Text/Book, the Toronto Standard‘s books column, is written by Emily M. Keeler and Chris Randle, plus occasional guests.
The first one that I loved was hidden away; you couldn’t see it from the street and it didn’t get enough light. It was called the Book Nook, and the couple who owned it were sweet enough to let me spend what now seem like limitless hours there, surrounded by the uncontrollable dust and decay that necessarily accompanies 1500 square feet filled nearly to the brim with paperbacks.
The Book Nook was kind to me, in all my unfettered youth, introducing me to W. Somerset Maugham, Margaret Atwood, Robertson Davies and Martin Amis. This all after I’d exhausted my appetite for dimestore Harlequins, of course. I’ll never forget my pubescent joy when I first stumbled on that corner of red-spined smut. It was perfect, a dry dark place tucked behind a nail salon in a small strip mall in suburban Calgary – exactly far enough away from my family’s house for me to feel the first flutterings of freedom on my treks there, yet close enough that I was permitted to make the thrice-weekly voyage alone.
Soon there were other used bookstores to love. One called Baskerville comes to mind, where the proprietor kept first editions under glass and his hound behind the counter. I fell for Zadie Smith there, and Jonathan Ames. And when I moved to Toronto there was the dingy BMV on Yonge Street, the front of the store inexplicably filled with laserdisks. The back had all the good stuff, and I kenned to Paul Auster and Virginia Woolf in that cramped, fluorescently lit place. And if not for Balfour Books I might never have learned to really love this town; I might never have found Gail Scott’s The Obituary, and my life would’ve been much worse for it.
When The Millions ran Kyo Maclear’s ode to The Monkey’s Paw a couple of months back I felt a resurgent love. I had been taking these bookstores, treasure troves of the literary past, for granted. The sad thing is that being in a used bookstore is, for me, kind of unremarkable. It’s just so natural. In her essay on our city’s beloved Monkey’s Paw, Maclear describes the type of person likely to be found in these spaces: “They had come to engage in the primordial, timeworn practice of pulling books at random from bookshelves.” These are, for better or for worse, my kind of people. I am suspicious of any guest I invite into my home who leaves my bookshelves untouched, who can resist the urge to take something down.
I’m so spoiled when it comes to used bookstores that I seldom make a point of visiting new ones; my favourites have become some sort of routinized pleasure. It was only in the past few weeks that I found myself wandering into Seekers on Bloor for the first time. Though I’ve often admired the beckoning blue text of its sign, it had never occurred to me to descend into that bibliopit before. I’m so glad the whim struck me right then, because by the time I left I’d found myself a new used bookstore to love.
While I was there, pretending to be too engaged in my browsing to hear the clerks discussing their publication woes, I stumbled upon something I’d been waiting to find for years: An H in the Heart. It’s not the kind of book you can borrow: if you want these selected bpNichol projects in your life, you’ll probably want them sitting around for when you need them–if you were to rush on through you’d likely OD. Consider the first entry, on the title page, a poem engraved in the concrete outside of Coach House Books, in the laneway named after the man himself: “A / LAKE / A / LINE / A / LONE.” Or his “Selected Organs” series, which celebrates the body through numbered fragments that read as incantations, jokes, prayers or memories. And then there’re the graphic poems, the micro comics, and the song scores. You can’t rush though these things. You must let them trickle into you slowly. They’ve made me jubilantly aware of language these past few weeks, flipping through the book as though it were made for meditation, letting my eyes fall where they may. It’s the kind of thing that requires a certain noncommittal attitude; you have to be able to pop in and pop out of An H in the Heart. It feels like the best things I’ve found there have, through some miracle of serendipity, actually found me.
Which brings me, I suppose, back to used bookstores. Let me never take them for granted again.