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The best used bookstores in North America: Part IV Add to ...

By Brian Joseph Davis

Living as I do in Toronto, you might accuse me of bias for listing Balfour Books as one of the best used bookstores around, but the fact that I've popped in at least once every couple of months for the last decade and have never left empty-handed speaks to the store's quality. 

Balfour Books itself is compact, bright and relaxed, which is in stark contrast to the other, large, more sepulchral, and downright moldy stores I've written about. Balfour also sits on one of the more interesting commercial strips in Toronto: College Street.  It's a tonal battle zone between fine indie operations, like Soundscapes, mom-and-pop Italian grocery holdouts, and toxically pretentious boites, brasseries and lounge lizard haunts.

It's for that latter crowd, I'm guessing, that Balfour always puts big, shiny design books in the window. Step inside, away from the bar traffic and the endless clatter of heels on cement and you'll find little or no filler books, and always a sense that the selection has been curated. At least half my current bookshelf has been sourced from Balfour, from Raymond Pettibon monographs to a copy of Dorothy Parker: What Fresh Hell Is This? that I nabbed for less than the cost of an overpriced domestic beer.

A few blocks away, the recently opened store The Monkey's Paw takes the idea of curated selection and runs with it like a deluded Victorian naturalist. It's one of the few places in Toronto where you could accidentally purchase a cursed object or find a 1964 book titled Algae and Man (which argues, "Algae are certainly here to stay and of course we are less sure about Man, so it is appropriate that emphasis be placed on algae").

Somewhat like San Francisco's Curiosity Shop, but without the distressing newness, the Monkey Paw's collection of books and baubles isn't for everyone, but then, that's very much the point.

[Editor's note: This is the fourth instalment in a five-part series by Brian Joseph Davis on the best used bookstores on the continent. You can read Part I here, Part II here, and Part III here. Final instalment tomorrow: What's wrong with the Strand]br/>

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