From November 2011 through July 2012 I wrote the "Past Pieces of Toronto" column for OpenFile, which explored elements of the city which no longer exist. The following was originally posted on December 2, 2011.
The Starbucks at 675 Yonge Street isn’t your typical branch of the
corporate coffee giant. The walls are lined with sturdy old wooden
bookshelves while the floor is a checkerboard of black and white. Why
this location is not like the others is hinted at on the façade. Look up
to the second floor and you’ll notice a legendary name in Toronto
bookselling: Albert Britnell. The quality of the literature on the
shelves inside doesn’t always match the standards the Britnell family
maintained for over a century of book retailing, but it’s a nod to the
building’s past that comes in handy while waiting for a friend or first
English native Albert Britnell entered the book trade by working in
his brother John’s bookstore in London. Both brothers moved to Canada in
the 1880s, bringing with them several hundred volumes. After working
together for a time, Albert established his own bookstore at 240 Yonge
Street in 1893 and quickly established a reputation as a purveyor of
collectible books, especially Canadiana. As the Globe noted in
1924, “it was not an unusual thing on a Saturday afternoon to meet in
the shop professors, judges, eminent counsel, leading ministers, and
always some politicians.” Among early regular customers were prime
minister Wilfrid Laurier and Ontario premier Oliver Mowat.
A letter sent to Star book columnist Kildare Dobbs by reader
Stewart Cowan in 1973 gave a sense of what the store was like while the
founder ran it. If the two clerks in the front were busy, Britnell
“would hurry forward to serve you and if you didn’t have an interesting
talk about books, the fault was yours, not his. The mere fact that you
were seeking a book made you a person of importance. And I had a feeling
he never forgot you after the first contact.”
Besides books, Britnell dedicated himself to the temperance movement.
Unfortunately, he may have pushed himself too hard crusading against
the booze demon: during an October 1924 meeting of the Womens’ Voters
League regarding an upcoming plebiscite on alcohol, 60-year-old Britnell
suffered a fatal heart attack (a contemporary account noted “the
excitement had been too much”). The business was taken over by his son
Roy, who purchased 675 Yonge Street in 1927 and moved the store there a
year later. The story goes that to test the ability of the new location
to handle the weight of so many books, Roy ordered the building
contractor to drive a dump truck onto the main floor.
Known for his suits and spats, Roy Britnell also developed the
store’s special-order system, which took advantage of publishing
warehouses in the city to quickly find whatever a reader wanted. The
system also allowed the store to display a greater range of titles, with
only one or two copies of most books sitting on shelves. The shop also
became a place for writers to sign their works or browse.
By the late 1990s, the store appeared to weather the rise of
megastores like Chapters and Indigo. While other independent book stores
in the city fell like dominoes, Britnell reported record sales in 1998.
But the family was growing weary of the book business—one generation
was ready to retire, the next wished to pursue other interests. After
determining that it was unlikely any buyer would be able to both
purchase the building and carry on the business, the family announced
that the store would close at the end of March 1999. Britnell’s
special-order business, which was responsible for 60 per cent of sales,
was sold to Books for Business, who continues to use the name for its wholesale operations.
During the wind-down, the sign in front read “extinction sale.”
Inventory depleted faster than expected, leading to the store’s closure a
month earlier than anticipated—on the last day, one customer walked out
with $1,000 worth of reading material. Newspapers were full of
reminiscences, including writer George Fetherling, who told the Star
“It was a charming place, a great institution, a link with Toronto that
is not only lost physically but practically passed from memory.” The
building’s next main tenant decided, design-wise, that link shouldn’t be
Additional material from the October 17, 1924 edition of the
Globe, the March 1999 issue of Quill & Quire, and the April 4, 1973
and January 29, 1999 editions of the Toronto Star. Photo of Albert
Britnell Book Shop taken between 1966 and 1972 by Ellis Wiley, City of
Toronto Archives, Fonds 124, File 2, Item 113.