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culture

Book City Closes a Chapter

The book chain's Annex flagship winds down after a 38-year run.

Photo by Flickr user adamthelibrarian.

Another one bites the dust.

Yesterday afternoon, Book City announced that after a 38-year run, its flagship store at 501 Bloor Street West will be closing this spring. “The lease was up, and we agonized over the decision,” general manager Ian Donker told Quill & Quire, “but sadly it didn’t make much sense to continue.” It will be the second iconic Toronto book retailer to close this year, after the World’s Biggest Bookstore shuts its tills next month.

Born in the Netherlands, store founder Frans Donker came from a family that ran a publishing firm. “I am third generation in the book business if you count my grandfather Willem,” he told the Star in 2001. “He was a liberal Christian minister who wrote bad novels about poor farmers’ sons falling in love with the girl in the mansion.” Donker moved to Canada in 1969 and worked for the Classic Bookshops chain and publisher Fitzhenry and Whiteside before opening Book City with his wife Gini in 1976.

Advertisements, the Globe and Mail, October 13, 1979 (left), the Globe and Mail, October 20, 1979 (right)

Advertisements, the Globe and Mail, October 13, 1979 (left), the Globe and Mail, October 20, 1979 (right).

The store found its niche selling a wide variety of non-mainstream paperbacks and quality remainders. Early ads touted its selection of mystery and sci-fi titles, and deals that weren’t restricted to weekend specials. As one ad boasted, “You can come down to Book City and pick up an armful of bargains any day. Or any evening.” Spread across two floors connected by narrow staircases, browsers were pointed upstairs by a sketch of a dapper bearded gent. For a child discovering bookstores, it was fun to run across the creaky upper floor. For adults, the store provided a relaxing place to browse new titles and explore the latest cheap finds.

Book City also developed a reputation for supporting Canadian literature, through sponsoring prizes and stocking up-and-coming authors. In a 1992 interview, Donker described how the store marketed Nino Ricci’s The Lives of the Saints:

Nino Ricci had been in my store, a bit shy, but very likeable, telling us that his book was coming out. A small publisher came to us later and presented the book. I read a chapter, one of my buyers read a chapter, and we agreed, this is darn good stuff. So we decided to put ourselves behind the title, and instead of five books for the shelves, we bought 50 for the tables, and recommended it to people who came into the store. They too liked it and told friends, and it started to snowball. I completed the book, loved it, and promoted it even more. Sadly enough, not enough booksellers supported it.

To celebrate the store’s 15th anniversary in 1991, Donker commissioned a novella starring writer Howard Engel’s detective Benny Cooperman. Engel’s story, The Whole Megillah, included a scene in which the suspects met on the upper floor of Book City.

Advertisements, the Globe and Mail, November 3, 1979 (left), the Globe and Mail, November 17, 1979 (right)

Advertisements, the Globe and Mail, November 3, 1979 (left), the Globe and Mail, November 17, 1979 (right).

During its first decade, Book City frequently violated provincial Sunday shopping laws. While David Mirvish sold remainders on the Lord’s Day thanks to Mirvish Village’s tourist designation, Donker was fined whenever he opened his doors. For a time in the early 1980s, Donker exploited a loophole that allowed businesspeople to declare Saturday as their Sabbath. The result: the main floor was open Monday through Saturday, while the upstairs became The Book Loft, and operated Sunday through Friday. Until the laws were fully relaxed, Book City received periodic warnings to play nice.

Book City became a chain when it opened its second location at 663 Yonge Street in 1984. The number of branches has varied over the years—at its height, six stores operated across the city, and regular warehouse sales took place in Leaside. The chain held its own during the onslaught of superstores like Chapters, while other independents folded. Donker prided himself on his close relationships with suppliers, and believes Chapters harmed itself by not cultivating such ties (they “destroyed publishers by demanding every last nickel”).

The chain’s three remaining locations at 348 Danforth Avenue, 1950 Queen Street East, and 1430 Yonge Street will stay open. Expect plenty of reminiscences over the next few months, as the Annex store joins the list of local bookstores that will live on in customers’ memories.

Additional material from the November 3, 1979 edition of the Globe and Mail, the June 1992 edition of the Metropolitan Toronto Business Journal, and the June 18, 1977, January 12, 1981, October 23, 1991, August 8, 2001 editions of the Toronto Star.

Comments

  • tyrannosaurus_rek

    Nooooo! I was just there! I moved out of the area last summer but still made a point of going back, even ordering books through that location.

    • estta

      I tried that with the bookstores in my area, but they’ve all closed now. It’s a super bummer.

  • Randy McDonald

    It’s a shame, but no one seems very surprised that’s the store is ending.

    I remember seeing the Book City on Yonge between Wellesley and Bloor clearing everything out–shelving, even–in February 2008. I hope this one will have a more dignified end, at least.

    • tyrannosaurus_rek

      I saw the same of the location on Queen West; harsh.

      But as book store closures go, the greater indignity was Pages being ousted and the space sitting derelict for over a year (or two?) because the landlord couldn’t find anyone willing to pay the hiked rent.

      • Dwight Williams

        I remember a similar instance in Ottawa with our Nicholas Hoare Books location on Sussex Drive. Such things are no small cause for sadness.

        I will also note as a matter of personal opinion that there are spots scattered about Ottawa that might make good homes for a new branch store.

  • CaligulaJones

    Unfortunately, even as a voracious reader, I can’t remember the last time I paid full price for a book,except maybe as a gift.

    Book City, BMV, any decent used book store have all I needed, but even after the requisite hours of browsing and getting my junkie-like fix of being near all that pulp and all those words, I rarely purchase.

    As the sign at Eliot’s Books on Yonge north of Wellesley says quoting “Desiderius Erasmus Roterodamus — ‘When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes”. Sounds good when a bachelor, but starting a family means its food and clothes for the little ones first. Also, something about a warning from Mrs. Jones about over-burdened shelves about to burst from “I’ll read it when I have time” tomes.

    But “can’t read a 500-page book on the subway with any comfort” has driven most reading to Kindle. How-to photography, carpentry and gardening books and mags? Most are outdated too soon or redundant and easier to follow digitally anyway.

    My condolences to the employees. And good point about losing all that (literal), book learnin’…Amazon might be good on the recommendation side, but those “reviews” can be a bit…suspect.

    • nevilleross

      About purchasing books when having a family; its time we as a society make who employs us pay us more rather than less, as has been the case for half a century now.

  • nevilleross

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