One Big Bookstore
Originally published on Torontoist on November 23, 2010.
Toronto Sun, November 4, 1980.
“A short, brassy dropout.”
“A crass money-maker.”
By November 1980, Jack Cole had gotten used to hearing every imaginable criticism from the literary community regarding his merchandising techniques during his five decades in the book business. Sure, his Coles book stores may have employed too garish a colour scheme. Perhaps a few branches were staffed by clerks who knew less about books than their clientele. Possibly Pierre Berton had a point when he called Cole “a sharp merchandiser whose only interest is to make the largest profit possible for himself.” Despite the criticism, Cole endured with supermarket-inspired tactics like selling books for twenty-nine cents a pound. His efforts to sell printed matter to a broad audience led his company to grow from a remainder shop on Bloor Street—opened with his brother while Cole was still in his teens—to a chain consisting of over two hundred branches across North America. Cole stayed on after selling the company to Southam Press in 1976, and was the main corporate figure in the spotlight when Coles decided to launch what he hoped would become the CN Tower of local bookstores.
Toronto Sun, November 4, 1980.
Inhabiting the former home of the Olympia bowling alley on Edward Street (the last set of lanes downtown until The Ballroom opens next month), Cole proceeded to create a seventy-thousand-square-foot bookstore which contained seventeen miles of shelving to house a million books divided among one hundred thousand titles. The store would be bathed in bright colours and contain enough lighting that, Cole hoped, it would never be necessary to turn on the heat (a situation already in effect at the Yonge and Charles Coles). An electronic map was installed, inspired by one Cole had seen in the Paris Métro, employing an array of lights to point customers toward the section they were looking for. Rather than label the store as just another Coles, the company bestowed upon it a modest name: World’s Biggest Bookstore. Whether it really was that was debated in various ways—even Cole admitted it probably wasn’t the record setter, but he figured it was at least in the top five in the world in terms of selection.
When the doors opened on November 5, 1980, the first thousand customers were given silver dollars courtesy of Hurtig Publishers. Four days of festivities followed, which included numerous giveaways and entertainment ranging from clowns to a jazz band. Globe and Mail writer William French suspected that “during lulls in the din, the ghostly echo of crashing 10-pins and the muted curses of pool hustlers could distinctly be heard as the building’s previous tenants protested the invasion of culture.” French also noted that “outside, the store is trendily done in the Toronto architecture style known as Honest Ed’s; inside, the influence is more Dominion store,” and that the lighting was bright enough “to permit a surgeon to perform a cornea transplant right in the aisle, if he weren’t too distracted by the rippling red neon and flashing white bulbs that frame some of the display stands.” Despite his reservations, which included a sense that book lovers who preferred quieter, more atmospheric independent stores would feel that World’s Biggest lacked “a certain element of breeding and class,” French was impressed with the range of titles and the organization of the store.
As customers poured into World’s Biggest Bookstore on opening day, nearby Coles locations resembled ghost towns. While lunchtime saw lineups ten deep at the half-dozen cash registers at the new store, The Star found just four customers at the branch on the southeast corner of Yonge and Dundas. The staff didn’t mind the quiet—as the assistant manager admitted, “It certainly gives us a chance to collect our wits.” Coles management planned to convert Yonge-Dundas into a specialty shop for business, technical, and academic books, while a branch in the Eaton Centre would continue to serve shoppers who never left the shopping centre.
When asked, shortly before World’s Biggest opened, about the future of bookselling, Cole sounded optimistic. He bragged that his low-cost, highly commercialized approach to selling had helped publishers and played a part in creating an audience that supported a far larger number of independents than when he entered the business in the 1930s. Predictions during the 1950s that television would kill books never came to pass. Visions of a “wired city” world where computers ruled didn’t faze him: “Books will provide the basis of information to be programmed.”
Additional material from the October 1980 issue of Quill and Quire and the following newspapers: the November 11, 1980 edition of the Globe and Mail; and the October 19, 1980 and November 6, 1980 editions of the Toronto Star.
World’s Biggest Bookstore closed in March 2014. At the time, plans were announced for a “restaurant row” to replace it…
Dining Out at 20 Edward Street
Originally published on Torontoist on February 12, 2014.
When the closing of the World’s Biggest Bookstore was announced last year, many people grumbled that the site would follow the stereotypical Toronto redevelopment pattern and become a condo tower. Its prime location certainly left little chance the building would revert to its original use as a bowling alley. But based on renderings released yesterday, future customers of 20 Edward Street might continue to browse literature there, in the form of restaurant menus.
Paracom Realty Corporation, the leasing agent for new site owner Lifetime Developments, is pitching a “restaurant row” concept to potential tenants. The building, which has housed World’s Biggest Bookstore since November 1980, will be demolished and replaced by four restaurants. Paracom intends to fill the spaces with eateries fitting the neighbourhood’s upward shift. “We’re not thinking $100 dinners,” Paracom president Bernard Feinstein told the Star, “but something that is better than a fast-food chain.” Feinstein’s idea of “something” appears to be less Big Slice and McDonald’s, more upscale casual-dining chains like The Keg.
Renderings by Turner Fleischer Architects show the current solid red-and-white frontage replaced with large glass windows and second-storey patios. It’s an inviting look for the target audiences of Audi owners, local office workers, pre-show diners, shoppers, and tourists. Promotional materials play up the site’s proximity to transit and nearby attractions like the Eaton Centre and Massey Hall.
Local councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam (Ward 27, Toronto Centre–Rosedale) feels the proposal fits into a long-term strategy of revamping Yonge Street from Yorkville to the waterfront, and transforming it into “the most dynamic shopping and entertainment cultural corridor in the city.” Though cautious about whether Edward Street will receive a restaurant row or see other retail fill the site, Wong-Tam welcomes the concept. She views this proposal and the announcements regarding high-end retailers Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue as signs of a prosperous city core. “This is a sign of success,” she said in a phone interview yesterday. “Bloor-Yorkville is so successful that we’re starting to see some of that success come down to Yonge Street. We can start to see a second cluster of high-quality retailers come out. That’s how international downtowns compete, whether it’s New York City or Chicago. We don’t compete based on BIA boundaries—we compete based on the fact that we have the best quality downtown neighbourhood.”
The promoters of 20 Edward Street aim to have the tenants of their “culinary mecca” in place for the 2015 edition of TIFF. The World’s Biggest Bookstore will remain in business until March 23.
Au Revoir, World’s Biggest Bookstore Building
When I wrote the piece, anyone I talked to seemed skeptical this plan would ever materialize. From the moment the bookstore’s closure was announced, people made the natural-for-Toronto assumption that it would be replaced by a condo tower. Those suspicions were well-founded–while, as of late 2017, a website still exists for 20 Edward Street, its story as originally envisioned is now consigned to a future volume of Unbuilt Toronto.
Instead, the site is slated to become Panda Condominiums. In a nod to the past, amenities will include a collection of Canadian literature curated by Type Books.
I worked across the street from the site while demolition occurred. I wrote a farewell post on my blog on December 5, 2014.
It’s not so much that the former World’s Biggest Bookstore is being knocked down that bugs me. Nor that the site may become a parking lot (Toronto’s favourite temporary solution to demolitions during the 1960s/70s) while the property’s owner abandons plans for a “restaurant row” in favour of a rezoning application.
No, it’s the fact that Indigo didn’t remove the store’s shelving before the wrecking ball made its first punch.
Seeing the shelves await their death in a partly-demolished structure was heartbreaking, both for what was once lined on them, and how they epitomized some of our society’s wasteful tendencies. Maybe it wasn’t the most attractive shelving out there. But if these racks were destined to be destroyed in this fashion, couldn’t they have been donated to charities or organizations which could have utilized or readapted them? Heck, Indigo brass could have hired an artist to reimagine them as funky sculptures (with touch-ups fueled by the artist’s imagination) to place in their “cultural department stores.”
Quill and Quire published a profile of Coles founder Jack Cole on the cusp of the World Biggest Bookstore’s opening in 1980. Here’s what writer James Lorimer had to say about the new megastore and how it fit into Cole’s modus operandi:
The World’s Biggest Bookstore is the crowning project in the career of a book merchandiser who still loves his business. Jack Cole has no need to do something big and new; his company has a secure segment of the market, ownership has passed to Southam with Jack Cole coming out $10 million richer and U.S. expansion offers the chain lots of room for growth. The Biggest Bookstore, 70,000 square feet on two floors, is an effort to take book merchandising one step further. It’s aimed exactly at the same customers who patronize Coles: not the specialist buyer, but the man on the street who wouldn’t feel comfortable buying a book unless it was from Jack Cole.There’s nothing that Canadian books need more than a marketing strategy that attracts the broad public to the wide range of books normally found only in specialized independent bookstores. To do it will take a combination of showmanship, razzmatazz and hype; the skills that Jack Cole and his fellow merchandizers have perfected over the last four decades. There’s no guarantee, of course, that Cole will succeed; he’s had his failures as well as his successes. The worst scenario would be that the Biggest Bookstore would undermine all the specialist independents that have slowly grown up in the Toronto market. The best scenario is that the Biggest Bookstore will find a whole wide range of new customers for books. If anyone in Canada can do that, it’s Jack Cole. If the Biggest Bookstore is a success, he will have done what even he probably have thought impossible in 1940: open up all the books from those elitist writers and snobby publishers to a mass audience, making people feel comfortable about buying and reading those books. If the idea works, and I think it will, it is because Jack Cole has spent 40 years preparing himself—and his public—for this move.
Not everyone was thrilled with the store’s opening. Take this letter from Willowdale resident Karl T. Schatzy, published by the Globe and Mail in response to an article on the WBB by William French.
William French’s story on the opening of Jack Cole’s newest merchandising emporium (World’s Biggest Bookstore a Tale of Modern Retailing – Nov. 11) was an invitation to reading between the lines. There is a sense of foreboding and apprehension which I cannot help but share. Merchandisers such as Mr. Cole pander to the mood of our time. That this mood is receptive to pandering is a sad reflection on this society. The discerning reader will not be attracted by the blatant carnival atmosphere and the way books are displayed and peddled as so many tubes of toothpaste or packages of underwear. True, Coles’ books have been in evidence for a long time in Toronto and have contributed to a better awareness of the public to literature (of a sort). It is good that more people read more books, but whether this kind of commercialism will lead to the acceptance of the sensational rather than the literary remains to be seen. Mr. French’s point with regard to Britnell’s bookstore and other independents is well taken. A visit to Britnell’s is a step into another world where a breath of fresh air (metaphorically speaking) and quiet musings make browsing there such a pleasant experience.
I wonder what Mr. Schatzy, if still alive, would make of the declining presence of books in present-day Indigo stores, and whether he’d grouse about it over a drink at the Starbucks which replaced Britnell’s at Yonge and Bloor.
I loved going to WBB on childhood visits to Toronto. My father seemed to trust me enough to stay put either in the children’s section or the film section while he roamed the store for bargains. I was a happy camper in any suburban mall bookstore on either side of the border, so having so many books to flip through was like going to a playground. I could have spent an entire day there, except there were other places for Dad and I to go in the neighbourhood (looking at you, A&A and Sam the Record Man).
There are two books which stand out as ones I always flipped through whenever I was at WBB:
- The Muppet Show Book: an compilation of skits from the first two seasons, which used illustrations instead of still photos. Never owned a copy of it, but I keep an eye out in case it ever pops up used—call it one of my “thrill of the hunt” holy grails. Among the bits included: Kermit’s interview with the Koozebanian Phoob. (UPDATE: My sister gave me a copy that Christmas).
- Son of the Golden Turkey Awards: along with its predecessor, a building block of my love of bad movies. Still have the copy Dad bought for me at WBB. Read it endlessly to him while he clipped his newspapers. A volume I have mixed feelings about now—some of the movies poked at in the book aren’t horrendous, and there’s the matter of co-author Michael Medved’s subsequent career as a conservative commentator. With years of wisdom, I see Stephen King’s point (via Danse Macabre) that some honorees were more sad than laughable.
As an adult, WBB provided a good place to kill time while downtown, or recharge my brain after a weary day or long walk. As its siblings Chapters and (eventually) Indigo aimed for posher surroundings, the Spartan look WBB poked fun at in its advertising lent an atmosphere which was charming for its lack of pretension. In its later years, parts of the second floor felt like the dumping ground for failed home décor items and bizarre things a bookstore shouldn’t carry (Suzanne Somers food products, anyone?). Its demise was inevitable given the post-Amazon state of book retailing and its prime location amid the ongoing transformation of Yonge and Dundas.
At least, if I’m ever in a book-browsing mood on Edward Street, there’s still the BMV.
Additional material from the November 18, 1980 edition of the Globe and Mail and the October 1980 edition of Quill and Quire.