Ten Editions

On the northwest corner of Spadina and Sussex avenues, in Toronto, Ont., there remains a shophouse, from another era. There were once many like it, in that section of Spadina near Bloor; but the contrast today with sterile office and apartment towers makes this survivor stand out as an architectural enchantment. A smaller late Victorian building attaches to its north side, to absorb the aggressive vileness of a post office in the 1970s “lavatory” style, just farther. It was a shophouse, too, once upon a time, before its show window was bricked up. There is rich foliage on the other, corner side: a miniature urban jungle that the tenant of an apartment upstairs took it upon himself to plant and nurture, full of butterflies in the summer. The scene lifts one’s heart: a tiny island of humanity in a post-modern, urban shatter zone.

Since 1973, it has been a second-hand bookshop. That is now more than forty years ago, and like other regular customers of my age, I have warm memories not only of books, but of the people associated with them — the beloved dead, as well as the beloved living — through all this time. The ceiling is high, the shelves climb to the top of the outer walls, and there are ladders on rails to reach them. As I climb, memories of books I once found flood back into mind. And down I look upon these young people, making their new memories today. For the store is at the edge of the downtown campus of the University of Toronto, and there is (even today!) a class of students who are addicted to books — not slippery electronic “text,” but real books.

At the back of the store, in an ancient extension, one book-lined corridor leads through a door to a narrow courtyard. It is just there — a little overgrown, with light filtering through tree branches, dappling mossy surfaces of wood and masonry; or shadows gathering in the late afternoon. I mention this only because, so many times, in summer with that door open for a breeze, I have caught a glimpse of paradise.

It was “Volume One,” in my youthful recollections of the place: they had moved up from farther down Spadina. (Old hands of Toronto’s antiquarian rag trade will pause in reverence for that name.) “Atticus Books” replaced them, in the later ‘seventies; and when Atticus transferred to Markham Street a few years later, “Ten Editions” took the space. For the last thirty years, that has been the shingle, and the character of the store has settled.

Susan Duff has long been proprietress of Ten Editions, but it was her mother who went into the business, naming it in honour of her ten children. Susan was her most bookish child; and when I close my eyes, I still see her as the pretty, young shop assistant who first turned my head all those years ago.

From mother to daughter, this business passed; and both have been distinguished by infallibly good taste in the selection of titles, over a very broad range of subjects and genres, without the slightest hint of pretension or pomposity. This has been, through the years, the shop to visit for books to read — not for show, nor for “collectors.” And it has stood up for that very reason, when other second-hand stores have closed, or disappeared into the Internet. For people who do actually read must also browse and dawdle. They are not like the guided missiles looking for a “course book,” who if they come in here, will be greeted by a charming smile of incomprehension.

The store will soon be gone, however. The University of Toronto unfortunately owns some adjoining land, and will be able to acquire the property on which Ten Editions rests through “processes” I have not the heart to go into. The academic bureaucracy has set its eyes on building a gleaming new residence for the vacuous “Starbucks culture” of contemporary student life. They are lawyered up, and sitting on millions of appropriated tax dollars: no little bookseller will get in their way.

No one who lives in the city — or anywhere else with commercial value — has influence over what will be done. His neighbourhood will be levelled and cratered more efficiently than by saturation bombing, once the planners have decided on a scheme. It does not matter whether the regime is nominally “socialist” or “capitalist”: we live in the interstices of enormous bureaucratic machines, that may not even notice what is crushed beneath them. And the people who drive the machines, are those who know how to be ruthless.