That Time Salman Rushdie Surprised Toronto

Originally published on Torontoist on December 7, 2012.

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Toronto Star, December 8, 1992.

The PEN Canada benefit that happened twenty years ago today at the Winter Garden Theatre was an unusual evening. Amid serious readings supporting free expression, there were lighter moments, like when the Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, and Paul Quarrington appeared on stage in cowboy garb to sing country tunes written by Atwood.

It wasn’t long before talk turned to Salman Rushdie. Starting with John Irving, a succession of authors addressed the death threats Rushdie faced after Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini issued a fatwa on him in February 1989 for blaspheming Islam in The Satanic Verses.

After reading a passage from Midnight’s Children, Atwood introduced the next writer. There was a collective gasp from the crowd of 1,200. Clad in a black PEN t-shirt, Salman Rushdie walked onto the stage.

Rushdie’s appearance had to do with his desire to emerge from hiding. After three years of seclusion, the author decided to be—as he notes in his recent autobiography, Joseph Anton—“a loud and visible man.” Starting with an appearance at a Danish PEN event, Rushdie became an unannounced guest at writing benefits around the world. He was invited to Toronto by his Canadian publisher, PEN Canada president Louise Dennys. Organizing the event required two months of cloak-and-dagger work. Rushdie’s name was never mentioned during phone calls and no information was leaked to the public—especially where he would stay (the home of Michael Ondaatje and Linda Spalding). The coded phrase when his appearance was confirmed was, according to Star columnist Michele Landsberg, “We have a turkey for lunch.” The event had the type of security usually reserved for a royal visit.

He arrived on December 5 on a private plane with a Ralph Lauren-designed interior, which he later said was the most comfortable transatlantic flight he had ever experienced. Two days later, PEN organized a top-secret lunch for the city’s top media executives. Rushdie urged the group to pressure the federal government to use its influence in international organizations to defend him at the United Nations. He believed that “the issue is simple: you don’t kill people for writing books.”

At the Winter Garden that night, authors were summoned backstage by Saturday Night magazine editor John Fraser during intermission. “The security people didn’t like it,” Fraser told the Globe and Mail. “We had to convince them it was okay to let so many people backstage.” The writers were handed papers listing events during Rushdie’s seclusion. One writer joked to Rushdie, “This is a helluva bar mitzvah you’re getting,” to which Rushdie responded, “Yes, but it’s a beautiful one.”

After the thunderous applause he received upon taking the stage, Rushdie discussed witch hunts and the power of comedy. He urged the audience to lobby politicians to impose sanctions on Iran and encouraged them to read The Satanic Verses. Rushdie then read a story of his, “Christopher Columbus and Queen Isabella of Spain Consummate Their Relationship.” Afterward, Dennys read a message from Minister of External Affairs Barbara McDougall, offering Rushdie the federal government’s support.

Rushdie was joined onstage by Ontario Premier Bob Rae, the first sitting leader in the Western world to publicly meet with the author since the fatwa. “Rae was youthful, friendly, blond, wore sneakers, and said he had agreed to come on stage at the benefit even though his wife was afraid he would be killed,” Rushdie later recalled. Noting that other political leaders seemed to be “terrified by an obscene edict from a fanatic sect in Iran,” Rae told Rushdie that “You are always welcome among us here in Ontario and Canada.”

Two days later, there were editorials in the Globe and Mail and the Star pushing the federal government to act. Both papers criticized Ottawa for seemingly being more interested in building trade with Iran than with censuring it for anti-democratic behaviour. The Globe suggested that cancelling the fatwa should be a condition of furthering the economic relationship. Star columnist Richard Gwyn felt the PEN event showcased the Bob Rae people had voted for: a classy, intelligent leader instead of a politician leading a gaffe-prone government. Pierre Berton used his Star column to urge a massive boycott of Iran, as otherwise “it means nothing that an evil old man can reach out beyond his country’s borders to invoke the death penalty against a citizen of a free country.”

Not everyone was impressed with Rushdie’s visit. McDougall received and promptly dismissed a letter from a Thornhill mosque which viewed the framing of Rushdie’s situation as a free speech issue hypocritical, given the alleged blasphemy against Islam and the recent deportation of holocaust-denying British historian David Irving. A letter from a University of Toronto student published in the Globe and Mail accusing Rushdie of religious intolerance and portraying his supporters as people who “lend legitimacy and credibility to his mockery of the belief system” sparked weeks of debate in the editorial pages.

In a letter published in the Star a year after his appearance, Rushdie wrote that the evening was “one of the most special moments of my life. When I walked on to the stage and felt that great wave of sympathy and support, it helped wash away the year of murderous hatred and the pain of the witch hunt.” He added that he was relieved that he had not experienced a single threat while in Canada, and he also praised Rae and McDougall for their support, as well as the House of Commons for unanimously passing a resolution condemning Iran.

“I send you my thanks,” he wrote, “and I send you my love.”

Additional material from Joseph Anton by Salman Rushdie (Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2012), the December 8, 1992, December 9, 1992, December 11, 1992, and December 30, 1992 editions of the Globe and Mail, and the December 8, 1992, December 9, 1992, December 12, 1992, and December 16, 1993 editions of the Toronto Star. This story was suggested by Torontoist reader Patricia McCowan.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Hobnobbing with Authors

Originally published on Torontoist on January 17, 2012.

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The Telegram, May 24, 1971.

There once was a time when newspaper book editors could relax on a tower of bestsellers, comforted by the knowledge that their section received full blessing from the bean counters.

As today’s ad notes, the revamped Telegram books page featured editor George Anthony’s column on general notes from the publishing world, a selection of current reviews, and columns dedicated to mystery, paperbacks, and children’s literature. Apart from the columnists, the reviewers were drawn from across the paper’s staff, ranging from entertainment writer Sid Adilman to newsman Peter Worthington.

One publication unimpressed by Anthony’s selection of friends to hobnob with was Books in Canada, which devoted a page of its debut issue to the revamp. That all of the headlining authors and books piled under Anthony were American stuck in the magazine’s craw. Even the book he was reading, The Sensuous Man (whose prime advice, according to its review in the Telegram, was to watch monkeys copulate at the zoo), was from south of the border. The article noted that the combined Canadian sales of the seven listed authors’ most recent books were less than Pierre Berton’s previous opus, The National Dream. With bookselling in Canada calculated to be more difficult than in the United States, “is it any wonder that Canadian publishers beat their heads against the wall when they see valuable newspaper space being devoted to the latest imports?”

The article’s parting shot:

We are left to speculate: will he move into a new social sphere where he might “hobnob” with Norman Mailer, William Gass, and Kate Millett, or, horror of horrors, might he find that Canadian writers like Pierre Berton, Farley Mowat, Margaret Laurence, Peter Newman, Leonard Cohen, not only sell more books in this country than do his American friends, but are also willing to hobnob with newspaper critics.

We browsed several of the Telegram’s book sections from the spring of 1971. Though Anthony’s column mixed gossip from both sides of the border and the genre columns often discussed Canadian books, few domestic titles were featured in the main review section. We suspect the primary reasons were reader interest in foreign books and limited room to fill (there was barely any white space on the pages we reviewed).

When the Telegram folded in late 1971, Anthony moved to the Sun, where he served as the tabloid’s original entertainment editor before beginning a long career in the television industry.

Additional material from the May 1971 edition of Books in Canada.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

Here is the Books in Canada piece criticizing this ad campaign.

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And here’s a sample of what the Tely’s book page looked like, taken from the April 24, 1971 edition. Click on the image for a larger version.

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Book City Closes a Chapter

Originally published on Torontoist on January 14, 2014.

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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.

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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

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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.

Whatever Happened to Peggy Atwood?

Originally published on Torontoist on August 4, 2011.

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Margaret Atwood’s high school yearbook; Clan Call, 1956–1957 edition.

As people continue to joke about Margaret Atwood running for mayor, we feel it is our duty as a responsible media outlet to scope out the potential candidate’s early influences. And so we bring you the above, from her high school yearbook. (We’d love to hear what “Peggy”’s “Reindeer Romp” jingle sounded like.)

It turns out that by the time she departed the halls of Leaside High, Atwood had decided that writing was in her future:

Up to 1956, I’d thought I was going to be a botanist, or, at the very least, a Home Economist…There was nothing at Leaside High School to indicate to me that writing was even a possibility for a young person in Canada in the twentieth century. We did study authors, it’s true, but they were neither Canadian nor alive…I contemplated journalism school; but women, I was told, were not allowed to write anything but obituaries and the ladies’ page; and although some of my critics seem to be under the impression that this is what I ended up writing, I felt that something broader was in order. University, in short, where I might at least learn to spell.

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Clan Call, 1957–1958 edition.

Atwood learned more than spelling via her scholarships. By the time she graduated from the University of Toronto in 1961, she had published her first collection of poetry, Double Persephone. With the release of her first novel, The Edible Woman, in 1969, Atwood was pursing her teenage quest to write “THE Canadian novel” in earnest. Library patrons can judge whether she achieved that goal.

Additional material from The Cambridge Companion to Margaret Atwood edited by Coral Ann Howells (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006).

BEHIND THE SCENES

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How did I get my hands on these yearbooks?

I inherited them from my father, who was in grade 9 during Atwood’s final year. I’m guessing they had zero interaction.

While the grads received full-on profiles, younger students weren’t left out of the fun. In class photos, each kid got a one-liner. My dad’s was “Spends his English periods counting footprints on the ceiling.” Which is funny given (a) I recall him saying he despised one of his English teachers, (b) the massive library he would assemble, and (c) he wound up teaching English decades later.

The Cheesiest Poet of All

Originally published as a “Historicist” column on Torontoist on April 2, 2011. Cheese poets don’t get enough credit in this world…but, seriously, this was a fun column to work on. If you catch me in a good mood, I’ll happily recite “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”

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Portrait of James McIntyre, Poems of James McIntyre (Ingersoll: Ingersoll Chronicle, 1889).

It’s a safe bet to declare that James McIntyre was the cheesiest poet of all time. And not just because his verse is, shall we say, not among the most spectacular examples of the poetic form written during the 19th century. No, McIntyre’s poetry was cheesy due to one of its frequent subjects: cheese. As the Ingersoll-based bard noted in the preface to the “Dairy and Cheese Odes” section of Poems of James McIntyre, “as cheese making first began in this county and it has already become the chief industry of many counties, it is no insignificant theme.” Of the verses he dedicated to cheese, perhaps the best known, or most mocked, is an ode to a seven thousand pound wheel of pressed curd that Torontonians observed with amused awe during the Provincial Exhibition of 1866.

We encourage you to indulge in your favourite fromage while reading “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.” For added enjoyment, read the following lines aloud in your finest Scottish accent:

We have seen thee, queen of cheese,
Lying quietly at your ease,
Gently fanned by evening breeze,
Thy fair form no flies dare seize.
All gaily dressed soon you’ll go
To the great Provincial show,
To be admired by many a beau
In the city of Toronto.
Cows numerous as a swarm of bees,
Or as the leaves upon the trees,
It did require to make thee please.
And stand unrivalled, queen of cheese.
May you not receive a scar as
We have heard that Mr. Harris
Intends to to send you off as far as
The great world’s show at Paris.
Of the youth beware of these,
For some of them might rudely squeeze
And bite your cheek, then songs or glees
We could not sing, oh! queen of cheese.
We’rt thou suspended from balloon,
You’d cast a shade even at noon,
Folks would think it was the moon
About to fall and crush them soon.

We’re unaware of any reports of anyone physically crushed by the mammoth cheese while it was showcased on both sides of the Atlantic during 1866 and 1867, though there were rumours that several ports in England refused to accept it due to the crushing smell caused by lack of refrigeration.

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Mammoth Cheese made at Ingersoll, Canada West, 1866. Library and Archives Canada, R7244-0-0-E.

The genesis of the mammoth cheese was in Oxford County, where the dairy industry experienced rapid growth during the mid-19th century. By 1866, the county’s major cheese producers looked for new markets to sell their products and saw an opportunity when the aftermath of the Civil War in the United States hampered American exports of cheese to England. An attention-grabber to impress the English was required, so work began on a massive wheel of cheese at James Harris’s factory south of Ingersoll in June 1866. At least three factories provided the raw ingredients to produce a wheel that was approximately three feet thick, seven feet in diameter, and boasted a circumference of 21 feet. When the finished product arrived at the Great Western Railway station in Ingersoll to be shipped to its first destination on August 23, the town celebrated a public holiday. It was amid the speeches by local dignitaries that McIntyre publicly debuted “Ode on the Mammoth Cheese.”

The cheese’s first major showing was at the New York State Fair in Saratoga. Harris was offered $6,000 to part with the cheese, but refused. He also refused to accept $500 to show it as a separate attraction at the upcoming Provincial Exhibition (the forerunner of the Canadian National Exhibition) in Toronto. Rather than charge visitors an extra fee to see the monstrosity, Harris preferred to display it alongside other major attractions in the Crystal Palace or with entrants in the dairy competition. A team of four horses was required to haul the cheese into the Crystal Palace for setup on September 22. When the fair officially opened a few days later, the Globe observed that “no object in the Exhibition arrested more general attention than this. It is visited throughout the day by a crowd of interested spectators, by many of whom the most amusing opinions are expressed.” Harris and fellow mammoth cheese contributor Hiram Ranney left the fair with third place prizes in the “best factory cheese, not less than 50 lbs each” category. After Toronto, the cheese made its way across the Atlantic, where its use as a promotional stunt proved effective. The cheese met its final fate when the remnants were divided among Oxford County farmers who had contributed to its production.

Though not a farmer, James McIntyre deserved some of the leftovers due to his deep admiration for the work of dairy producers. He was born in Forres, Morayshire, Scotland in 1827, where his neighbours included future Canadian Pacific Railway last spike driver Donald Smith. McIntyre immigrated to Canada in his early teens and, after a long series of odd jobs, settled in Ingersoll and established a furniture/undertaking business. McIntyre’s other interests included serving as an official in the Liberal party and his duties as a Mason and Oddfellow. During his lifetime, McIntyre’s poetry was published in the Globe and, according to notes at the front of Poems of James McIntyre, received praise from the likes of Globe editor Sir John Willison (“the gem of the table”), Toronto Police Magistrate George Taylor Denison III (who “found many most interesting pieces on Canadian subjects”), historian Henry Scadding (who felt a poem about one pioneering cheese maker “had the ring of a fine old ballad about it”), and Ontario Premier Oliver Mowat (who was impressed with McIntyre’s patriotic spirit). One wonders if, in the case of fellow Liberals like Mowat, political allegiances shaped the praise.

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Man and woman fishing in the Credit River, July 1, 1902. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1231, Item 1430.

Occasionally McIntyre mentioned Toronto in his poems. “Credit Valley Trip” arose when McIntyre was among a delegation visiting Toronto on a train provided by the Credit Valley Railway Company. While McIntyre seems to have enjoyed the sights he saw out the train window, and makes reference to Toronto sporting legend Ned Hanlan (despite misspelling his name), in the end he and his companions agreed that while Toronto was a nice place to visit, they wouldn’t want to live here.

Whenever we take a tour abroad
We love to travel o’er new road,
When scenery to us is new
And landscape pleasing to the view,
When invited for to rally
And take a trip on the Credit Valley,
We resolved for to afford
A day with Council and School Board,
For to view the rural charms
Of hills and dales and fertile farms,
With joy we saw the sunbeams gleam
On Grand River beauteous stream,
And those perpendicular walls
Of rock, like old baronial halls,
We saw the great lake ebb and flow
And queen city of Ontario.
While some enjoyed the genial smile
Of Hanlon on his lake girt isle,
Returning home each one exclaims
“Happiest spot is banks of Thames.”

When McIntyre died in 1906, an editorial in the Star set the tone for future critical evaluation of his poetic skills:

Mr. James McIntyre, whose death is announced, had a harmless hobby, the turning of familiar topics into verse. His muse was not too proud to notice a big cheese, or to describe those methods of intensive farming by which Ontario has grown rich. It cannot be said that it was good poetry, and many of us must plead guilty to making it the theme of comment of a more or less humorous character. When the body of a young man was found in Toronto Bay, and was identified by the buttons on his clothing, Mr. McIntyre celebrated the event in verse, of which we recall the lines, “Buttons gave no clue he did desire, Showed suit was made by McIntyre.” There have been better poets whose hearts were not as sound or whose natures as kindly and gentle as McIntyre’s.

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Cover to the 1974 edition of The 4 Jameses. McIntyre is second from the right.

Much of McIntyre’s posthumous notoriety is due to William Arthur Deacon’s 1927 book The 4 Jameses, which playfully lumps in McIntyre’s verse with three other well-intentioned poets who happened to be named James (Gay, Gills, and MacRae). The book spun out of a series of articles Deacon (often regarded as Canada’s first full-time professional book reviewer) wrote about lousy Canadian poets for Saturday Night in the mid-1920s. Throughout The 4 Jameses, Deacon offers ironic commentary on the featured authors and works and blows their historical importance out of proportion—in the case of McIntyre, tying his Scottish hometown to Macbeth’s slaying of King Duncan and noting that both McIntyre and Donald Smith would “play significant parts in the upbuilding of the Dominion of Canada.” Deacon also noted that “McIntyre must have immersed himself in cream, and made cheese his chief mental diet, for years. To the new gospel of dairying, he was a convert so ardent that he barely missed becoming fanatical.” Though it was a poor seller upon its initial release, The 4 Jameses became, as George Fetherling noted in the forward of a 1974 reprint, “that rare thing in Canadian literature: an underground classic,” as it grew fans through word of mouth.

Despite the humour made at the expense of McIntyre’s work, Deacon ultimately found that the cheese poet and his brethren deserved respect for trying:

When the limitations of an old warrior like McIntyre are apparent, it is sanity and not sacrilege to smile at them; but it should be done kindly, remembering always their inescapable disadvantages, their valour and their chivalry…Their aspirations, their will to universal betterment, and their intuitive reach beyond the measure of their grasp is easily traceable through their writings, like the proverbial thread of gold. By these shall they be judged and not by flaws in the pattern. The more their work is pondered, the greater one’s affection for them, the greater his admiration for their honest efforts to noble expression and the greater his tolerance for mistakes growing out of inevitable limitations of opportunity, and creating the human, personal touches that first attract readers to them. Who sees not this, has lost the better, sweeter half of their message, and is himself to blame.

Additional material from The 4 Jameses by William Arthur Deacon, third edition (Toronto: Macmillan, 1974), Poems of James McIntyre by James McIntyre (Ingersoll: Ingersoll Chronicle, 1889), William Arthur Deacon: A Canadian Literary Life by Clara Thomas and John Lennox (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1982), and the following newspapers: The September 26, 1866 edition of the Globe; the September 24, 1866 edition of the Leader; and the April 3, 1906 edition of the Toronto Star.

ADDITIONAL MATERIAL

More context for poets like McIntyre, from Heather Menzies’s book By the Labour of Their Hands: The Story of Ontario Cheddar Cheese (Kingston: Quarry Press, 1994):

He wasn’t trying to write Great Poetry. He wanted to honour the achievements of people like himself, who had come to this country with little or nothing, hoping to make new lives for themselves in British North America. Parochial poetry, published in the local paper, was one of the most accessible local media for doing this.

This “folk poetry,” as it’s called, helped interpret the rural community to itself and bind it together in a shared world view and ethos. As such, McIntyre and others like him made important contributions to Canadian folk culture through their verses. For folklore historian Pauline Greenhill, folk poetry is not meant to be separated from the context of a particular local community. Also, it must be understood as process as well as product: a sort of ongoing dialogue between the poet and the community, in which the poet brings order out of the minutiae of everyday life through verses. By the title and content of the poems, the folk poet implicitly names what is “appropriate” and symbolically important to readers.

Menzies concludes that McIntyre viewed the mammoth cheese as “the ultimate symbol of progress, combining local hand labour and scientific technology in the modern pursuit of ‘industry.'”