Maybe you should try one of the bigger bookstores” and gave him a look that said he should be ashamed to be alive.  He exhaled rudely and strutted out as if he didn’t know he was the scum of the earth.

Anyway, today she was much more cordial.  I bought The Complete Poems of Allen Ginsberg 1947-1997 for $8.50,  which, for such a giant book (just over 1200 pages) was quite a bargain since the retail price was $29.00 when it was published in 2006.  The owner laughed as she looked at it and said she couldn’t believe the complete poems of Allen Ginsberg formed such a massive book, since she tends to think of him as someone who just wrote a couple of very important poems.  I laughed and said that the size of the volume probably would have surprised Ginsberg himself and felt very clever until, leaving the shop, I realised that that was the exact line John Ashbery had once used to describe Frank O’Hara’s Collected Poems.  And then I was thoroughly embarrassed since I’m sure this woman knows that the line wasn’t mine.  In my mind, this woman knows everything.