Twenty thousand books surround Steven Temple, but not a single shopper. The disproportion is telling: In February he will shutter his Toronto used-book store and an era of crusty bibliophilia will come to an end.
For close to 40 years and across seven different locations, barely outpacing the creep of Queen West gentrification, he has sold the printed word to the passing trade. At one point in the 1980s, he was surrounded by a dozen other bookstores that took advantage of low rents in the once-shabby district just west of downtown to attract browsers from the city’s towers.
Now in the age of Kindle, he stands alone, a specialist in rare Canadiana from another time whose second-floor shop is both out of sight and out of mind for the fashionable retail strip’s trend-seekers.
“These people can’t and don’t read, and they’re off in shallowland,” says the 66-year-old Mr. Temple with the gruff bluntness of his trade. “They’re not my customers. If they manage to find their way up here, they get lost in space, they’re way over their heads.”
He doesn’t exactly make it easy for them. He reluctantly commutes from Welland, Ont., and is generally open to the public only on Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoons – though he does promise extended hours for a mid-January clearance sale. But to restore the lost connection between book and buyer – and clear space for his retreat to the home-based online dealership he’s run since 1998 – he’s priced the entire tight-packed room at a discount. Everything above $25 (anyone need a 1780 translation of 1001 Arabian Nights?) is half-price, anything below that (such as a 1971 hardcover of Alice Munro’s Lives of Girls and Women) is $5.
“All interesting and mostly uncommon books,” states his sales flyer with an understated enthusiasm that the book trade’s English Lit. grads know to call litotes. “No junk.” Almost all of his stock is hardcover, in respectable condition and of a certain age – the passage of time and taste has turned old dust-jackets into eye-catching artifacts of a vanished era, and even an early guide to North Bay ends up looking like an Art Deco mini-masterpiece.
Mr. Temple came to Canada as a U.S. war resister in 1970 and leveraged his literature BA into a clerk’s job at a Yonge Street soft-core porn emporium that, with the era’s rebellious streak, also stocked counterculture poetry, memoirs and fiction. While he was happy to sell barely used Playboy magazines and Harlequin bodice-rippers when he first set up shop for himself across from the Rex Hotel in 1974, his second-hand tastes have always been literary and off the beaten track.
“What yanks my chain about books is rarity,” he says from his low perch behind the sales counter (though he’d rather be doing paperwork in his back room, and tells the phone to “Piss off” when it rings). “Some people go for what you might say is sentiment, they like inscribed copies. Others are very visual and like a book’s design. But rarity gets me every time. Collectors are kind of warped individuals: They like to have something their neighbour doesn’t have and be able to brag about it. That’s not wholly rational.”
It was easier to brag when he had neighbours in the trade. But he still can muster pride in a 1920s calendar of Canadian verse, designed by Thoreau MacDonald, that he acquired for the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto. “It’s the only known copy, gorgeous and as rare as it gets.”
The operative principle of his business is to chase books that are obscure or forgotten – because that’s where the used-book world’s hidden values lie, in the fluctuations of reputation, in the gap between a seller’s underestimation and a collector’s tightly focused desire.
“I work the dark corners and I’m good at that,” he says, sounding like a character from one of the first-edition noir novels on his crime rack. “I can take money from places where you wouldn’t think there was money to be had.”
He holds up a book, The God of the Machine, from 1943. Inside is a closely typed six-page letter written by its author Isabel Paterson, an impoverished Alberta farm girl who became a pioneering figure in the American libertarian movement.
“Nobody’s heard of her. I’m not a critic. But I do need to know what mattered. And this stuff mattered. You ought to want it.”
Most people don’t, of course – the lesson of Queen Street West. But a few people will always want what’s unwanted, and that’s a need he knows he can still satisfy.