past pieces of toronto: albert britnell book shop

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 fa├žade. 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 date.

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 totally severed.

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.


Anonymous said…
A great bookstore. I remember it well and also the other stores, particularly the ones north of Bloor St. Which are now no longer there.
Where has the Pilot Tavern gone?
I mention this as a Torontonian absent since 1983.
Working at B&H Architects, 130 Bloor St. W. amongst the Beats, Hippies and Folk clubs in the late 50's and 1960's with all it's surroundings was the greatest. I wouldn't trade my 'TO' upbringing for anything.
Most of all I miss ''hockey night in Canada'' with Foster Hewitt.
Goodnight and 'see you on the ice'.
Bobby Hamon is alive and well and living in the south of England.
CR McGuire said…
good to see this once great institution remembered with this overview of its distinguished history
CR McGuire, Nepean, Ontario
Anonymous said…
The Pilot was still there as of this spring but in the wake of Covid, yorkville is a shadow. I worked at Lichtman’s across from the library 1990 but it is gone, too. We are in a very different Toronto and world now.

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