There would be a very long post, if I tried to tell the history of second-hand book-dealing in Toronto, if only from my own temporally limited point of view. It is too early in the morning for whisky, however, so I will skip to the end.
Booksellers’ row along Queen Street West is now finished. There were thirteen of these “antiquarian” shops a generation ago, roughly in the stretch from University to Spadina. Steven Temple’s, now up steep stairs at 489 Queen West (pushed half-way to Bathurst), is the last. He opened in 1974, and will soon close forever. If gentle reader is currently present in the Greater Parkdale Area, he must go there immediately. The sell-off will end on St Andrew’s, next Saturday, during which any book 25 dollars and down will be 5 dollars, and those above, half price. Also, you must go to acquire one last loving glimpse of what a second-hand bookstore looked like — at how 50,000 mostly hardcovered books, many of considerable antiquity, could be fit into rooms without level floors, by the organic extension of makeshift shelving.
Steve himself is an old buddy of mine. He’s a crusty character, with a crusty wife: both magnificent souls. Modern book retailing, generally in decline, has no use for such people — who love what they sell, and know a great deal about it. Who work on guild principles. For whom competition is good news. Who take personal risks, and would rather starve than work in a cubicle. Who do not eschew hard physical labour: for endless lugging about of books, in big heavy boxes, is among the tougher proletarian vocations.
He’s an old Lefty, and Yank, from the Vietnam era, who kicked me out of his store for one good reason or another many years ago. I think it was something reactionary I said. Then meeting me a year later, gave me another tongue-lashing for not having visited his store recently. With advancing age Steve has mellowed some, and if I am not very mistaken, he has found God. (This usually makes a person easier to live with, but not always.) His wife Jennifer can scare even the people Steve can’t. She is completely lacking in hypocrisy, and allied soothing social qualities. Her scary ones are loyalty, truth, grit, fierce humour, and real charity. She neither speaks, nor listens, with the half-attention to which urban and suburban people are accustomed. Neither does her husband.
Steven Temple Books began a few blocks east, at street level. Four decades have suddenly passed. I think this has been his fourth location, as rising rents have pushed him westward ho, ever closer to the sunset. His specialties have long been Canadiana, and modern first editions. Neither is my bag, especially, but from his general stock in classics, philosophy, modern literature at large, travels and topography, I have always found prizes. One could spend hours making discoveries in any one section — at intervals dragged out on the sidewalk when Steve wants company for a smoking break.
He will retreat to Welland, Ontario, pension-free and laden with debt as all other retiring booksellers, and no doubt continue selling books through Abe & the Internet; but it will not be anything like the same. It will instead be “books for collectors.” (Spit.) It was that general stock — the presence of books for actual reading, including the obscure and the hard to find — that made second-hand bookstores what they were through the last many centuries. They were the meetingplaces of the literate — their agora, market and trading ground. In the strangest city, one would find such a bookstore, and it would be like an embassy from home.