Friday, November 29, 2013

The last days of 'Booksellers' Row.'

At the end of November and on the cusp of Advent, here is some news on the sad if inevitable end of an era in Toronto bookselling: Steven Temple Books, the last used bookstore on a stretch of Queen Street West once so thick with such places that it was known as "Booksellers' Row," will be closing its doors tomorrow after nearly forty years in business. Here is more on the story, courtesy of the Toronto Star:
It's the same tale as many others: the Internet ate up many of the independent bookstore's clients.

Sitting amid piles of used books of all genres, Steven Temple, 66, recalls a time in the 1980s when he was located a bit further east on the street, and when people would flock to the dozen bookstores that sat between Simcoe St. and Spadina Ave. . . .

Those were the good old days for Temple and his bookselling colleagues. But what once seemed like a profitable venture to Temple has turned into a bit of a trap.

He must now get rid of his nearly 35,000 books, many of them rare and "obscure Canadian literature," within the next few months so that he can recuperate some of his losses.

. . .

"There isn’t much of a trade here," said Temple, dressed in a green sweater and grey blazer, with a pencil sticking out of his breast pocket.

"Queen Street doesn’t have an intellectual base anymore," he continued. "It used to be a neighbourhood. Now it's just all big money."

. . .

Walking between the shelves, Temple blames the "lack of support" from people who still love books, as well as the Internet, for his store’s downfall.

The statement is ironic, as Temple is the same bookseller quoted in a 2000 Star story praising the Internet as a godsend for his business, as book lovers from around the world were contacting him with orders.

"The Internet giveth and it taketh us away," he told the Star 13 years later. "The Net opened a whole world to me. I was selling like crazy for a couple of years. I just couldn’t believe where it was going to lead … I didn't want to think where it was going to end."

Steven Temple Books is just the latest casualty in a long line of bookstores vanishing from Toronto’s landscape. Pages bookstore on Queen West was another notable closing. The store shut down in 2009 due to skyrocketing rent, something Temple still remembers clearly.

And then there's World's Biggest Bookstore, one of Toronto’s most famous retail landmarks, set to shut down in February.

"It's killing me on the inside," said Temple of his store's imminent closing, but also while reflecting on a rapidly dying trade that was booming when he opened his first location in 1974.

"I'm an emotional wreck. It’s tearing my heart out."
For more personal insight on the demise of Steven Temple Books and the decline of used bookstores in general, I suggest that you read an essay by Toronto writer David Warren, a friend and customer of Steven Temple who offers a wistful tribute to the retiring bookseller:
Steve himself is an old buddy of mine. He's a crusty character, with a crusty wife: both magnificent souls. Modern book retailing, generally in decline, has no use for such people — who love what they sell, and know a great deal about it. Who work on guild principles. For whom competition is good news. Who take personal risks, and would rather starve than work in a cubicle. Who do not eschew hard physical labour: for endless lugging about of books, in big heavy boxes, is among the tougher proletarian vocations.

. . .

Steven Temple Books began a few blocks east, at street level. Four decades have suddenly passed. I think this has been his fourth location, as rising rents have pushed him westward ho, ever closer to the sunset. His specialties have long been Canadiana, and modern first editions. Neither is my bag, especially, but from his general stock in classics, philosophy, modern literature at large, travels and topography, I have always found prizes. One could spend hours making discoveries in any one section — at intervals dragged out on the sidewalk when Steve wants company for a smoking break.

He will retreat to Welland, Ontario, pension-free and laden with debt as all other retiring booksellers, and no doubt continue selling books through Abe & the Internet; but it will not be anything like the same. It will instead be "books for collectors." (Spit.) It was that general stock — the presence of books for actual reading, including the obscure and the hard to find — that made second-hand bookstores what they were through the last many centuries. They were the meetingplaces of the literate — their agora, market and trading ground. In the strangest city, one would find such a bookstore, and it would be like an embassy from home.
I regret that I never visited Steven Temple Books, but news of the store's closing saddens me because I have known and loved similar places and I am acutely aware of the decline of the used book trade (and the book trade in general). David Warren's description of used bookstores as "meetingplaces of the literate" and "an embassy from home" finds confirmation in my own experience; I have walked into such stores in disparate places as far-flung as Innsbruck, Jerusalem, and Berkeley, California and found the same familiar atmosphere and, often, a welcoming if perhaps curmudgeonly proprietor who clearly loved books as much as his customers. I am sorry that this experience will be less accessible to future generations, and I can't help but think that the world will be worse off for that. AMDG.


Post a Comment

<< Home