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2007 04 10
The Toronto Section

Yesterday, during a rare break from writing, I spent the day trolling Toronto bookstores with my dear friend Ellen, who recently finished her PhD and works as an environmental consultant. It was a holiday for both of us, and we spent the day window-shopping, grazing, and gossiping in cafes across much of the downtown core. Our wandering took us into or past a wide array of Toronto bookstores, including Babel Books, Type, Bakka-Phoenix, Steven Temple Books, Pages, Glad Day, ABC Books (662 Yonge), and Eliot's (584 Yonge, south of Bloor). We didn't go in everywhere, of course, as the day is only so long, but while walking we talked about how Toronto has persisted or changed around us, and it seemed to me that much of Toronto's character was evident in the bookstores we passed or visited.

Babel rocks out on Ossington, a tall poppy blooming among collision yards, hairdressers, and an addiction treatment centre. Bakka is back on Queen Street, where it always belonged. Abelard (now web-based) looms like a gutted carcass along the raised-rent section of the strip. Glad Day has become faintly seedy, but still carries itself like a queen. And Eliot's, my favourite local used bookstore, remains the bridge between all possible iterations of Toronto. Occasionally while climbing the winding staircase to the third floor or peering out its ancient wooden windows, I have looked out and seen another Toronto entirely, a Yonge Street once lined with carriages and the clamour of horses, and perhaps soon, the silver facades of tall buildings choking or redeeming the sagging brick of their predecessors.

Yesterday at Pages I bought a copy of The Phenomenology Reader to aid in scholarly navigation and a Nancy Drew notebook for literary sleuthing. At Type Books I picked up a copy of Toronto Street Names and Rebecca Solnit's A Field Guide to Getting Lost (a superb phenomenology of discovery). I hadn't planned on getting any of these books, but they fell into my hands the way books often do because something about their titles stands out, or because I've read something else by the author, or because there's a fit with ongoing research. And it occurred to me, as it does almost every time I visit a Toronto bookseller or local library, that if books about philosophy, or history, or architecture and design, and even genre titles deserve their own sections in bookstores and libraries, then it would make equal sense for these venues to have a Toronto section.

To make this argument, I would like to single out Type Books as an example. Type is an excellent independent new bookstore located on Queen Street West near Dufferin Grove Park. As I recall, Type Books carries copies of Mike Filey's Toronto Album series, Sally Gibson's Inside Toronto, Terry Brooks' Faces on Places, both volumes of the uTOpia series, and a variety of other non-fiction Toronto titles. Type also carries quite a few recent Toronto novels, and has an adequate selection of local poetry. The problem is that these books are scattered across several sections, and as a customer I can find them only if I already know exactly what I am looking for. Type does have several Toronto books displayed prominently, but most of its Toronto titles are unsorted or are divided between its architecture/design and travel sections. I know Type is a small bookstore, but it would seem to make so much sense if it featured a larger selection of the Toronto titles it already sells, including fiction, together on a shelf or display table. Not only would this be helpful to the local literary community, it would remind readers that there is a Toronto canon well worth reading.

Some Toronto booksellers already have sections that feature local titles. The Indigo/Chapters megastore in the Eaton Centre has a 'local interest' section, which, while containing mainly larger-press Toronto tourist guides, has in the past included copies of uTOpia: Towards a New Toronto and No Mean City. Book City also devotes a shelf or two in its stores to local titles, including quite a few small press editions. BMV Books on Bloor has a Toronto section, in which a listing row of Toronto history and art books lean against regional and national histories. Pages has, perhaps, come closest to having a Toronto section, dedicating considerable shelf space to both "small press" and "very small press" titles and selling sizable piles of a variety of new Toronto titles on its display tables. But the limiting factor among these booksellers is that they rigidly segregate fiction and non-fiction, as if one is a dangerous contagion to the other. Guidebooks are also shelved separately from architecture and design, and many books that fall somewhere between these categories are hidden in places even the staff cannot remember.

The Toronto Public Library doesn't do much better. It does, to its credit, have a section on its website featuring Toronto titles called Toronto Arts and Stories, but this listing (highlighting a few books published in the past three or four years) is manifestly incomplete and fails to do justice to the vast hoards of Toronto literature on the TPL's shelves. Like many great libraries, the TPL has trouble keeping up with its own collection, and a eager patron (like me) relies on the disparate expertise of helpful librarians, none of whom can be expected as individuals to have mental access to all of the library's huge store of Toronto titles. But I would love it if there was a way to easily and intelligibly search the TPL's collection for Toronto literature, both literary and non-fiction. City of Toronto Chief Curator Carl Benn maintains a Bibliography of Toronto History Published Since 1990, and you can view past and present winners of the Toronto Book Award online, but right now my own Imagining Toronto Library seems to be the only concerted, aggregated listing of Toronto literature that includes both fiction and non-fiction titles. However, it is neither complete (despite my ongoing efforts to make it so) nor a lending library as such.

Developing a complete and curated library of Toronto literature is a long project (and indeed, this very task threatens to sink my study -- now lined with over 300 Toronto titles and sundry research materials for the Imagining Toronto project -- into our winter-soggy back garden). And not every bookstore patron necessarily wants to buy a reissued copy of Morley Callaghan's Strange Fugitive. But there seems now to be sufficient interest in this city's literature (not to mention a sufficiently large body of published work deserving to be read and remembered) that Toronto libraries and booksellers might reasonably make some space among their large and varied stock for a Toronto section.

[In conjunction with the Imagining Toronto project, Amy Lavender Harris writes regularly about Toronto literature and city culture. The image, above, shows a small section of the Imagining Toronto library.]
[email this story] Posted by Amy Lavender Harris on 04/10 at 11:05 AM

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