This year, the City of Toronto is turning 185 years old and it's looking good for almost two centuries of existence. It's also important to note that Toronto sits on land occupied by Indigenous Peoples for thousands of years which include the Anishinaabe, the Haudenosaunee, the Wendat and the Mississaugas of the New Credit. It's part of the Dish with One Spoon territory, a treaty to peaceably share and protect this land, through friendship and respect. We can't imagine celebrating the city's literary scene without acknowledging the history of the land in which storytelling takes place.
In this special blog post, we featured some of the oldest bookstores who've watched the city change over the years including how and what we read. We also shout out bookstores who represent the feature of bookselling and the people who frequent them!
The University of Toronto (U of T) Bookstore's beginnings can be traced back to the Students' Books Department in 1897. It started to grow quickly which wasn't a surprise given that its stock was being held in the basement of the University's library. A library staff member, Miss McMicking, was tasked with selling the books when she wasn't on duty. 23 years later in 1920, University of Toronto Press (UTP) bought a building near campus to give Students' Books Department room grow.
Buying the fledging bookstore wasn't enough for UTP. They decided to buy the operation and rename it the University of Toronto Press Book Department in 1934. At the time, the bookstore had a grand total of four staff members! The growing didn't stop. There was an addition of the newly minted special order department in 1954 which ordered books from around the world.
Four years later, a new building was built at King's College Circle with the bookstore in mind and another name change: University of Toronto Bookroom. In 1985, the Bookroom would be renamed (for the final time) as the U of T Bookstore and moved into what was formerly the building that housed the Toronto Reference Library (seen in the first image in this post). It officially became the Festival's official bookseller in 2017.
Arcadia Art and Rare Books was founded in 1931. Its specialty is in selling out-of-print and used books, and houses a large collection of art books including monographs, photography, architecture and original graphics. The art focus has been a recent development (30 years to be exact). The store was a bit more generalist in the types of titles it carried but a combination of its location, near the Ontario College of Art and Design University (OCAD U), and the ownership at the time shifted the direction. It's a longtime member of the Antiquarian Booksellers Associaton Canada (ABAC).
Formerly located on McCaul Street north of Queen St West before moving to Sherborne and Queen St West, the bookstore was most recently seen in the new Netflix show, The Umbrella Academy, as the storefront sitting below Ellen Page's character's apartment.
David Mason Books (DMB) was founded by David Mason in 1967. Its specialty is in 18th Century Literature, 19th Century Literature, Canadian Literature, Fine Bindings, Modern Firsts, Science and Medicine, and Travel and Exploration. It started out as a cataloging business that focused on modern first editions before Mason moved into the offices above the Village Book Store on Gerrard Street. He apprenticed under Joseph Patrick, who ran an antiquarian bookstore called Joseph Patrick’s Books, and then opened DMB storefront in 1969.
There were a few more moves since then:
- Church Street from 1973-1984,
- Twice between 1984 and 1985,
- and finally, Adelaide Street West in 2005.
At one point, DMB was a proud member of Booksellers Row, a stretch of Queen Street West that was the home to many bookstores. It's the only shop remaining from Booksellers Row that is still operational, albeit in a new location.
Fun fact: DMB appeared in David Cronenberg's Cosmopolis. Also, Mason helped bind a book for the Pope before opening the bookstore.
Glad Day Bookshop was founded in 1970 by Jearld Moldenhauer which made it Canada's first LGBTQ+ bookstore. It started out in Moldenhauer's apartment in The Annex before moving to a house in Kensington Market and then to Yonge and Wellesley in 1981. In 2016, the store moved to its current location at Church and Wellesley, making it more accessible and also includes a cafe where entertainment such as drag shows occur.
After New York City's Oscar Wilde Bookshop closed in 2009, Glad Day Bookshop became the world's oldest surviving LGBTQ+ bookstore. The store is now owned by a collective of community members.
Bakka-Phoenix Books was established in 1972 but was initially known as Bakka Books. Its original location was on the Queen Street West strip and specialized in science fiction, fantasy and comics.
"The name, Bakka, was taken from Frank Herbert’s Dune, and means ‘the weeper who mourns for all mankind’."
In 1976, the comics section spun-off into its own business: The Silver Snail. In 2003, the "phoenix" part of Bakka-Phoenix Books was added to mark the new ownership but doesn't shy away from its title as the country's oldest sci-fi and fantasy bookstore. The bookstore prides itself on staffing writers in the genre including former employees like Leah Bobet, Robert J. Sawyer, Tanya Huff, Michelle Sagara, Cory Doctorow, and Nalo Hopkinson.
Of course, we want to use this moment to acknowledge some of the bookstores that may not own the title of oldest but add variety and vibrancy to the literary scene such as
- Little Island Comics (specializes in kids comics),
- Mabel's Fables (a children's bookstore that recently celebrated 30 years!),
- A Different Booklist (a Black owned bookstore that focuses on the African-Canadian diaspora)
- and the Monkey's Paw (home of the Biblio-Mat which is the world's first randomizing vending machine for old books).
Unfortunately we can't list every single bookstore in the city but please use the city's anniversary as an excuse to explore the bookstores that call Toronto home.