by: Jeff Cottrill
Toronto is one helluva literary town. Ernest Hemingway lived here for a bit in the 1920s and in the decades since, the city has been closely associated with Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, Robertson Davies and other iconic scribes. From the annual Word On The Street Festival to high-profile readings at Harbourfront Centre, Toronto never hides its love of books.
And nowhere is this more evident than in the abundance of quality bookstores. Everybody knows about the bigger chains like Chapters, Indigo and Coles , but you’re likely to get a more personable experience and unique selection at the many independent shops. Big or small, new or used, specialized or wide-variety, Toronto has your book needs covered. Here’s the scoop:
First, let’s look at T.O.’s feast of second-hand booksellers. Some stores offer you not only good deals on used books but also their own unique decorative choices. Some stores offer you not only good deals on used books but also their own unique decorative choices. Little Italy’s tiny Balfour Books, for instance, creates a quirky atmosphere by using Scrabble tiles to spell out the different genres and categories and by displaying a few popular titles on a replica of an antique chest of drawers. Seekers, hidden under Kilgour’s Bar, has that irresistably musty smell of old books, with a Kids’ Room in the back that feels like your book-loving buddy’s unfinished basement, complete with loose floorboards and exposed water pipes; here, you can browse through a remarkable collection of old Nancy Drew and Hardy Boys adventures.
In Little Portugal, The Monkey’s Paw grabs your attention immediately with the aging typewriters in the windows (one of which pays homage to Edgar Allen Poe). This charming, idiosyncratic store aims for a nineteenth-century ambience, with locked cabinets containing rare, antique books and shelves of uncommon titles, many long out of print. A creepy display of insect carcasses adds to the Poe-like vibe. But the store also has its own “Biblio-Mat”, a working vending machine that spits out random books for two dollars each.
Eliot’s Bookshop on Yonge offers thousands of used books of all kinds. Don’t let the simple, unassuming exterior fool you into passing it by; come inside and you’ll be overwhelmed by three neatly organized floors of bookstore goodness: sci-fi, literature, poetry, literary criticism, fine arts, history, sports and science. You can also find many historical Life magazine issues at the front desk and an old wooden wall clock near the entrance adds to a quaint, old-time feel.
Some of Toronto’s best places for used books lie in the west end. The Junction is home to the spacious Pandemonium, rife with books, vinyl, CDs and movies, plus a few historical issues of Rolling Stone and Life. Not far away is The Book Exchange, a small, laid-back shop that offers chocolate bars for charity. On Roncesvalles Avenue, you can find the excellent A Good Read, with a back area packed with rare books and signed first editions, along with the more hipster-oriented She Said Boom.
No list of second-hand bookstores is complete without BMV. With three downtown locations, BMV has earned its reputation as the place to go for a staggering selection of used books, DVDs and VHS movies. The Bloor West branch has three well-organized floors full of material, much of it in great condition. Although BMV buys used books and movies, don’t feel disappointed if yours get turned down – they can be picky.
That’s the cream of the crop, but there’s plenty more out there. You might also want to check out Willow Books, near U of T; ABC Books, on Yonge; or Dencan Books, next to the Book Exchange. Anywhere you go, you’re guaranteed to find a bargain on something good.