Lost Words

This post merges two pieces originally published on Torontoist on January 6, 2012 and January 12, 2012.

Ballenford BooksDavid Mirvish BooksPagesThis Ain’t The Rosedale Library. All established book stores that have closed within the past four years. With The Book Mark joining that list, Dragon Lady Comics shutting its physical store, and Glad Day Bookshop up for sale, it feels as if Toronto is experiencing a cycle of closures similar to the late 1990s.

Back then, blame initially fell upon big box stores like Chapters and Indigo; now it’s online retailers and e-books. In both cases these big bads were only part of the problem: increased rent appears to be a critical element of the current closure cycle, the exact opposite of the low-priced leases that aided the high number of bookstore openings during the 1970s. Cold commentators might say that technology is making bookstores obsolete, or that owners should only blame themselves when their business ends, but whenever any long-running store closes, it feels as if a reassuring piece of the local landscape has gone with it.

Here is a sampling of past bookstores that left their mark on Toronto and its readers.

Albert Britnell

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Globe and Mail, December 15, 1979.

“Count yourself a Torontonian if Grandfather shopped here,” proclaimed Toronto Life in its November 1970 guide to local bookstores. This was no exaggeration, as the Britnell family had been involved in the city’s book trade since Albert arrived from England during the 1880s. Initially known for its selection of collectible Canadiana, the store later built its reputation on the special order system developed by Albert’s spats-wearing son Roy. Though the shop closed in 1999, its name still sits above the Starbucks that currently occupies the building.

Hyman’s Book & Art Shop

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Ben-Zion Hyman in front of Hyman’s Book & Art Shop, 1925. City of Toronto Archives, Series 1465, File 119, Item 78.

“The shop was open from 8:30 a.m. to 1:00 a.m. every day except Saturday and had a mimeograph machine, pop cooler, newspapers and a bar mitzvah registry. It sold Yiddish and Hebrew books, Judaica, tickets for the Standard Theatre, stationery and school supplies.”—Rosemary Donegan, Spadina Avenue (Toronto: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985).

Located at 371 Spadina Avenue, Hyman’s (later known as Hyman and Son) operated for nearly 50 years.

North Toronto Book Store

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North Toronto Book-Store, July 1922. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 296.

Either the woman mailing the morning headline from the Globe is thrilled to be in front of the camera, or she’s frustrated with the photographer’s numerous requests to center the poster.

Lichtman’s

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Lichtman’s News Stand, sometime between 1945 and 1966. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 1, Item 130.

From the moment he arrived in Toronto from the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the age of 14, Sammy Lichtman was in the newspaper business. One account indicates that shortly after stepping off the train that brought him here, Lichtman was hawking papers on downtown streets. He eventually entered the distribution and newsstand business that evolved into a chain of book and magazine shops. As the big box stores cut into Lichtman’s business, debt mounted until ownership called it a day in 2000.

Eaton’s

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The Globe, November 3, 1934.

Before chains like Coles, Classic Book Shop and WH Smith, department stores were among the biggest booksellers in Toronto. There were even attempts, as this ad from Eaton’s shows, to promote Canadian authors.

SCM Book Room

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Rochdale College, March 1971. Photo by Leo Harrison. York University Archives, Toronto Telegram Photo Collection, Citation 1974-002/168.

Given the chaos surrounding Rochdale College during its dying days, it’s tempting to believe that some of the craziness made its way to one of the building’s most well-respected tenants, the SCM Book Room. But by the end of 1974, disputes between executives of the Student Christian Movement and store manager Bob Miller over the mission of the store had grown nasty. Should, as some SCM members argued, the store take a stronger stand on social issues and better reflect the ideals of the organization, or, as Miller believed, should the store continue to manage its own affairs as it had for years?

For nearly 20 years Miller, a reverend in the United Church, built the business’s reputation as the go-to place in Toronto for academic and religious works. Forget bestsellers: as Miller told the Globe and Mail in April 1968, “we’re interested in the scholarly type of books less accessible elsewhere, books for which there’s a market, but not a mass market.” According to historian Ramsay Cook, “it would be impossible to estimate the contribution that Bob Miller’s SCM Book Room has made to the intellectual and cultural life not only of Toronto, but of the country at large.

Despite mediation by poet Dennis Lee, personality clashes worsened. Miller and nine of the SCM Book Room’s 15 employees left the business in the spring of 1975. Later that year Miller established his own book room further east on Bloor Street, which continues to operate. A store under the SCM banner carried on until at least the late 1980s.

Times Square Book Store

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A later incarnation of the Time(s) Square Book Store, circa 1970s. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 3, Item 198.

As Yonge Street slid toward the seedy reputation it earned during the 1970s, adult book stores began filling its storefronts. Frequently raided by the morality squad, who quietly asked customers to leave while arresting the clerks, shops like the Times Square(which appears to have dropped the “s” by the time this photo was taken) serviced patrons looking for thrills in the pages of titles like French Spice, Mr. Cool, and Sizzle. Browsers who didn’t find the selection titillating enough could always watch burlesque dancers elsewhere on the Yonge strip.

Times Square’s penchant for skirting Sunday shopping laws earned it a profile in the September 19, 1970 edition of the Star, which depicted a typical Lord’s Day afternoon at the store:

A young man with shoulder-length blond hair perches on a stool by the cash register. He takes a $5 bill from an older man with nervous eyes and slips a plastic-wrapped magazine called Swappers into a plain brown bag. “Every adult person should have the right to decide what he can and what he can buy, any day of the week,” the young man says after the customer leaves the store. “Sure we’re open Sundays, but we’re not keeping anyone away from church. We cater to a different crowd.”

About Books

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Queen Street West, sometime between 1966 and 1972. Photo by Ellis Wiley. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 124.

During the 1970s, Queen West filled with used bookstores. The business offering “new books” at 280 in this photo was later occupied by About Books. Co-owner Larry Wallrich had been around: during the 1960s, he ran a shop in New York’s Greenwich Village that became a poet’s hangout then spent a few years selling books around Europe. Based on advice from a bookseller in Cleveland, Wallrich came to Queen West in 1976 and quickly fell in love with Toronto. In an interview with Books in Canada seven years later, Wallrich noted that the city had “more good, general second-hand book shops than there are in New York and London—and that’s of course totally economic because rents are still reasonable enough here than you can have good general book shops in the centre of town.” He also felt “more socially useful in Toronto as a bookseller than I’ve ever felt in my life before.”

Edwards Books & Art

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Globe and Mail, October 31, 1987.

Edward Borins learned how to buy and sell high quality remainders at low prices while managing David Mirvish Books during the 1970s. Borins and his wife Eva established their own store at 356 Queen Street West in 1979, which eventually grew into a small chain. As Now noted in a March 1989 profile, the original location “opened just at the time when the area was being revitalized by a new wave of artists and businesses.”

The chain fought a lengthy battle with the provincial government over Sunday shopping laws that led to around 300 charges. Edwards ran into troubles with its suppliers that played a role into the chain’s demise in 1997 and, thanks to tighter credit limits publishers imposed in the aftermath, negatively affected other local booksellers. The Borinses moved to Santa Fe and ran Garcia Street Books for a decade before selling it in 2011.

The Book Cellar

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Books in Canada, May 1971.

Despite its name, The Book Cellar only spent one year operating below street level when it opened in 1961. The store quickly gained a reputation for carrying the largest selection of magazines in the city, with titles ranging from TV Guide (one of their poorest sellers) to the Journal of the Institute for Sewage Purification. Store alumni included writers like Barbara Amiel and Paul Quarrington. Though there were several locations, the main one was 142 Yorkville Avenue, where browsers congregated between 1968 and 1997. The store’s demise was blamed on troubles receiving stock after publishers tightened credit limits following the end of Edwards Books & Art, and on declining street traffic in Yorkville.

A Map of Downtown Toronto Booksellers, 1974

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Quill & Quire, May 1974.

A&A Books & Records

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1960s postcard of Yonge Street. Image courtesy of Chuckman’s Other Collection.

While most people remember A&A as a music chain, the company’s flagship location at 351 Yonge Street began as a bookstore in the mid-1940s. While records became the focus of the business, the book section found its niche by selling textbooks to Ryerson students and those studying medicine at U of T.

Following the sale of A&A by founders Alice and Mac Kenner to Columbia Records in the early 1970s, drastic cuts were made to the section’s size and selection. The reductions were carried out poorly, leading to complaints from customers who couldn’t find the titles they wanted and publishers who received more returns than anticipated. By the time corporate decided to exit the book business in 1974, its sales were around 10 percent mass market titles, 90 percent textbooks.

The Children’s Book Store

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Quill & Quire, October 1980.

During a quarter of a century in business, The Children’s Book Store received plenty of praise for its large selection of material for young readers. This ad gives a sense of the store’s programming following its move to 604 Markham Street in 1980. In its final years on Yonge Street in North Toronto, the store faced expanded children’s sections at recently opened branches of Chapters and Indigo to its south. When the store closed in January 2000, its library and wholesale divisions were sold to a company largely owned by Chapters.

Longhouse Books

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Globe and Mail, September 25, 1979 (left), December 15, 1990 (right).

It was a concept predicted to fail in a hurry. Who was crazy enough to stock a bookstore with nothing but Canadian titles? Yet Longhouse Books proved the naysayers wrong when it opened at 630 Yonge Street north of Wellesley in 1972.

Partners Beth Appeldoorn and Susan Sandler opened the store out of anger. “There were Canadian books around, but they weren’t given the emphasis they deserved,” they told the Globe and Mail in a 1995 interview. “That little Canadiana section was insulting. We jumped in at the right time. But we did think about it, and we had good advice. We were not totally stupid, but we probably were crazy.”

Of the many launches held at Longhouse, the owners felt Margaret Laurence’s appearance to promote The Diviners was the most memorable:

Margaret had never done a launch in her life because she was always very nervous, and Margaret didn’t take crowds. But there was a crowd of people. Somebody came in and said, “What movie is showing?” We had to drag Margaret right away downstairs to the basement to give her a Valium. She never knew it was Valium. She thought it was an aspirin. But she was so shaky. She came back up and did a fabulous two hours of signing and talking. We put her behind a little table with chairs so she could hold onto the table.

Appeldoorn and Sandler sold the store in 1989, which promptly moved to 497 Bloor Street West. It closed six years later.

Tyrrell’s Book Shop

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King Street East, looking east to Victoria Street, 1910. Tyrrell’s can be seen at the far right. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 7345.

When Tyrrell’s Bookshop was sold to British retailer W.H. Smith in 1958, one question was what would happen to the ancient clock that had been there since founder William Tyrrell’s early days in business? “It was probably not bought on the morn that the old man was born,” wrote the Globe and Mail’s William Arthur Deacon, “but it certainly was ‘ever his pride and joy.’” To relief of store staff, the new owners decided to maintain it.

William Tyrrell entered the bookselling world as a 16-year old clerk shortly after his arrival from England in 1882. Twelve years later he opened his first store on King Street East at Yonge Street. The store later moved to 820 Yonge, across the street from longtime competitor Albert Britnell. Tyrrell didn’t let friendship stand in the way of what he believed he should sell; reportedly he refused to stock books written by friends if the work’s political slant was not to his liking.

Following Tyrrell’s retirement during World War II, the store was run by Phyllis Atwood until the sale to W.H. Smith. Deacon noted that “her friends will all be glad that she is shedding her responsibilities and ensuring her own future.” The store operated for a few more years under the Tyrrell’s banner.

Village Book Store

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Books in Canada, May 1971.

Deriving its name from Toronto’s “Greenwich Village” along Gerrard Street between Yonge and University, Martin Ahvenus opened Village Book Store in 1961. The shop gave strong support to Canadian poets—as Toronto Life noted in 1970, Ahvenus “encourages, amuses, and sells them, and they adorn his walls with graffiti.” It was also noted that the Village was “where the secondhand book dealers gather to talk shop on Thursday nights.” The store moved to 239 Queen Street West in the early 1970s and became one of the busiest used book stores along the strip.

Final owner Eric Wellington provided a long list of reasons for the store’s closure in January 2000: rising taxes, eroding profits, changing demographics of Queen West, chains, exhaustion from working every day, and a notice that TTC was going to repair the streetcar tracks. Wellington found that the Queen West crowd “has gotten much younger and they are a digital generation. They don’t read.”

Writers & Co

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Now, March 27, 1986.

A pair of legacies for North Toronto-based Writers & Co.:

  1. When CBC Radio needed a title for a new literary show, it asked owner Irene McGuire for permission to use her store’s name. The choice worked, as the series is still on the air.
  2. The store’s original location was 2094½ Yonge Street. The number intrigued British author Julian Barnes. As longtime manager (and, later, owner) Winston Smith told the Star when the store closed in 1999, Barnes “told us he had never encountered a ½ address before and he was interested in the phenomenon.” The author was inspired by the address to title his next novel A History Of The World in 10½ Chapters.

UPDATE

Of the stores mentioned in the introduction, Glad Day is still in business. As the big box stores falter, smaller bookstores have revived here and there in Toronto, though there are closures for some of the reasons mentioned in this piece (for example, Eliot’s Bookshop on Yonge Street cited increased property taxes as a factor in speeding up its closure in 2017).

There are deeper looks at Albert Britnell and The Book Cellar in the “Past Pieces of Toronto” series I wrote for OpenFile, which will soon appear on this site.

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