Saturday 31 March 2012

Travels with the Library Cat: Toronto Bookstores

Sadly, since this article was first published in Words with Jam Magazine, Nicholas Hoare's Toronto store has also closed.

The day before I left England, I read a headline in the Bookseller’s Daily Bulletin. “Canadian bookseller announces closures.” Nicholas Hoare, one of Canada’s most respected independent booksellers, was closing branches in both Montreal and Ottawa. I knew, too, that this was only the latest in a long line of closures of independent bookstores in Canada. So I decided to see for myself how things were in Toronto.

I began at Nicholas Hoare’s remaining branch, on Front Street East. This is an elegant space, with gallery runs part-way along one side. Elsewhere, a slender set of library steps allows access to the highest shelves. Jazz music plays softly in the background.

Nicholas Hoare started 40 years ago in Montreal (1971) with a warehouse supplying libraries. They moved into retail a few years later, first with a shop in Montreal, then Ottawa, then Toronto.

“Our five most senior people have 140 years experience between us,” Hoare tells me.

The closures of the stores in Montreal and Ottawa have been forced on him by massive rent rises (72%, in the case of Ottawa and almost as much in Montreal). To some extent, he admits, he is the victim of his own highly individual approach. The shelving in the stores is a bespoke design, making it impossible to simply up sticks and move to another location. “I always thought I’d be taken out in a box,” he says.

He and his staff made the difficult decision to get out while still on top, focusing the business on the warehouse and on the Toronto branch. Like many of the independent booksellers I have spoken to, he believes the future lies in specialising.

“We are witnessing the demise of the general independent bookstore. Only niche stores are going to survive. And we are niche. Amazon and the big chains don’t carry the books we do. And we don’t carry bestsellers.”

Nicholas Hoare’s specialism is imported books from Britain.

How do they select the books they sell?

“We source books based on reviews. In England, we read the Literary Review, which is still astonishingly erudite. And in the US, we read the reviews from the American Libraries Association. When it comes to teen fiction in particular, they are absolutely on the button. When we see two recommendations coming from those different points, we know we are onto something special.”

I ask him what the standout books have been for him recently.

“The Hare With the Amber Eyes,” he says immediately. “We received that in proof copy, and we could see it was something special. Japanese treasure, smuggling, the holocaust… We were way ahead of the game, promoting the book in Canada.

“Going back a few years, we were the first to introduce Sue Townsend to Canada. I remember we jammed two switchboards with people asking, ‘Who is this woman?’”

The shop itself has the feel of somewhere very select. Every book is placed face out, reinforcing the impression that they have been individually chosen. A William Morris sofa and some deep arm chairs are arranged around a huge fireplace. A whole section of garden books is arranged as if in an art gallery, just at the point where a potted tree grows in the middle of the store. In the children’s section at the back, the shelves sprout turrets, like a miniature castle.

The arrangement of the books is eccentric. There is a section of controversial books about God – from Christopher Hitchens to Ten Popes that Shook the World. Old books are mixed in with new, fiction with non-fiction, the unifying principle being a theme that can take some working out. This is a bookshop to spend time in, and many people do - as their guest book, lying open by the sofa, testifies.

I move on to Ben McNally Books on Bay Street. McNally was previously the manager of Hoare’s Toronto branch, but the two fell out around five years ago and McNally opened his own shop a few minutes’ walk away. Given that one of arguments with Hoare was reportedly over the playing of background music in the store, I am mildly amused to hear classical music playing at a similar low volume.

The design of the shop, if anything, is even more imposing. Dark wooden shelves stand out against pale walls painted with a swirling, Art Nouveau design. There is a chandelier and a decorative archway leading to the small paperback section. Only one chair – a large leather armchair – perhaps reflecting the fact that many of their clientele are from the business district and often have little time to browse.

A fair proportion, but not all, of the books are arranged face out. The stock here is definitely denser than at Nicholas Hoare’s. But again there is the sense that it has been purposely selected – and with scant regard to current bestseller lists.

“I have to know everything that a British or American bookseller has to know, and then about Canadian publishing on top of that,” McNally tells me. He is passionate about providing books that no one else is interested in – books that are unusual, difficult to get or expensive to carry. “We are very persistent in pursuit of books people want. It gives us huge satisfaction when we track down something a customer has given up hope of finding.

“Sometimes we have to tell people it will cost them one arm, one leg, the birthright of their first child and take six months. But if they still want it, we’ll get it.”

They will deliver books to the local offices. They get to know their clients and will recommend books when they haven’t the time to browse. “I had one client who was on a long sailing voyage. He rang me to say he was ready to throw his Kindle overboard because there was nothing on it he wanted to read. He asked me to pick out half a dozen books for him and send them via a friend who was joining him for a leg of the journey. He knew he could trust us to find things he would want to read.”

I move on, into the University district, where I find the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. This not-for-profit store began 38 years ago as a shelf of books in a women’s resource centre. Their first shop was in Toronto’s Kensington Market, where it shares space with a feminist printing press and a self-defence collective.

Since then, the store has moved several times, before occupying its current location on Harbord Street. In the face of increasing competition from chain stores and others, it expanded outwards, embracing issues around racism, disability, sexuality and the environment.

The present owner, former employee and long-term customer, Victoria Moreno, took over two years ago, when the store was once again under threat of closure. She has added a tiny café at the back and opened up the courtyard behind as a pleasant seating area for sunny days. She’s also developed the store’s website and internet sales. In the basement, she says, are boxes of material relating to the store’s history, which she is beginning to delve through.

As well as books, the store sells locally made jewellry and crafts and has run courses in subjects from knitting to exploring bisexuality. They also run drama, music and language programmes for children.

Right across the street is the SciFi and Fantasy Bookshop Bakka Phoenix, now in its fourth home and celebrating its 40th Anniversary.

Bakka (named after Freman legend Frank Herbert’s Dune) was founded by Charles McKee in 1972 and is possible the world’s oldest continuously trading science fiction bookstore. Hopefully, it has now found its permanent home, as Ben Freiman (who took over in 2003 and added ‘Phoenix’ to the name), owns the freehold.

One of the reasons for the store’s success is apparent as soon as I walk through the door. Long-term employee, the Japanese-Canadian fantasy author Michelle Sagara-West, is holding forth to a customer, enthusiasm emanating from her like a heat-haze. Without drawing breath, she covers bad romantic tropes, the importance of finding at least one character in a book that you like, the problems with Buffy novelisations (“trouble is, too many people confuse ‘tough’ with ‘bitchy’”), Megan Whelan Turner’s The Thief and its sequels (“All of us in the store loved these books. Well, all of us except Ben, but he doesn’t do historical fantasy”) the joy of Terry Pratchett’s descriptive writing (“Except The Colour of Magic – I still can’t finish that,”) and the charms of The Night Circus.

“She’s only every hit a client over the head with a book once,” Freiman tells me, and they both dissolve into giggles. “It was a man who came in with two women,” Sagara says. “The women wanted some help browsing. As soon as the man had found what he wanted, he wanted to know if they were done yet. I picked up the book he’d just paid for and rapped him on the head. ‘You can’t rush them like that! They’re still looking,’ I told him.”

“What did he say?” asks the other customer.

“I think he was stunned,” Freiman says.

“The women both thought it was hilarious. One of them said, ‘See, even a complete stranger knows you deserve to be hit.’”

It would surely be impossible to escape from of shop like this without buying something – and probably without discovering some hidden gem of a book backed by a cast iron recommendation. Only watch out. “If you come back tell me you don’t like a book that I love, that’s really throwing down the gauntlet,” Sagara says. “You better be prepared for an argument.”

Freiman directs me up the road to Ten Editions, a tiny secondhand bookshop of the sort that used to line the Charing Cross Road, where every surface is crammed with books and boxes, and the aisles are almost too narrow to move up and down.

The current owner, Susan Duff has been there twenty years. “This was a bookstore well before that,” she says. “We have the vibes.”

She is squatting on a low stool, sorting books on one of the lower shelves. She wears a man’s tweed jacket over a heavy polo neck sweater, and with her mass of curly grey hair, she could be Margaret Atwood’s sister.

“Once upon a time, when people came in wanting to read about, say, Aristotle, they would want the original text, a couple of translations, history, criticism. Now they just want a specific text in a specific edition. If they need to read around the subject, they go on-line. It’s not as much fun any more.”

My last stop takes me north on the subway to Eglington, and Mabel’s Fables, a children’s bookstore that opened in 1988. Mabel herself is a marmalade cat (the second of that name) who graciously puts in an appearance and condescends to be stroked.

The ground floor of Mabel’s is for younger children, arranged by ages and stages. Lamps above each shelf are marked with guideline ages (easily seen by parents, not so easily by children.) Huge stuffed toys peek out from various nooks.

A flight of narrow stairs takes you to the upper floor, where there are books for older children. At the back is a wonderful story area, its walls covered in doodles and autographs from all manner of authors, Margaret Atwood included. As well as story-time, they run rhyme-time groups, language classes, writing workshops.

The store also has a close relationship with the children’s hospital, the famous ‘Toronto Sick Kids.’ Customers can buy books at a 20% discount, inscribe them with a personal message, and have them donated to the hospital.

The owner, Eleanor LeFave, has always been at the forefront of innovation. Currently, Mabel’s Fables is one of forty stores about to start trialling a new way of selling ebooks. Customers will be able to come in, browse the store, avail themselves of the expertise of the staff, and then buy a token for downloading the ebook of their choice – either for themselves or to give as a gift. The scheme is a colloboration between Canadian publisher Thomas Allen and Cormorant Books and will initially focus on short stories. The stories will be available exclusively to independent bookstores, who will receive a comparatively generous 40% of the sales revenue.

It was great to find that, despite everything, Toronto can still boast an eclectic range of independent bookstores.


Also Recommended:

Everywhere I went, staff were keen to recommend other indie stores. Here are a few I was told about but couldn’t make it to.

A Different Booklist, Bloor and Bathurst (Books for the African and Caribbean Diaspora)

Another Story, Roncevalles Village (International fiction, political non-fiction, and alternative children’s and young adult lit)

The Beguiling, Markam Street, (Underground and Alternative Comics)

Little Island Comics, Bathurst Street (The Beguiling for Kids)

David Mason Books, Adelaide St (Antiquarian and First Edition)

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