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culture

Historicist: Dora Hood’s Book Room

Toronto's pioneering female bookseller supplied collectors and libraries with Canadian treasures.

Dora Hood and her daughter Glen. The Side Door (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1958).

“It was by chance rather than design that I became a bookseller,” Dora Hood wrote in the opening line of her autobiography, The Side Door. Forced to support herself and her two children after being widowed, Hood applied skill and luck to build one of the largest mail-order book businesses in Canada. After she retired from the trade in 1954, the Dora Hood Book Room was a cornerstone of Toronto’s bookselling community until its closing in the early 1980s.

Born in Toronto in 1885, Dora Hood (née Ridout) was the great-granddaughter of early Upper Canadian political figure Thomas Ridout. Several months after her husband, Frederick, a doctor, died in 1927, she was dining with her friend Jeanette Rathbun, who wanted out of a small mail-order book business she ran in her spare time. Hood asked to see Rathbun’s books, which were out-of-print Canadian titles, then peppered Rathbun with a string of questions. Rathbun was abandoning the business due to time constraints that wouldn’t allow her to seek out high-quality titles. As Hood later noted:

I stayed late but finally tore myself away and stepped out into the windy March night. I liked what I had seen of that small book business. It had a powerful appeal to me and I thought of nothing else all the way home. Suddenly, as I neared my house I found myself saying out loud to the swaying elm trees “That is what I want to do! I’ll make her an offer.” By the time I had turned the key in my door, I had taken the first steps on a journey which was not to end for twenty-six years.

When choosing a name for the business, Hood reasoned that “as books are a commodity of individual taste,” buyers would prefer dealing with a person rather than a company name. “Since men use their own names in business,” she noted, “why should I not use mine?” Hood felt using a “Mrs.” prefix was old-fashioned, so Dora Hood’s Book Room it was.

Pages from Dora Hood's first catalogue, issued in February 1929.

Hood ran the business out of her home at 720 Spadina Avenue, which occasionally meant intrusions from her children. Once, she found her seven-year old daughter, Glen, displaying an illustrated book to a customer, assuring him “Now this is a very nice book!” As a young adult, Glen worked as her mother’s chief cataloguer until she left home to marry.

The first Dora Hood Catalogue of Canadiana and Americana, which consisted of 500 items ranging in price from a quarter to 60 dollars (for a complete six volume set of Robertson’s Landmarks of Toronto), was issued in February 1929. Published up to three times per year, the catalogues were mainly used by serious collectors and by academic librarians stocking their Canadian sections.

Checking letters from catalogue users and other customers was among the highlights of a typical day at the store:

There was little monotonous regularity about our business day, The morning post invariably provided some surprises: a letter from someone in Bechuanaland [now Botswana] asking for a geological memoir on our Haliburton district; a polite request from a Japanese professor for a list of publications dealing with Arctic ice; an order from an important United States university whose librarian has been asked to build up the Canadian section; a friendly letter from an old customer after a lapse of years giving his new address.

Hood noticed few women among the collector set, finding that they bought old books when fulfilling needs like researching a particular period, aiding their hobbies, or helping to trace their ancestry. “Women,” Hood noted, “rarely possess that irresistible, consuming passion to possess books that has led men through the ages to build up priceless collections.”

Marion Robertson and Frederick Banting on their wedding day, June 4, 1924. City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1266, Item 2795.

The title mix drew more attention from buyers outside the city. “It was evident,” Hood wrote, “that the farther away they lived the more eagerly they sought my wares for, with the exception of a few ardent collectors, I remained unvisited by my own townsmen for some time.” Among the locals who did drop by was Dr. Frederick Banting, one of many doctors who bought books from Hood—she later discovered that many medical professionals became book collectors in order to develop a hobby that relieved the strain of their work. Banting favoured expensive volumes on exploration and early fur traders, along with books on Northern Ontario and Quebec that aided his painting of scenery from those regions. According to Hood, Banting ceased to collect these items following his divorce from his first wife.

Humourist Stephen Leacock was another prominent customer. Among his orders was a book he had edited, Lahontan’s Voyages, which he had never been paid for or received a copy of. Leacock had taught several members of Hood’s family when he worked at Upper Canada College, which prompted several warm letters. Hood doesn’t seem to have been the biggest champion of his work—noting that Australians were drawn to Leacock’s books, she suggested, “we need not be ashamed of this choice, even if his humour is apt to run in a groove.”

Where Hood appreciated a groove was her ability to price personal libraries. Early on, the effects of the Great Depression made many collections available. She enjoyed the thrill-of-the-hunt aspect of finding gems buried in bookshelves. Her method of pricing large collections began with a quick scan for titles she was familiar with, to get a feel for the library. She scribbled an initial estimate of what she might pay, then stuffed it in her briefcase. A thorough examination of the collection followed, where she wrote titles down in two columns: one for highlights, the other for run-of-the-mill titles. After totalling both columns, she compared the price to the figure she wrote down earlier. Around 90 per cent of the time, her first guess was off by 10 dollars or less. She then offered the seller the higher of the two figures.

Hood offered three pieces of advice for anyone selling collections, which remain valuable to anyone planning to dispose of their books through a dealer:

1. Try to arrive at a price before you offer your books, keeping in mind that the dealer must make a profit and that he will have to dispose of the books one by one, while you are to get cash for all without further effort on your part.

2. Make a careful list of your books, giving author, title, date and place of publication and exact condition, being sure to find out if all plates and maps are present. Have several copies made and send them simultaneously o the dealers in the community, asking them to quote a price on the lot. Then accept the best. It is not playing the game to withdraw books from the list after sending it out.

3. Go to a dealer you know and trust him if he offers to buy the entire library. This is much less trouble and will probably give you the best return.

The current occupants of 720 Spadina Avenue, where Dora Hood's Book Room once stood. Photo by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.

When customers received the June 1954 edition of the catalogue, they were greeted with an announcement on the front cover that Hood was retiring and passing the business onto former University of Toronto librarian W. S. Wallace. Hood, who was partly deaf, devoted much of her time afterward to working with organizations like the Canadian Hearing Society. She also wrote two books before her death in 1974: a biography of paleoanthropologist Davidson Black (who named Peking Man) and The Side Door, an account of her adventures in the book trade. The store that bore her name remained on Spadina Avenue until 1962, when it moved to 34 Ross Street. It maintained its high reputation under several owners until a combination of high interest rates, erratic postal service, and tighter library budgets contributed to its closure in 1981.

When asked if she missed the book business, Hood responded, “Not the work. But my morning mail is not now as exhilarating as it was in the Book Room days.”

Additional material from The Side Door by Dora Hood (Toronto: Ryerson Press, 1958).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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