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Toronto Bookstores

Bookstore fanatic might not be the first fandom you would ascribe to a Canadian, but as this week’s Book Clubbing points out, you can’t judge our friends to the north on face value.

As both a writer and reader, I’m a huge fan of independent bookshops. Word of mouth is a necessity for smaller-press authors like me without big publicity budgets behind us, and hand-selling and table displays by enthusiastic indie bookstore staff play a vital part in bringing attention to books that might otherwise get overlooked. And when I’m in the market for a new read, I love getting booksellers’ suggestions on what to pick up.

This past July, I attended the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop in Portland, Oregon (with Joy Williams, who is amazing and makes my brain explode), and high up on my to-do list was, of course, a Powell’s pilgrimage. I made the trek to the beauteous bookselling behemoth with my new workshop friend Rose, and once inside, we were immediately overwhelmed. We grabbed a map—a map! To navigate a bookstore!—and wandered in a blissful, texty trance around the seemingly endless colour-coded rooms. I was thrilled to note that not only was Powell’s full of books, it was also full of shoppers. I even had to wait in line to make my purchase!

My Powell’s visit got me thinking about the many incredible indie bookshops in Toronto, my hometown. I’m proud to live in a city that—like Portland—values and supports its independent bookstores. Although we’ve sadly lost some wonderful shops over the last few years, we still have many that are not only doing well, but thriving. While the unwieldy big-box stores desperately stock up on more scented candles and yoga mats, the nimble independents embrace and interact with their communities, and offer a friendlier and more personal experience.

Three of my favourites (all selling new books) are Another Story Bookshop, Ben McNally Books, and Type Books. All feature a wide selection of carefully curated volumes, and happily host book launches and public-outreach events. Staff are avid readers and passionate cheerleaders for their local authors.

Another Story Bookshop is an enchanting, warmly welcoming spot in the west-end Roncesvalles Village. Tables and shelves overflow with colourful covers and spines, and the staff’s giddy excitement over their latest finds is inspiring and contagious.

Ben McNally Books, located downtown, offers the excellent combination of gracious and knowledgeable staff and a calming, Zen-like atmosphere, plus sprawling table displays and cozy nooks framed by tall, inviting shelves.

Type Books, with one location in the west end and the other in the midtown Forest Hill neighbourhood, recently celebrated its fifth birthday. Staff picks are exuberantly displayed, as is a unique “Plotless Fiction” section.

This photo shows the West Queen West location—a long, narrow store built for browsing, with part-fancy-part-playful décor that makes it feel a little mischievous.

I spoke with the owners of these three shops and asked them what they love most about their business.

Another Story’s page-loving proprietor Sheila Koffman told me:

My favourite part of owning and running an independent bookstore is finding interesting and exciting new books to share with our community of readers. These are sometimes seldom-told stories from different parts of the world or even stories and books neglected by the mainstream that are nonetheless very important. I love the opportunity to engage with fabulous staff, authors, and members of the community about books and issues that matter.

Ben McNally and his son Rupert discussed the joys of running their beautiful store:

Photo by Erin Balser

Rupert: It has often been remarked how fortunate I am to work in a family business. But, when people are kind enough to remind me of this fact, I feel they might be missing the entire truth of their words. My family has grown exponentially because of Ben McNally Books, and has done so always for the better. Those few coworkers who do not share the family name on the sign above our door are no less a part of the family, and many of our patrons, too, have become similarly endeared. As fortunate as I am to be a part of this eventuality, it still does not quite match what I consider to be the most amazing aspect of my employment: I have watched, over these last four years, the realization of my father’s dream. It’s an influential and powerful observance for a son, and perhaps it is only fitting that this realization comes in the form of a bookstore: for, is not each book its own manifestation of a dream?

Ben: I’d have to say that there is never any shortage of weird and wonderful things going on at our place. The barrier between customer and bookseller is quite often non-existent: the flow of knowledge and enthusiasm goes both ways.

Type is owned by Joanne Saul and Samara Walbohm, with Samara replying:

My favourite part of running an indie bookstore is serving the needs of our community—a community that also supports us! We feel we offer something different, unique, and exciting every time someone comes into the store, whether they’re a regular or are coming into the store for the first time. We started Type to create an intellectual hub, a community that we felt was lacking at that time (almost six years ago). We made the move from academia to share our interests in literature with a like-minded community—to create and then support this community, one filled with writers, artists, and readers!

Two more great Toronto indies are Book City and Nicholas Hoare. Book City is a bright, friendly store with five locations around Toronto—and it just marked its 35th anniversary! Nicholas Hoare is a lovely wood-and-brick shop with beckoning shelves and tables that encourage plenty of meandering. In addition to its downtown Toronto location, there are also stores in Ottawa in Montreal.

Finally, for those literary travellers wishing to venture farther afield, here are some indie gems outside Toronto. This is by no means a complete list of all independent bookstores in Ontario, and certainly not Canada—I’ve missed the majority of our provinces here—I’m just singling out a few that are close to my heart.

The Bookshelf in Guelph, Ontario. Featuring enticing displays of gleeful staff recommendations, plus a bar, restaurant, and movie theatre.

Octopus Books in Ottawa, Ontario. I wrote a blog post about this eight-legged delight in Canada’s capital for Canadian Bookshelf.

Blue Heron Books in Uxbridge, Ontario. A comfy and cheery home-away-from-home for fiction (and non-fiction, and poetry, etc.) aficionados.

Pages on Kensington and Shelf Life Books in Calgary, Alberta. Okay, so these two tome-selling treasures are on the other side of the country, but they’re worth the trip!

Jessica Westhead is a Toronto writer and editor, and one of the short-story-loving masterminds behind YOSS. Her fiction has appeared in major literary journals in Canada and the U.S., including Geist, The New Quarterly, and Indiana Review. Her novel Pulpy and Midge was published in 2007 by Coach House Books, and her short story collection And Also Sharks was published by Cormorant Books in spring 2011.  Her ardor for independent bookstores grows stronger by the day.

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