Sunday, July 14, 2013

past pieces of toronto: the book cellar

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 June 24, 2012.

Advertisement, Books in Canada, May 1971.
According to veteran Star books columnist Philip Marchand, the test of a good bookstore was simple. “Take a real reader, a habitual browser of books. Imagine that person walking by the bookstore en route to somewhere else. Can he or she resist the temptation to enter the bookstore? To while away a few minutes—well, half-an-hour—instead of attending to business?” The Book Cellar in Yorkville met his criteria, especially its magazine room: “Facing away from the from the Hazelton Lanes courtyard, the room is both quiet and cheerful. To stand there in the afternoon sun, browsing through magazines, listening to strains of Vivaldi or Billie Holiday, is to experience peace.”

Despite the implication of its name, the Book Cellar only spent its first year in a subterranean space, underneath a record store at 363 Yonge Street. Launched in 1961 by Bruce and Vivienne Surtees, an Australian couple who came to Canada on their honeymoon and stayed, the store quickly made its mark as the place to find obscure magazines in the city. Within a year, the store moved to a small home on Bay Street near Bloor, where it drew the attention of Star columnist Pierre Berton. While browsing the magazine shelves in April 1962, Berton counted around 850 magazine titles on display, ranging from literary journals to the Journal of the Institute for Sewage Purification. When he asked about the store’s worst seller, he was pointed to an obscure entertainment publication called TV Guide.

While other retailers in Yorkville quickly scrubbed off graffiti left by “hippies,” the Book Cellar encouraged free expression by installing a ceramic tile wall. “With felt-point pens and grease pencils,” the Globe and Mail noted in June 1967, “the young non-conformists scribbled slogans political, literary, religious, philosophical, irreligious and mostly funny. They left tokens of their way of life—if that’s what it is—on the tiles.” The wall was a wise investment—“Some Book Cellar patrons have been visiting more frequently, just to keep up with the Big Beard. Some hippies even buy books.”

Source: the Globe and Mail, July 14, 1967. Click on image for larger version.
In 1968 the store moved to 142 Yorkville Avenue, which was later incorporated into the Hazelton Lanes complex, and ran a second location for a time at Charles and Yonge. Both were included in a 1970 Toronto Life roundup of the city’s best bookstores. “If you’re under 30 and moving with the times,” the article noted, “the Book Cellars…will most likely have what you want.” Two typical customers were depicted: “a woman who asks for Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics (sold out) and, apologetically, for Diary of a Mad Housewife (“It’s for a friend”)” and “a young man who checks the price of The Joyous Cosmology and reappears ten minutes later, having panhandled $1.95 to buy it.”

The store attracted various literary types among its staff over the years, including future Conrad Black amour Barbara Amiel, playwright John Krizanc, newspaper columnist Joey Slinger, and writer/musician Paul Quarrington. Several legends surrounded Quarrington’s tenure at the Book Cellar, including hustling Desmond Tutu out of the store when the Nobel Peace Prize winner was found autographing copies of his own books and ticking off action movie star Charles Bronson.

When customers planning to phone in their holiday orders reached the Book Cellar in November 1997 they were notified that the store was closing. While some reports indicated that competition from Chapters’ recently opened flagship on Bloor Street ate into profits so much that the store couldn’t make its rent, owner Lori Bruner cited other factors. She noted that foot traffic had declined by the store, and that strict credit limits imposed by publishers following the bankruptcy of the Edwards Books & Art chain had affected her ability to stock the shelves. The store’s closure meant that browsers who found the Book Cellar as serene as Philip Marchand did had to find other peaceful corners of the Toronto bookstore universe.

Additional material from the June 14, 1967, January 14, 1998, and April 12, 2008 editions of the Globe and Mail, the May 15, 1970 edition of Quill and Quire, the April 30, 1962, September 26, 1996, November 27, 1997, and October 26, 2009 editions of the Toronto Star, and the November 1970 edition of Toronto Life.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I remember fondly The Book Cellar, both in its heyday location in the old house on Bay Street just south of Bloor and its move to the York Square location. They also opened a second location on Yonge Street north of St. Clair in the Delisle Center complex. Aside from the amazing collection of magazines and popular literature, there was a manager __ I believe his name was Gary __ who had the hands-on passion to make both these locations a success. Gary was a permanent fixture in the stores whenever I went in and I believe his loss was one of the factors in the decline of the stores while they were under the ownership of Bruce Surtees. I am just guessing, but I think Surtees was reluctant to give up any part of the ownership in the two locations and couldn't come to an agreement with Gary about an equitable partnership in the business. With no possibility of a greater share in the success of the business, I believe Gary saw the writing on the wall and left. His loss was palpable and things started to go down hill from there; first with the premature decline of the Yonge Street location and I believe the subsequent demise of the York Square location, too. Surtees went on to open up a music store in the basement level of the new Hazelton Lanes that specialized in classical and jazz recordings until that venture also closed. If ever there was a business that owed it success to one of its dedicated employees, it was The Book Cellar under Gary. I hope his subsequent employment involved books as he truly loved the business.