In the early 1970s, after spending nearly a year and a half travelling solo around the world – from Easter Island to Ethiopia, from Nepal to New Zealand – Jeff Axler returned to Canada and enrolled in the pilot-training program at Seneca College. If all went according to plan, he would learn to fly, find a job as a commercial pilot and see the world from the cockpit of a jetliner.
While he excelled at the in-class work, his “flying skills were always ticked off as average,” he says, and in a competitive program where only 20 per cent of the 250-odd students were expected to graduate – “it was a long shot, like making the NHL” – average just wouldn’t fly.
“There were people that were better than me. It’s not that I was horrible or crashed or anything!” he says.
He was in his mid-20s when he dropped out (it wasn’t for nought; he met his future wife at Seneca), unsure what to do with his life. He loved to travel; a few years earlier, he’d embarked on a European adventure and eventually wound up in Afghanistan. With that in mind, he decided to do something perhaps even riskier than becoming a pilot: He opened a bookstore – one devoted to the art of travel.
For the last 40 years, Open Air Books and Maps, which is currently housed in a cramped basement at the corner of Adelaide and Toronto streets, on the edge of the financial district, has been a lighthouse guiding travellers, a library for adventurers and the wanderlusty, a refuge for explorers and seekers. It will, at the end of this month, be closing its doors for good. Jeff Axler’s trip is finally over.
The fact that a store with such a narrow focus, especially a bookstore, still exists comes as shock to many, says Mr. Axler, 66, sitting in a coffee shop across the street from Open Air. It’s not that it’s a bookstore with a large travel section, but only a travel section, with travelogues and histories, reference books and guide books, charts and maps.
“People say, oh, do people still buy maps?” Mr. Axler feigns mock outrage. “You’re not going to walk around Istanbul with your iPhone – no disrespect to Istanbul.”
As hard as it is to sometimes remember, there was a time when maps weren’t preceded by the word Google; when you couldn’t carry a dozen Lonely Planet guides around in your phone; when it was possible to drive down an unfamiliar stretch of road without a calm robotic voice alerting you to an upcoming turn or off-ramp. When Mr. Axler was preparing for his around-the-world odyssey, which took him through Africa and the Indian subcontinent, among other places, “it was just so hard finding stuff” about the places he was planning on visiting. “You’re in places like Liberia, in all likelihood, once in your life. It’s nice to know as much as you can.
“A book, as a percentage of your travel costs, is so negligible,” he says. “I always tell people: If you can enhance your trip by just one or two things, that’s worth the price of the book.”
The original store, which was located in the basement of 10 Adelaide St. E., opened in June, 1976. (Lonely Planet, a backpacker’s best friend, had published its first book, Across Asia on the Cheap, in 1973.) Mr. Axler had about 3,000 square feet devoted to books – triple the current space – and paid $350 a month in rent. A decade later, when the building underwent extensive renovations, he moved down the street to the current location at 25 Toronto St.
Mr. Axler says it was the first store of its kind in the city, and spawned several imitators in the years that followed, including Traveller’s Books, which opened on Bloor Street in the Annex, and the Travel Book Store, on Yonge Street in Rosedale, although both have since shuttered – Mr. Axler says it’s been over two decades since the golden age of the business.
“It just doesn’t generate the cash,” he says. “It has to be a labour of love. It doesn’t lose money but, on the other hand, it doesn’t generate a viable income.”
That’s not why he’s shutting down the shop, however. He was told by the building’s owner in December that they required the basement space for their own use, and he’s spent the last two months trying to sell as many of the 80,000 books in stock as possible, though when I stopped by one morning a couple weeks back, it didn’t look like a dent had been made.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do,” he says, looking around the shop.
He isn’t speaking of his retirement plans. He’s continued to travel extensively these past four decades, even though running a bookstore has limited him to three or so weeks of vacation a year. Mr. Axler and his wife have a list of places they want to visit: Japan, Sri Lanka, California.
“I’ve always wanted to go to Bhutan,” he says.
He already has a book in mind to guide him.
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