Our picks for the most interesting independent booksellers, from sci-fi specialists to messy generalists and neighbourhood hubs
Toronto’s literary culture owes its survival and success to more than what its purveyors keep on the shelves. Even in a state of seemingly constant urban reinvention, bookstores have remained a constant in a number of neighbourhoods, and the city boasts dozens of independent bookstores.
While some prefer the convenience of a big-box retailer, die-hards opt for the experience found only in an indie shop. Whether it be a cooky proprietor or a homey atmosphere that conjures a living room, the indie book business is about much more than the public’s infatuation with the written word. Indeed, one would be hard pressed to find two bookstores, or owners, remotely alike. Here’s a sample of Toronto’s smorgasbord of literary shrines.
Eliot’s is the greasy spoon of bookstores, a disorderly temple only purists love. After over 30 years on Yonge and Wellesley, Eliot’s has acquired the smell of mould and old carpet – scents that, if bottled, would be named “second-hand bookstore.” Its three storeys aren’t enough to hold its stash, as almost every step on the staircases between them are lined with a short stack of misfit paperbacks. At the counter by the entrance usually sits the endearingly prickly owner of Eliot’s, with several rows of old, but still-pristine, copies of Life magazine lining the wall behind his perch.
584 Yonge St., 416-925-0268
The Great Escape
Imagine a cozy, compact living room filled from floor to ceiling with packed bookcases and you’ll get something resembling The Great Escape. An Upper Beaches institution since the mid-1990s, The Great Escape had a 20-year past life as Ed’s Bookshop. After Bruce Ewing, a career schoolteacher, and his wife Marg took it over in 1996, the store ditched pulp fiction for a pantheon of old and new fiction. As for the change in name, it was chosen not only as an homage to the 1963 classic film, but also because the store afforded Ewing an actual escape from teaching. While the Ewings no longer own The Great Escape (former employee Katya Nosko took it over a few years ago), they are still as much a fixture therein as the books lining its shelves. A cosy, neighbourhood store in the purest sense, there are few customers with whom management isn’t on a first-name basis.
957 Kingston Rd., 416-691-7150
Like The Great Escape, Acadia was originally a temple of pulps, comics and magazines, and back then it was known as Jack’s Bookstore. In the 1960s, after being in business for more than 30 years, new ownership reinvented the Moss Park shop and baptized it Acadia to affirm its focus on Canadiana. As Toronto’s oldest active bookstore, both its façade and creaking floorboards betray its age – a nice detail for a shop of Acadia’s ilk. A must for collectors of rare literature and art books (plenty of coffee-table sized volumes to browse here).
232 Queen St. E., 416-364-7638
Ben McNally Books
Ben McNally opened his Bay Street namesake eight years ago following his stint as manager of Front Street’s dear departed Nicholas Hoare bookshop. Located in Toronto’s always bustling Financial District, the bookstore occupies what used to be a bank, as you might guess from its high ceiling. Specializing in first-edition hard copies gracing a quiet, dimly lit space that could just as easily double as a lecture hall or a professoral study, patrons will leave Ben McNally feeling far more learned after merely scanning its repertoire.
366 Bay St., 416-361-0032
Courtesy Ben McNally Books
Another Story Bookshop
Don’t let the coy name and quaint Roncesvalles locale fool you: Another Story has been specializing in left-of-centre socio-political literature for over 20 years, some of it on the radical edge. Beyond its typical village bookstore exterior lies a curated selection of works addressing issues including institutionalized racism and gender equality. Once your inner activist has been satisfied, feel free to indulge in a surprisingly solid collection of cookbooks, mainstream fiction and children’s books.
315 Roncesvalles Ave., 416-462-1104
Courtesy Amy Force
The Monkey’s Paw
The Monkey’s Paw is in a class of its own for a few reasons. Its owner is an American transplant, it’s one of few bookstores in Little Portugal, and its collection of 20th century oddities is unparallelled by any of its Toronto peers. The Monkey’s Paw revels in the strange and endearing; its cache spans its own idiosyncratic spectrum from Prohibition-era health guides to a history of New Jersey landmarks, all to be found on shelves decorated with old typewriters. But what really sets the store apart is an invention known as the Biblio-Mat. The sputtering vending machine grants patrons a randomly selected book for a mere $2. The Biblio-Mat’s success earned the Monkey’s Paw some ink in The New York Times.
1229 Dundas St. W., 416-531-2123
Type occupies a typically deep-but-narrow shop space on the West Queen West (also known as Trinity-Bellwoods) shopping strip. Its main hall, whose shelves are dominated by fiction and magazines, is lined with wallpaper on one side and exposed brick painted white on the other. To the rear is a smaller section in lollipop red, dedicated to sports, biographies and the arts, followed by a breakfast nook-sized room filled with children’s books. Overall, the book selection is somewhat mainstream (at least by the standards of the neighbourhood’s creative class residents). The charm, apart from the décor and the always eye-grabbing window displays, is the fact that you can amble across the street and enjoy your latest purchase under one of the grand trees of Trinity-Bellwoods park. Note that there’s a second Type location uptown at 427 Spadina Rd. in Forest Hill Village – that’s a pleasant and walkable residential neighbourhood, but too far from downtown to be a draw for visitors.
883 Queen St. W., 416-366-8973
Courtesy Lisa Kannakko
This Richmond Street bookseller may not have the most diverse repertoire, but as the official store of the Registered Graphic Designers of Ontario, it need not specialize in more than architecture, urbanism and advertising, and it covers these areas well. What also separates Swipe from the pack is its location in the 401 Richmond building, a former lithograph factory that still boasts rustic floors and exposed brick walls and now houses everything from art galleries to purveyors of rare musical instruments. If you start your artistic journey at ground level, Swipe’s glassed-in storefront can serve as your first stop.
401 Richmond St. W. #B04, 416-363-1332
This one’s for you, sci-fi fans. Bakka-Phoenix may be Toronto’s only bookstore to specialize in the genre and claims to be Canada’s oldest of its kind. Over more than 40 years in business, the shop has changed names, owners and locations. Its current incarnation is in Harbord Village, a quick walk or teleport from the University of Toronto St. George campus. Bakka-Phoenix has gained some notoriety for employing many accomplished writers, namely Robert J. Sawyer, and working here has become a rite of passage of sorts for aspiring local sci-fi authors. As for the store’s name, it was taken from a legend in Frank Herbert’s 1965 novel Dune.
84 Harbord St., 416-963-9993