Second-hand Prose: A Field Guide

In this era of big box bookstores, it’s becoming harder to find shops that offer more than row after row of the latest best-sellers and recent releases. Fortunately, relief from this monotonous sameness can be found in Toronto’s second-hand bookshops, where the standard of what’s interesting and relevant encompasses the past as well as the present.

The best second-hand stores carry fine volumes of mixed vintage, displayed in inviting surroundings. While wandering their aisles, readers may happen upon out-of-print books that demand to be read as well as gems they didn’t know existed. It’s this possibility of discovery, coupled with the prospect of bargain buys, that makes browsing in these stores so exhilarating.

Toronto has many such shops, several of which it’s hard to pass by without dropping in. Little Italy’s Balfour Books (601 College St.) is especially enticing with its eye-catching and ever-changing window displays, not to mention its friendly canine greeter, Storm. Once inside one finds a cozy front room with pressed tin ceilings and wooden shelves containing hardcovers and paperbacks in good condition. Scrabble tiles spell out specialty subjects, which include the visual arts, film, architecture, scholarly works, modern fiction and dogs. These sections are neat and well organized. However, book fiends who need a fix of clutter will find it at the back of the store, where recent arrivals lie pell-mell on a large table.

Balfour has much to recommend it, but best of all it’s open seven days a week, from noon until eleven, and sometimes even later—owner Joyce Blair says her customers are so nice she’s “never been able to throw anyone out of the store.” Daytime shoppers include artists, architects, students and neighbourhood people.

Nights, however, “are a different world,” Blair says. After dark well-heeled types from all over the city descend upon Little Italy’s fashionable restaurants, and many of them drop by the bookshop afterward. Blair recalls coming in one night a few years ago to find Conrad Black and Barbara Amiel chatting with her friend Doug, who occasionally works at the store “for fun.” Blair panicked. Doug’s idea of fun, she says, includes “making comments to customers about the books they’re reading. He does it in a funny way, but he doesn’t care what he says and sometimes people get in a huff. I was so horrified by what he might say,” she adds, “that I scurried to the back of the store. But when I came out Conrad Black was laughing at Doug’s jokes, which was great.”

Black departed the store with several tomes on Napoleon, and he and his wife were even gracious enough to pet Storm, who lay sprawled on the counter. As they left, though, Blair remembers “Amiel discreetly picking Storm’s white fur off her black Chanel suit.”

Like Balfour, Annex Books’ (1083 Bathurst St.) good selection of titles attracts local bibliophiles and notable Torontonians, especially the literati. Michael Ondaatje once named this store and the late Writers and Company as his favourites. Critic Phillip Marchand shops here, too, as do poets Michael Holmes and Paul Vermeersch.

Owner Janet Inksetter eats, sleeps and breathes books, so she can help you find what you want without consulting a computer, especially if your interests lean toward her specialties—Canadian literature, poetry and modern first editions. She can also help you find books you want but never knew you wanted.

For example, once we became acquainted, she mentioned she had a poem by a United Empire Loyalist named Roger Viets. I knew he was my father’s ancestor but didn’t realize he’d written the first booklet of poetry published in what is now Canada. The odds of other readers making a serendipitous discovery here are good, since the shop’s floor-to-ceiling shelves house 20,000 books, many of them special in some way. “I don’t carry remainders,” Inksetter says, “because then my store would be just like any other used dealer’s.”

Contact Editions (759 Mount Pleasant Rd.) also offers many one-of-a-kind finds. Owner Wesley Begg unearths hundreds of interesting books through “house calls.” “I get at least one phone call a day from someone whose parents are downsizing from a house to a condominium, so their library is for sale,” he explains. “I bought one from a man who’d been collecting for 40 years. It filled 300 cartons because he’d never sold a book.”

Of course, one needs a lot of room to accommodate such a large collection. At 10,000 square feet, Contact is certainly not lacking in space. This book emporium, with strengths in modern art, literature, history and antiquarian stock, contains 100,000 volumes. Fortunately, it has several comfortable chairs because, as Begg says, “if you’re going to look at all the shelves or do a good perusal of one area, it’s going to take you a while and you might need to sit down.”

For those who wish to explore other hunting grounds, She Said Boom (393 Roncesvalles Ave.) is worth a visit. Specialties include contemporary and modern fiction as well as pop culture. This is a good place to pick up inexpensive paperbacks and review copies of new releases. While you’re browsing, you can listen to cutting-edge music, as the store also carries CDs.

Another worthy destination is Ten Editions (698 Spadina Ave.), a general bookstore that corners the market for character. The front room’s shelves run 12 rows high, so the owner has installed two sliding wooden ladders. Once you’ve inspected the upper rows, you can snoop through a chest of drawers crammed with vintage postcards and annotated leather diaries. Then you can move on to the two small back rooms, which overflow with books and other ephemera. A word of caution, though, for anyone in a hurry: You could become completely oblivious to the passage of time, which is the ultimate reward of browsing in second-hand bookstores.

This piece first appeared in the National Post.

Since the time of writing Balfour Books has moved to 468 College St. Contact Editions is now at 491 Davenport Rd. Sadly Annex Books and Ten Editions have closed. However, the Monkey’s Paw fortuitously came along to fill the gap. It bills itself as “an antiquarian shop specializing in uncommon books and paper artifacts from the age of print. It is also home to the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomizing vending machine for old books.”

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