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.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Valentine’s Day ’60

Originally published on Torontoist on February 9, 2010.

20100209yongebay

Globe and Mail, February 12, 1960.

Valentine’s Day is less than a week away—have you selected a special card, a heart-shaped trinket, or a generic box of chocolates yet? Stereotypical gifts to suit every degree of thoughtfulness, or lack of that, were much the same in 1960 as they are now, whether you shopped at tonier shops in Yorkville or the neighbourhood five-and-dime.

This ad for Yorkville businesses included in ultra-fine print a list of merchants where shoppers could discover the BEST gift. Among the businesses still in the neighbourhood, even if their Yorkville locations have changed or have shifted south along Yonge Street, are Bay Bloor Radio, Birks, Curry’s Art Supplies, Grand & Toy, Roberts Gallery, and Stollery’s.

If a gift didn’t work, the way to a valentine’s heart might have been through his or her stomach. The Star’s Margaret Carr suggested a traditional full-course meal. “Maybe I’m old-fashioned,” Carr wrote, “but I’m all in favour of the hearts-and-flowers type of day…So, what better valentine than a dream of a dinner for two, with soft lights and soft music? Even without any flowery verses, he should get the idea!” On the menu: veal scallopini, buttered asparagus, hot rolls, celery curls, cherry gelatine salad on lettuce, ice cream in maraschino cherry pastry shells, and coffee. If this meal didn’t produce the desired results, the chef could use Carr’s ready-made reply: “Roses are red, the salad is too, if this food doesn’t send you, nuts to you!”

20100209kresgevalentines

Toronto Star, February 10, 1960.

While newspaper ads for Kresge’s and other retailers highlighted their selection of traditional boxed valentines, they didn’t mention whether they carried trendy “sick” cards. Seen as “contemporary” valentines for “sophisticated” people (or at least an excuse for the reporter to use air quotes), these cards ditched the traditional for quick insults. One example: a card with a lovely peacock on the front with the text “There’s something about you that reminds me of a bird…” The punchline inside? “…Your brain!” According to Toronto psychologist Dr. David A. Stewart, the cards were a cynical reaction by the “cool set” against use of traditional emotions like love in advertising campaigns. “It reveals a desire to get away from the traditional emotional expressions. It’s an affectation of coolness,” he told the Star. “Friendship is trite and corny, but we all appreciate it. We are living in a consumers’ goods society and we’re constantly exploited. It’s a little thing to sit down and write a note to a friend that would be more appreciated. But we’re in a hurry and use the printed cards.” Stewart predicted that the cards, which were popular in urban areas but not among the rural set, would soon die out in favour of traditional expressions of love.

Perhaps the popularity of “sick” cards inspired this piece of verse sent to the Star by Wilma M. Coutts of Durham, Ontario:

We’ve seen some classy valentines
Around here in our day,
Festooned with satin hearts and lace
And perfumed with sachet.
The valentines that we get now
Would make an artist wince,
Lop-sided hearts and wobbly darts—
Bedaubed with crayon prints.
These funny, funny valentines
Designed by someone small,
These are the ones we put away
And treasure most of all.

Additional material from the February 10, February 12, and February 13, 1960, editions of the Toronto Star.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Why Can’t You Set Your Monkey Free? (or Chimp Change)

Originally published on Torontoist on May 20, 2008.

2008_05_20altonlewis

Toronto Life, September 1969.

How can an advertiser go wrong when they hire an adorable simian to help pitch their product (or not-quite-as-cute, as testified by the venerable gorilla suit mascot of Active Surplus on Queen West)? The old “aww, aren’t they cute” factor kicks in to such a degree that it may not matter what colour the model’s outfit is or that the “jungle” is a merely a cluster of trees next to a suburban pond or farm.

As for the fate of two of the listed locations, 92 Bloor West would have been located at or near Bellair Street (Roots, Pottery Barn and Williams-Sonoma are listed at 100 Bloor West, Harry Rosen on the opposite corner is 82), while the Oakville branch operates as a menswear store.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Disco, Yorkville Style

Originally published on Torontoist on January 8, 2008.

Vintage Ad #463: Disco Checkers

Toronto Life, January 1978.

After reading today’s ad, Torontoist is certain of one thing—modesty was not a key element of the “Yorkville style,” especially when it came to attracting dancing queens and boogie kings looking for a place to strut their stuff. The neighbourhood had a cluster of disco floors waiting for John Travolta wannabes to demonstrate their dance skills and soak in the attitude. One might have been lucky enough to see celebrities like Sonny Bono indulge in the Yorkville way of life!

Nearly all elements of 1960s hippie Yorkville had been extinguished by the time Checkers opened on the second floor of Cumberland Court in early 1977. The last of the old coffeehouses, the Riverboat, remained in business for another year while upscale boutiques and dining spots set up shop around it. In an interview with the Toronto Star, a tourist from Winnipeg summed up the change in atmosphere. “Last time I was here in ’69, everyone was into pot. Now they’re into money.”

In a review for the Toronto Star, Bruce Kirkland noted that “the game Checkers plays is to create the illusion of sophistication—through luxury sofas and chairs set around classy wooden tables, better and more varied music than you find in routine discos, and the cultivation of a self-appointed chic crowd of straight couples and singles looking for excitement. Yet the service was slow and unreliable, albeit friendly, and the supposed main focus of a disco, the dance floor, was smaller than a subway washroom and about as atmosphere-laden.” He also felt that while drink prices were reasonable, a “nondescript” cup of coffee was a ripoff at $1.

In a survey of Toronto disco floors, the Globe and Mail was equally unimpressed with the size of the dance area. “The dance floor is located in front of a plate-glass window at the entrance, an arrangement that gives the unpleasant sensation of dancing in a fishbowl.” The neighbourhood competition included Mingles (“the place has all the warmth and charm of a sound stage”), Arviv’s (“much more pleasant to be seen sipping wine than working up a sweat”), Dinkels (“inhabitants of the dance floor range from 20-year-olds in Fairweather disco dresses to refugees from the Four Seasons in polyester leisure suits”), and Fingers (“it’s a place for intimate conversation and there’s a Latin twist to the music, an unusual and refreshing change”).

Patrons eventually got together someplace else as references to Checkers disappeared from local newspaper entertainment guides after the 1981 holiday season. Cumberland Court still exists and is home to the venerable Coffee Mill restaurant, which moved there in the mid-1980s.

Additional material from the June 17, 1977 and July 25, 1977 editions of the Toronto Star, and the December 16, 1978 edition of the Globe and Mail.

UPDATE

After a long run, the Coffee Mill closed in 2014.

Vintage Toronto Ads: The Hotel Toronto Deserves

Originally published on Torontoist on August 9, 2007.

2007_08_09hyatt.jpg

Source: Time, April 24, 1972.

All the city deserves is another high-end hotel?

Continuing Torontoist’s periodic look at downtown’s early 1970s hotel boom, it’s time to turn north to Yorkville. During the latter half of the previous decade, developments such as the Hyatt Regency and Hazelton Lanes, along with a growing number of high-end boutiques, began to erase the neighbourhood’s image as the home of coffeehouses and bohemians. One might not have been able to catch as many musical acts in the neighbourhood as before, but visiting businessmen were probably more dazzled by the spectacular meeting rooms and other thoughtful extras.

Hyatt eventually turned its attention across Avenue with the Park Hyatt, with the Regency becoming the Four Seasons.

UPDATE: Over time, the Four Seasons became known as a celebrity hub, especially when TIFF rolled around, which I learned the hard way one year when I was nearly run over by a mob of fans chasing a glimpse of some movie star. After the hotel closed in 2012, part of the site was demolished, while the rest was converted to condos. A new Four Seasons hotel opened at Bay and Yorkville.

Vintage Toronto Ads: Shoulders by the Grange

Originally published on Torontoist on July 10, 2007.

2007_07_10grange.jpg

Source: Toronto Life, December 1984.

To borrow a line from an old Saturday Night Live parody of Talking Heads frontman David Byrne’s fashion sense, you may ask yourself “why such a big suit?”

Village by the Grange opened on McCaul St in the mid-1970s as a mixture of residential and retail spaces. Any secrets the complex held by the time this ad appeared were hidden in each model’s shoulder or loose jacket. The toll of those stuck in narrow passages or otherwise injured by wide clothes across Toronto during the mid-1980s is unknown (though if anyone wants to check the police accident records, your perseverance will be admired).

If you look at the Emy’s model from a certain angle, her outfit resembles a heart—raised curves at the top, narrowing to a point by the waistline. A subliminal suggestion that anyone would love to wear this, or an early hint for Valentine’s Day gift ideas?

BEHIND THE SCENES

Now that “Vintage Toronto Ads” was rolling along, I began buying cheap used copies of old magazines to widen my selection of source material. This was one of the first from a batch of mid-1980s issues of Toronto Life I found at a bookstore along Yonge Street (I want to say ABC, but don’t quote me on that). Dated fashion quickly became handy if I was in a hurry to write the column, or when the inspiration well ran dry. I might collect some future installments together, since I usually didn’t have a lot to say – the images told a better tale than I could. What more is there to say about the ridiculously puffed up shoulders on the Emy’s model?

There will be more about Village by the Grange – rebranded in recent years as Yorkville Village – in future posts.