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Text/Book: Obscure Obsessions
An interview with Stephen Fowler, the owner of Toronto's strangest bookstore

An archetypal Monkey’s Paw title.

Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.

When people sign up for the mailing list operated by The Monkey’s Paw, they mention some suggestive interests: “Victorian sexuality/etiquette,” “Faust’s metropolis,” “Memphis Design,” “Catholic Templar Church Knights,” “American women detective fiction: 1930s-50s.” (Women in detective fiction, or women who wrote it?) The secondhand bookshop on Dundas West is a necropolis done up in mint green, the temporary resting place for thousands of bizarre and esoteric texts. Some of them are rare; some of them are just weird. Though the Monkey’s Paw also sells vintage typewrites and macabre jarred insects, most of its shelves and tables are filled by the idiosyncratic literary tastes of owner Stephen Fowler. His blog gives an idea of the typically atypical selection: Build a Yurt, Boy Training, A Dictionary of Russian Gesture, Hypnosis of Man and Animals, Beat Beat Beat: A Hip Collection of Cool Cartoons About Life and Love Among the Beatniks. I visited Fowler earlier this week, hoping to discover where he digs up such warped spines.

How did you first become a bookseller?

Stephen Fowler: Well, I first worked in the book business when I was a very young man living in San Francisco, and a roommate of mine was a bibliomaniac. I was also very fond of books, and he worked in a cool old bookstore, and I decided I wanted to also, and he asked around and found me a job at another shop.

Were they always used bookstores?

SF: I’ve never worked in the new book business, no, always used stores. I worked at a lot of different places in San Francisco, a lot of different shops. And all tiers, from digging books out of dumpsters in the basement of the Goodwill to working at super-refined antiquarian — you know, ring to get in, walk up the stairs — antiquarian bookstores, and all points in between.

What was the genesis of this store?

SF: I moved to Canada in 2002 and started having babies — well, my wife started having babies — and when the second one was on her way I realized that I had to do something with my life. I had been selling books online, just for a small revenue stream, and I decided that it would be nice to open a shop. This storefront came available, it’s right around the corner from my house, and I jumped on it. But that makes it sound like it was completely spontaneous, it’s something I had been thinking about for years. And since I worked in a lot of stores, and also just spend all my time visiting old bookstores, I took a little inspiration from this place, a little inspiration from that place, and always thought, what’s the shop I would want to have? So I made it.

And do you find that working in both the high and low ends of the used book trade influenced the aesthetic of the shop?

SF: Yeah, for sure, we go from the high to the low brow, no question. I learned that the guy I worked for who was a high-end antiquarian, he owns a house on Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. He’s made a living doing this. So it was clear to me that selling more valuable books was a better long-term business proposition, but as far as the material that I sell here, I don’t mind scraping the bottom of the barrel, culturally speaking. There’s a lot of pop trash.

Where do you tend to hunt for books?

SF: I buy books all kinds of ways. Since the shop has been — we’ve been here more than six years now, so it’s fairly established. At this point, actually, a certain number of books is brought to me over the counter, people bring me books. I’ve never advertised that we buy books, because I don’t want to spend all day turning away people’s crappy old self-help paperbacks. But most of the time I prefer to go out and look at books, and there are various ways to do that. I buy estates. You know, somebody dies, and the family calls me, I go look at their book collection. I go to various sorts of charity book sales, library sales, all kinds of things.

Do you use Abebooks?

SF: I neither buy nor sell through Abe now — that was the prime service I used when I was an online dealer, but it’s not really feasible for me to buy books at retail and expect to resell them, so I don’t buy very much from other booksellers. I mean, I don’t know, if I’m on vacation or I’m out in the country or something and I find some strange still-existing old bookshop with a cranky old lady at the counter, I’ll go in and try to dig up some things. But the internet has made it very hard to buy from other book dealers, because everybody knows the price of everything. I have to price my books to meet the market expectations, so I can’t buy something online and quadruple the price. I have to buy books usually from their owners, that’s the primary way.

And when you do go to look at an estate or something, do you find that there’s maybe one or two books in there that would…

SF: It always varies, we never know, but I would say that I probably look at a thousand books for every one I find. Now, somebody with interesting taste and an interesting collection, I might take a quarter of their books, or ever half their books, but you never, ever take all their books. I would drown, for one thing, so I have to be selective. And at this point especially my buying has become targeted enough that I sell pretty much everything I buy, and it’s not good business to buy stuff that you don’t think you’re going to sell. Even so, I have a basement completely filled to the ceiling with boxes of books that really just need to be put in a garage sale or thrown away.

I can empathize with that. Whether living or dead, do you remember any especially strange collections that you came across?

SF: Especially strange…well, I can tell you — there were definitely strange books in it, but possibly my favourite purchase ever, it was partly because the books were so good, and it was partly because of the experience of buying them. There was a very, very old man, he’d been a professor of psychiatry, I believe, but he was in his nineties, he was 91, 92 years old, and he’d been given — well, you’re 91, you’re gonna die really soon one way or the another, but he had received some sort of diagnosis. He had a terminal illness and he was not going to last much longer. He had a beloved book collection, and he and his daughter came in here, just by happenstance, and he found a book in the new arrivals section that had the bookplate or the name of a man he had known in it. It was a man he had admired. Based on that, he decided that this was the place where his books should go. I think he liked the shop, and he decided that this was the right venue for his books.

So he called me to his house, and he was just an absolutely wonderful old man. For someone in his nineties he was incredibly sharp, but also just a deep, thoughtful man. And he had incredible books — it was almost a perfect Monkey’s Paw connection, because his books were very diverse and very strange, and the sensibility was very familiar to me. I was kind of in hog heaven pulling out this stuff. Everything from weird science books to weird sex books to really, really smart poetry books. It was all over the map, but all kinds of stuff that we sell. So I was very happy, I pulled out many boxes of books, they were in a pile on the floor, and we talked about the price and negotiated a price that we could both live with. Then, when we were done, I said, “Okay, well, I’ll go to the car and get my boxes and box it all up.” And he said: “That’s okay, I would like you to leave me alone for a minute. I just want to spend a moment with these before they go away.” This was basically his intellectual life piled on the floor of his bedroom. It was so touching, and it was so sincere — there wasn’t anything fake about this guy, and his relationship to those books was so profound. I felt so honoured to get to shepherd them back into circulation. That was a really memorable one, and I would show you some of his book but I think I’ve found homes for almost all of them at this point, because they were great.

The specialty or angle of the Monkey’s Paw seems to reflect an alienation from the modern publishing industry — was that intentional on your part?

SF: Well, I — an alienation from the modern publishing industry…

Or a disinterest?

SF: That is way more accurate. I don’t really have any relationship to new books. I’m not very curious about new books — I read the [Times Literary Supplement], I read the reviews, but I don’t really shop for new books. Honestly, books have been made for, what, 550 years or so? There are so many books that, for instance, you have never seen. And you can go to a new bookstore and basically you just see this month’s books, but if you look backwards, you can look at 550 years of books, and I just find that much richer. All the overlooked stuff of the past, it’s just a really, really rich field.  That, combined with the fact that, to me at least, it seems self-evident that the publishing of books the way we used to do it is finished as an economic activity. They’re not going to be making books in five years. They might not be making books in three years. I mean, I guess there’ll be print-on-demand or whatever, but a publishing industry as we have known it for all this time? It’s obvious that that’s finished. There will still be publishers, and obviously there’ll still be writers and editors, but they’re not going to be making books. They’re going to be selling downloads, or something else, I don’t know. Who knows what it’s going to be.

It’s also funny because, with this store, you seem to have suggested a way that printed books could survive, which is in this double life as art objects.

SF: For sure, when I am looking for books, and when I’m selling books, I’m selling an artifact. It’s a physical artifact, and it contains a text, or it contains images, so it has cultural content. It’s not an artifact the way that a chair is an artifact, because it has content also. It’s much more interesting than antiques.

Yeah, it’s not purely ornamentation — I guess antiques aren’t purely ornamentation, but…

SF: But you can’t read a chair. I mean, you could try to draw some conclusion about the culture that created it or something, but a book has all of that and the text or the visual content, whatever, inside it. They’re like cultural bulletins from the past. But no one has figured a satisfactory way to make a good living selling digital books yet. They’re still working that out. And it’s weird to spend money on something that doesn’t really exist. A digital text, you can’t hold it in your hand — it doesn’t have any corporeality, it’s just imaginary. A book is this solid thing, and it was a collaborative effort of various kinds of craftsmen and artists and editors and writers. People still really identify with those things. Even in a post-books world, I think people are going to love books more than ever. Some people will, it’ll be a niche thing perhaps, but people really respond to books. I’m impressed by how much my young customers just dig an old book.

Yeah, I’m fairly young, and pretty much everything else, I’m happy doing it online, but books, I don’t like the experience of reading them digitally nearly as much.

SF: Even if people go over entirely to reading and expecting digital texts, there’s no satisfaction in owning it. But there is satisfaction in owning a physical object which contains a text, which is books. It’s hard for me to articulate, but I’m not in the least threatened when people say, “Oh, I got my Kindle or my iPad.” Great! Read all the books you want on that. But when you want to own something, come here and buy a cool old one.

Do you see the store as being a similar [act of] cultural preservation at all?

SF: Similar to the people scanning books? I definitely think of it as a cultural preservation project, no question, but I feel like there’s something different about owning the original artifact as opposed to a recording of the original artifact, which is what scanning a book is. In my fantasies, this would just be an archive. If I won the lottery or found a billionaire who wanted to back me, I would just buy all these books and then never sell them. I would turn it into a crazy library. But putting them back into the hands of people who are gonna treasure them is a satisfactory second best for me. I doubt many of the books that people buy here are the sorts of things that they then leave in their apartment when they move. I think people tend to treasure this stuff. I hope they do. I hope they treasure it as much as I do.

Do you think the appetite for arcana has increased in the digital age?

SF: That was actually something that was brought to my attention early on by a very young customer, and I thought it was such a great observation I have quoted this many times, but in the digital age — and this really started in the mid-‘90s with the advent of the Web — the Web was used as this repository for obscure obsessions. You would have some guy with a website that’s just pictures of all his airsickness bags. There was no end to the obsessions, cultural or otherwise, that people were portraying online. So you had a whole generation of people who associate the dark corners of culture as being something digital. I’m sure that somebody published a book of their collection of airsickness bags at some point, there’s a book on everything. Especially my younger customers, I think, are astounded to find that there are books on these subjects you can’t even believe. I think we’re at this point where people have been sensitized to looking for the weirdest fringe culture, and then when they discover that it actually existed even before they were born, I think that kind of blows their minds. In a way the Web kind of prepared the ground for this shop, even though what we’re selling all predates it, but it prepared the ground mentally, psychically.

Have you used Tumblr ever?

SF: Well, I don’t have a Tumblr, but I see people’s Tumblrs all the time, and that’s a fantastic example, actually — so much of the stuff on Tumblr is just scans or photos out of old books.

And very often I’ll see a cover on there that looks like it should be in this store.

SF: Sometimes it actually is, because people reblog stuff I post on [the store’s site].

Often without the context, which is annoying.

SF: Yeah, it’s just a cool thing. I’m sure that I’m in some small way responsible for populating all the damn Tumblr pages out there, but…

I think the proliferation of niches has helped bury the idea of a monoculture, which was always really a myth, but–

SF: I know, that’s actually really refreshing. When you have three television stations and a public library with 15 000 books in it, there was only so much to choose from.

Yeah, and that wasn’t all of — I imagine a lot of these books were published at that time, just no one covered them, or…

SF: Exactly, they didn’t end up in the library because the library thought, well, we can only buy so many books and we’re going to have the most popular or the ones that apply to the most people. And the extremely oddball stuff — I don’t even know how those books circulated, to tell you the truth. There are a lot of books I see that I’m certain were never in bookshops. I don’t know what kind of bookshop would have sold them. They’re professional books, or really super-niche hobbyist books, or just crackpot books. That’s something I wonder about. Who sold these books in the first place? Who printed them, who published them, who distributed them? How did they get into people’s hands? And every time I find a book like that I’m really glad, because that’s exactly like having a Tumblr where I only post images of old snapshots that have the shadow of the photographer in them, or something like that [laughs].

What are the strangest motives or intentions that any customer has revealed to you?

SF: Well, it’s so common that I don’t even find it strange or interesting, but one thing that I often hear is that people are looking for books to destroy in some way.

Like…for art, or just because they like destroying books? [laughs]

SF: Yeah, I want a bonfire, I need some paper [laughs]. No, it’s like, somebody will come in and say “I’m going to do decoupage.” They want to cut a bunch of pages out of a book and glue them all over a coffee table.

Literally deconstruct it.

SF: Yeah. “I’m looking for a book to turn into a book box, I’m going to cut the centre out of it.” Or, “I want to cut a bunch of pictures out and frame them.” Whatever it is. As I say, that’s not even interesting, because I hear that so much, and it’s not really an elevated purpose to put a book to, if you ask me. And those people are usually not satisfied, because the books are not free here, and if you’re just going to take it home and cut it up you probably want something that you maybe found in a box on the street. You don’t want to spend $25 for that book and then go cut it up. Likewise, people who are explicit about, “Oh, I just need some décor.” Again, not really an interesting request, but it’s not a traditional purpose to put a book to. I had a guy who wanted to buy some books from me — he had a particular style of binding that he was looking for — and he did in fact buy a stack of them and he spray-painted them all black. And it was like, oh, he needed those — they had to go next to the typewriter he bought from me that he was gonna put in his condo as some sort of décor concept. That seemed an especially pathetic case.

I wish that I could say that I had some super-interesting uses, like…I’ve had people come in and ask for books with elaborate annotations, marginalia, because they’re artists and they’re going to do a project where they just extract the marginalia and ditch the text. Separate the marginalia from the text it referred to as a sort of conceptual art piece. That’s kind of interesting. Usually people just buy the books because they love them. And I’m always very satisfied when they can’t explain why. Somebody comes in here, they weren’t even intending to go book shopping, and they look around and they’re like, “I just have to have this thing.” “I don’t need this. Why am I buying this? But I just love it.” Great. You just saved a book, and you added a new facet to your cultural…jewel [laughs].


Chris Randle is the culture editor at Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter at @randlechris.

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