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culture

Eulogy for a Bookstore

Reflections on the culture and community of Book City's Annex store.

Photo by Flickr user adamthelibrarian.

Very early in my freelancing career, I worked part-time at Book City in the Annex, a three-shift-a-week gig that helped smooth out cash-flow issues and retire my student debt.

Part-timers were expected to show up at about 4:45 p.m., arriving just in time to take the baton from the day crew. Stacks of books waiting to be shelved sat in piles on the floor next to the cash desk. In the cluttered basement would be several boxes of just-arrived remainders, ready to be hauled upstairs.

The manager, John Snyder, was typically pacing around the store, clutching a thick sheath of print-outs with the latest Penguin order. “Another day, another 50 cents,” he’d sigh, his voice full of mock exasperation.

I grew up during the golden age of Toronto bookstores. When my parents walked us downtown, we invariably made an extended pit stop at Britnell’s, the original Coles, at Yonge and Charles, or The Book Cellar, in Yorkville. On those visits, I would grab a thick picture book—Time Life Goes to the Movies!, or some such thing—and hide in a corner, flipping the pages.

So I leapt at the opportunity to work in a bookstore. The job, as any veteran will tell you, isn’t nearly as romantic as the literary image (see 84, Charing Cross Road, etc.). You get to know lots of books by their covers—I could identify hundreds of authors and titles, never having read any of them. You learn that customers can be annoying (a well-known literary critic came to the cash one day, wondering archly how we organized the fiction section) or outright dishonest (the surreptitious pocketing of merchandise in the stairwell).

The job involved a lot of tidying (to this day, I am unable to be in a bookstore without straightening the display tables) and a certain relentlessness: spring titles, fall titles, calendars. Repeat.

Then there was the owner, Frans Donker. He was/is a very tall man with a thrusting lower jaw, an auburn beard, and a mischievous twinkle in his eye. I’ve never met anyone so large who could move with such stealth. If you paused during an interminable shelving mission to leaf through a magazine or chat with a customer, Frans invariably snuck up behind you, taking a certain delight in his surprise attack.

“Mr. Lorinc,” he’d boom. “If you aren’t busy, I need your help with some remainders…”

And so I would find myself jammed in the cramped back room with Frans and several heavy cartons of remainders that had to be unpacked and processed. Frans was the first Toronto bookseller who understood the treasure hidden in the detritus of the book industry. He travelled to the remainder shows in Europe and came back with stacks of glossy coffee-table monographs.

With the keen instincts of a veteran retailer, Frans knew what sold, so we always had lots of remainders about war, food, and sex—humankind’s three eternal preoccupations.

He bought them by the pallet or the pound. As we sat in the back room, Frans would pluck books out of the crates, giving each one a cursory examination before inventing an “original” price as well as Book City’s “deep discount” price (sometimes I’d have to clip off the actual original price from the corner of the dust jacket). The clacking label maker would spit out sheets of stickers bearing the title and both numbers. My job was to peel them off the wax-paper backing, draw a red slash through the “original” price, and slap the tag on the front cover. A bargain!

I eventually learned to do this so quickly, I gave myself a mild case of repetitive strain injury.

Despite his patriarchal tendencies, Frans knew how to sell books, and he knew how to hire people who knew how to sell books. He was never corporate in his outlook, and he backed his staff at important moments. At closing time, for instance, we had licence to hound the dawdlers out of the stacks and out the door, no niceties required. Frans and John knew that everyone wanted to go home after a long shift, and that, what’s more, the dawdlers would come back, no worse for the wear.

For all that it involved routine work like shelving, dusting, and straightening, bookselling had many edifying moments—such as when customers wanted advice on good books to give as gifts—and even a few thrilling ones.

In 1988, the managers got hold of rare cases of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses in the immediate aftermath of the Ayatollah’s fatwa against the British author. We hung a rough, handwritten sign declaring that we had copies in stock (they weren’t on display because of bomb threats against booksellers), and the blood-red hardcover editions flew out the door. We felt we were on the front lines of a dramatic literary stand-off—free speech versus extremism, playing out right there in the Annex.

Besides the usual fare, Frans always made sure to keep a large supply of remaindered copies of an unprepossessing paperback, the cover of which had no production values. The Life and Death of the Great American Cities sold steadily and reliably. I must have stickered hundreds of them.

At the time, I didn’t know anything about the book or its author, a certain Jane Jacobs. One day, another employee pointed to a customer at the front: a tall, stooped, elderly woman with owlish glasses, wearing a mud-brown wrap. “That’s Jane Jacobs,” my colleague said, in a hushed tone. A regular.

In hindsight, I find myself reflecting on the curious and serendipitous fact that Jacobs’ bookstore of choice should be named Book City. She lived around the corner, so there was, at one level, no more to her patronage than convenience and the quality of the venue.

Yet Jacobs, as well as the people who predictably filed into the store after the early showing at the Bloor, were all participants in the “ballet of the sidewalk” that she had described so astutely 30 years earlier, in that self-same remainder.

Indeed, ever since I left Book City’s employ, I have also dutifully performed my role in that urban ballet, wandering in virtually every time I went through the Annex, as often as not with no specific purchase in mind. I would scan the new arrivals tables, check out the perennially disorganized kids book nook, straighten a few piles, chat with John or Rachel or Frans.

The bookstore as a legible, discernible part of the city’s corpus. What Jane Jacobs said.
The closure of the Annex store feels, to me, like the death of an old friend. I’m sorry to be maudlin, but that’s the truth of it. As has been said a million times, Kindles, superstores, and the clever algorithms that spit out suggested titles on the Amazon site are but the thinnest of replacements.

Sense of place, as Jacobs taught, matters a great deal in the lives of cities and to the people who live in them. Like Honest Ed’s, Book City Annex was, in its warm eclecticism, a genuine place—a safe harbour— in the midst of the bustle of the big city. And that, perhaps, is the reminder in the remainder.

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