“Bravo for the Women of Canada”

Originally published on Torontoist on May 30, 2013.

20130529globefrontpage

Globe and Mail, January 29, 1988.

As anticipation mounted for the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision on the country’s abortion laws on January 28, 1988, residents and business owners near Dr. Henry Morgentaler’s clinic at 85 Harbord Street hoped the ruling would bring quiet to their neighbourhood. Since Morgentaler, who died Wednesday morning at the age of 90, opened his clinic in June 1983, they had witnessed an endless stream of occasionally violent protests. “We think the street has gone through a lot, and showed a lot of patience as it has dealt with all this for the past years,” observed Harbord Street Association president Neil Wright.

The first protestors showed up outside the clinic around 7:30 that winter morning. Police erected rows of barricades to allow pedestrians to move around the growing crowd of pro-choice and anti-abortion activists. The pro side soon had reason to celebrate: in a five-to-two vote, the Supreme Court struck down Section 251 of the Criminal Code, which forced women seeking legal pregnancy terminations to submit to the approval of a hospital abortion committee.

20130529starfrontpage

Toronto Star, January 29, 1988.

Morgentaler, who had crusaded for women’s choice in Canada for two decades, and whose clinic was dragged through the legal system following a Metro Toronto Police raid within a month of its opening, was relieved. “Bravo for the Supreme Court of Canada,” he told the crowd waiting outside an Ottawa courtroom. “Bravo for the women of Canada. Justice for the women of Canada has finally arrived.”

Around 7 p.m. that evening, Morgentaler greeted supporters on Harbord Street. By that point, the pro-choice presence strongly outnumbered the opponents still outside the clinic. “No longer can women be treated as second-class citizens,” he declared. “I wish to repeat our slogan: Every child a wanted child and every mother a willing mother. Never again will we lose this right.”

20130529sunfrontpage

Toronto Sun, January 29, 1988.

All three of Toronto’s major dailies supported the court’s decision. The Globe and Mail felt the pressure was now on Parliament to stop “hiding behind a bad law” and create legislation that trusted doctors and pregnant women “to do the right thing.” The Star called the ruling “forceful” and “reasoned” in recognizing that the Charter of Rights didn’t permit the state to “unreasonably interfere with the personal reproductive choices of women.” The support wasn’t unanimous—a few columnists raised objections—but even among the Sun‘s conservative ranks the consensus was that the court had decided well. The Sun wrote that the ruling was “logical, inevitable, and necessary,” and reminded readers that both the Canadian Medical Association and Ontario Medical Association had passed resolutions six years earlier that closely matched the court’s decision.

Globe and Mail columnist Michele Landsberg found the decision dizzying, in a good way:

At a stroke, the Supreme Court of Canada has wiped out one of our country’s meanest injustices. The abortion law, a shabby and cringing deal made among men who rule, and made at the expense of women, has been named for what it is: painful, arbitrary, and unfair. Those who have not been personally touched by the women’s movement may find it hard to credit the depth of emotion we feel today. It’s important to understand that the abortion fight has not been about abortion, but something which runs far deeper: the right of women to be autonomous.

Back on Harbord Street, the decision didn’t quiet the battle. As governments tried to figure out new abortion legislation, skirmishes at the clinic continued, culminating in a firebombing in 1992. The clinic eventually moved to its current location in North Toronto.

Additional material from the January 29, 1988 and January 30, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail, the January 28, 1988 and January 29, 1988 editions of the Toronto Star, and the January 29, 1988 and January 31, 1988 editions of the Toronto Sun.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

suncartoon

Cartoon by Andy Donato depicting John Turner, Brian Mulroney, and Ed Broadbent, Toronto Sun, January 30, 1988.

One of the pleasant surprises I discovered while researching this story was that all of Toronto’s major newspapers agreed that the Supreme Court of Canada made the right decision to kill the existing federal abortion law. There were notes of caution (the Sun’s editorial strongly recommended counselling on alternatives and birth control, while the Star suggested some controls would be necessary), but they weren’t accompanied by troglodytic language. 

I was impressed by the Sun’s coverage—it was very even-handed, to the extent of a point/counterpoint piece where representatives from pro-choice and anti-abortion groups were given space to state their views side-by-side. There was one exception, and it’s a doozy.

sun 88-01-29 macdonald

Toronto Sun, January 29, 1988.

Tough-talking, uber-conservative columnist Bob MacDonald felt his readers could “say goodbye to Canada as we know it today.” Yet the main concern in his January 29, 1988 column wasn’t the pro- and anti-choice divide, but the effect more abortions would have on the ethnic makeup of the country. MacDonald believed a lower Canadian birthrate would stimulate a larger demand for immigrants, and that “pressure will build to accept most phony refugee claimants.” And those immigrants wouldn’t be from traditional European sources: “Yesterday’s decision can only add to this already revolutionary change in Canada’s cultural, racial, and religious mix.” 

This must have made xenophobic readers feel better.

Actually, they were already out in force. MacDonald quoted a caller to the Sun who wondered why Morgentaler didn’t set up shop in India, where more money could be made curbing runaway population growth.

Cue a jaw drop heard across the basement newspaper room of the Toronto Reference Library.

sun 88-01-31 fisher

Toronto Sun, January 31, 1988.

Much classier was Sun colleague Douglas Fisher, who reflected on the history of federal abortion debates and laws in his January 31, 1988 column. Fisher recalled that when he was a federal CCF MP in the late 1950s he made passing references to abortion and illegal birth control information during a speech in the House. Veteran Liberal MP Paul Martin Sr.advised him afterwards to never mention those subjects again. “Nothing could get me in more trouble,” Fisher reflected. “His emphasis was: Leave ‘religious’ subjects alone.” Fisher checked Hansard from the 1960s and could not find a solid reference to abortion until April 1967 when somebody suggested they should be legalized (which happened three years later).

When it came to Henry Morgentaler, Fisher observed that “whether one cherishes or detests him, he is a brave citizen.”

landsberg-header

It’s often weird to see writers you associate with a particular paper show up in another. Such is the case with Michele Landsberg. I think of her as a Star columnist, but she had a stint with the Globe and Mail in the late 1980s, and it was there she commented on the Supreme Court. Here are her personal thoughts on Morgenthaler from her January 30, 1988 column:

Henry Morgentaler is an important hero of mine. He may come across as irascible or abrasive, words that reporters have used about him, but whenever I’ve spoken to him, he’s been gentle, rational and idealistic. In private conversation he would brush off the personal hurts; his anger was saved for the stupidity and inequality of the laws. A small man with a stereotypical Jewish face, a survivor of Auschwitz, he’s had to live with constant ridicule and anti-Semitic vilification from the more extreme of his opponents. He’s been dragged to court over and over again, thrown in jail (just imagine what jail is like to a Holocaust survivor), harassed and threatened beyond most mortals’ endurance. A doctor who could have become smugly affluent in quiet private practice, he repeatedly risked everything to confront an unjust law.

***

The week after this piece appeared, I wrote an installment of my “Ghost City” column for The Grid about the Morgentaler Clinic’s Harbord Street location. Here is the text of that piece, originally published on June 4, 2013. After it was published, the paper gave my number to a caller who wanted to talk to me. Turned out they were upset that I had not included their conviction that one of the fiery incidents was an inside job. Note to future clients: do not give my phone number out after I write about controversial topics.

When the Toronto Women’s Bookstore needed space to expand from its Kensington Market home in 1975, it settled upon the ground floor of a three-storey semi-detached former residence on Harbord Street. As one of the first feminist bookstores in Canada, the collective-run business quickly became a supplier to libraries, schools, and women’s centres who drew on stock emphasizing works by Canadian authors on topics ranging from health to non-sexist Kid Lit. During its first few months on Harbord, store staff estimated that around 25% of its clientele were men who were either curious about the concept or deeply committed to feminist issues.

During the spring of 1983, the bookstore learned it would have a new upstairs neighbour. Following a search delayed by threats of prosecution from the provincial government, Dr. Henry Morgentaler who passed away last week, announced he would open his first Toronto abortion clinic on the upper two floors of 85 Harbord on June 15. The press was shown a freshly-renovated space filled with plants and wicker furniture that Morgentaler hoped would create “a soothing atmosphere” for patients.

The clinic’s move-in wasn’t a peaceful one. Ontario Attorney-General Roy McMurtry expected police to charge in if any abortions were performed; at the time, the only legal option required the consent of abortion committees offered by some hospitals. Anti-abortion groups promised plenty of protests. When opening day arrived, a man wielding garden shears attacked Morgentaler. Repeatedly yelling “bad people, bad people,” Augusto Da Silva was intercepted by pro-choice supporters led by clinic spokesperson Judy Rebick before Morgentaler was seriously harmed. Da Silva then waved his shears in the air, told the crowd to move back, then ran from the scene (he was soon arrested).

The inevitable police raid came on July 5, 1983. After a pair of undercover Metro Toronto Police officers arranged an abortion, other officers swept in and removed equipment during a three-and-a-half hour raid. Morgentaler, who was vacationing in California, surrendered to police upon his return to Toronto two days later. The raid set off years of legal battles which culminated in the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision to strike down federal abortion law in January 1988.

85 Harbord became a battleground in the divide over women’s choice and a target for extreme anti-abortionists. Around 3:15 a.m. on July 29, 1983, a man who failed to break into the clinic managed to get into the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. He set bags of paper afire under the stairwell, which ironically was near the pregnancy and childbirth section. A note left behind read “If your mother had taken your life away, you would not be living it up, Morgentaler.”

While the clinic suffered smoke damage, the bookstore was gutted. The back stock was destroyed, while recently renovated basement offices suffered water damage. With the support of customers, the bookstore set up temporary quarters in the Poor Alex theatre building at Bloor and Brunswick before moving into a new home at 73 Harbord in June 1984. The store remained a neighbourhood fixture until it closed in November 2012.

The fire increased the anxiety of neighbours, who formed an action committee to get rid of the clinic. Over 2,000 residents signed a petition demanding its closure. The Harbord Street Business and Residents Association soon arose and plead with demonstrators to leave their neighbourhood alone. Die-hards ignored their pleas; as Right to Life Campaign president Laura McArthur observed when asked if she was concerned about the impact of her group’s constant picketing on local businesses, “I have no sympathy for these people when they have an illegal operation in their neighbourhood. They should be joining the pickets.” For a time, a pro-life group ran a pseudo-restaurant in the adjoining half of the building at 87 Harbord, further exacerbating tensions.

When the Supreme Court decision was announced on January 28, 1988, Morgentaler arrived at the clinic around 7 p.m. to greet supporters. “No longer can women be treated as second-class citizens,” he told the crowd. “It is also a victory for children. I wish to repeat our slogan: Every child a wanted child and every mother a willing mother. Never again will we lose this right.”

The ruling didn’t cool tensions. Violent clashes occasionally erupted, such as one which resulted in 160 arrests from both sides of the divide in January 1989. An injunction against pro-life demonstrators from picketing in front of the clinic was granted in May 1989, but vandals continued to spray-paint anti-abortion messages.

At 3:23 a.m. on May 18, 1992, a blast blew off the front wall of the building. A gasoline bomb sent glass and debris onto Harbord. The clinic had just rebuilt its entrance following a firebomb attack that January. “It looks like a war zone,” one neighbourhood resident told the Star while waiting to return home. “This is stupidity…It really is.” The blast accelerated plans for the clinic to move to larger quarters—by the end of the year it settled on its current home near Leaside at 727 Hillsdale Avenue East.

The old clinic was demolished and a new 85-87 Harbord Street was built for office and residential use. Space on the 85 side of the building is currently for lease, while past tenants of 87 include Ms. Emma Designs.

Additional material from the July 10, 1975, July 6, 1983, and January 29, 1988 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the June 7, 1983, June 8, 1983, June 16, 1983, July 30, 1983, August 1, 1983, August 17, 1983, February 10, 1985, August 27, 1985, January 15, 1989, May 19, 1992, and September 28, 1998 editions of the Toronto Star.

Book City Closes a Chapter

Originally published on Torontoist on January 14, 2014.

20140117adstwo

Globe and Mail, November 3, 1979 (left), November 17, 1979 (right).

Another one bites the dust.

Yesterday afternoon, Book City announced that after a 38-year run, its flagship store at 501 Bloor Street West will be closing this spring. “The lease was up, and we agonized over the decision,” general manager Ian Donker told Quill & Quire, “but sadly it didn’t make much sense to continue.” It will be the second iconic Toronto book retailer to close this year, after the World’s Biggest Bookstore shuts its tills next month.

Born in the Netherlands, store founder Frans Donker came from a family that ran a publishing firm. “I am third generation in the book business if you count my grandfather Willem,” he told the Star in 2001. “He was a liberal Christian minister who wrote bad novels about poor farmers’ sons falling in love with the girl in the mansion.” Donker moved to Canada in 1969 and worked for the Classic Bookshops chain and publisher Fitzhenry and Whiteside before opening Book City with his wife Gini in 1976.

The store found its niche selling a wide variety of non-mainstream paperbacks and quality remainders. Early ads touted its selection of mystery and sci-fi titles, and deals that weren’t restricted to weekend specials. As one ad boasted, “You can come down to Book City and pick up an armful of bargains any day. Or any evening.” Spread across two floors connected by narrow staircases, browsers were pointed upstairs by a sketch of a dapper bearded gent. For a child discovering bookstores, it was fun to run across the creaky upper floor. For adults, the store provided a relaxing place to browse new titles and explore the latest cheap finds.

Book City also developed a reputation for supporting Canadian literature, through sponsoring prizes and stocking up-and-coming authors. In a 1992 interview, Donker described how the store marketed Nino Ricci’s The Lives of the Saints:

Nino Ricci had been in my store, a bit shy, but very likeable, telling us that his book was coming out. A small publisher came to us later and presented the book. I read a chapter, one of my buyers read a chapter, and we agreed, this is darn good stuff. So we decided to put ourselves behind the title, and instead of five books for the shelves, we bought 50 for the tables, and recommended it to people who came into the store. They too liked it and told friends, and it started to snowball. I completed the book, loved it, and promoted it even more. Sadly enough, not enough booksellers supported it.

To celebrate the store’s 15th anniversary in 1991, Donker commissioned a novella starring writer Howard Engel’s detective Benny Cooperman. Engel’s story, The Whole Megillah, included a scene in which the suspects met on the upper floor of Book City.

20140117adsone

Globe and Mail, October 13, 1979 (left), October 20, 1979 (right).

During its first decade, Book City frequently violated provincial Sunday shopping laws. While David Mirvish sold remainders on the Lord’s Day thanks to Mirvish Village’s tourist designation, Donker was fined whenever he opened his doors. For a time in the early 1980s, Donker exploited a loophole that allowed businesspeople to declare Saturday as their Sabbath. The result: the main floor was open Monday through Saturday, while the upstairs became The Book Loft, and operated Sunday through Friday. Until the laws were fully relaxed, Book City received periodic warnings to play nice.

Book City became a chain when it opened its second location at 663 Yonge Street in 1984. The number of branches has varied over the years—at its height, six stores operated across the city, and regular warehouse sales took place in Leaside. The chain held its own during the onslaught of superstores like Chapters, while other independents folded. Donker prided himself on his close relationships with suppliers, and believes Chapters harmed itself by not cultivating such ties (they “destroyed publishers by demanding every last nickel”).

The chain’s three remaining locations at 348 Danforth Avenue, 1950 Queen Street East, and 1430 Yonge Street will stay open. Expect plenty of reminiscences over the next few months, as the Annex store joins the list of local bookstores that will live on in customers’ memories.

Additional material from the November 3, 1979 edition of the Globe and Mail, the June 1992 edition of the Metropolitan Toronto Business Journal, and the June 18, 1977, January 12, 1981, October 23, 1991, August 8, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.

UPDATE

As of early 2018, Book City is back up to four locations, adding one in Bloor West Village.

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

20120106britnellwhyus

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

20120106hymans

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

20120106northtoronto

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

20120106lichtmans

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

20120106eatons

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

20120106rochdale

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

20120106timessquare

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

20120106queenwest

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

20120106edwards

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

20120106bookcellar

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

20120106downtownmap

Quill & Quire, May 1974.

A&A Books & Records

20120111aa

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

20120111cbs

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

20120111longhouse

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

20120111tyrrell

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

20120106vbs

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

20120111wac

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.

The Life and Death of the World’s Biggest Bookstore

One Big Bookstore

Originally published on Torontoist on November 23, 2010.

20101123wbb1

Toronto Sun, November 4, 1980.

“A short, brassy dropout.”

“A crass money-maker.”

“Schlockmeister.”

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.

20101123wbb2
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.

20140212_20edward1small

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.

20140212_20edward2small

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.

20140212_20edward3small

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.

20140212_20edward4small

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.”

20140212_20edward5small

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.

002a

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.

004a

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.”

007a

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.

009a

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.

011a

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.