Ray Robertson is the author of nine novels, four collections of non-fiction, and a book of poetry. His most recent novel, Estates Large and Small, about a struggling used bookstore owner, has just been published.
When I left home for university, it was to study philosophy, not literature. Because I wasn’t allowed to fill up entirely on philosophy courses, however, I signed up for an American literature class, the sole English course I would take as an undergraduate.
If the authors on the reading list were irresistible (Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, Emerson, Dickinson), the treatment of these writers’ books in the classroom was unapologetically inhumane. It wasn’t the teacher’s fault – this, it turned out, was simply how one discussed literature academically. The professor didn’t talk about why Whitman’s pre-Leaves of Grass poetry was cornily conventional, yet, once he began composing his enormous song to himself, he invented a new kind of poetic music for his all-American metaphysical musings. Instead, we discussed how certain passages of Whitman’s work signified his repressed homosexuality and how his life as a closeted gay man impacted his “themes.” (We talked a lot about themes. A lot.) The same thing happened when we read Moby Dick: plenty of conversation about symbols and those omnipresent themes, but not a single word expended on how the first-person point of view of the book contributed to its peculiar success or whether it would have been an even better book if not quite so leviathan in size.
Universities, I’d eventually come to believe, have done more to retard the voluntary reading impulse than television and the internet and social media combined. It would be a while before I got around to Wordsworth, but when I did (on my own), a few lines from The Tables Turned (“Our meddling intellect/Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:—/We murder to dissect”) both summed up my disappointment with the academic study of literature and reinforced my decision to hereafter get my poetry and fiction cues from bookstores and not English course syllabi.
Luckily for me, Toronto at that time, the mid to late 1980′s, was a city of second-hand bookstores. There was Queen Street West (Village Books, David Mason Books, Steven Temple Books). There was Harbord, near the university (Abbey Books, Atticus, About Books). There was even endearingly sleazy Yonge Street, which, if you looked beneath the grime and the garishness hard enough, was home to several passable to superlative bookshops (Eliot’s by far being the best of the bunch). And there was Bloor Street West, which was where you’d find Seekers (open until midnight!) and Book City (bereft of used books, but with tables and tables of inexpensive remaindered titles), plus, nearby, Ten Editions, only recently (2019) marked for demolition.
Most of the others are already long gone as well, home now to restaurants and clothing stores and sports bars, and I know, I know, any book you could possibly want is only one click away. But that was what was so wonderful about being surrounded by so many excellent bricks-and-mortar second-hand bookstores in my early 20s: When you’re young and ignorant and eager, you don’t know what you want. You don’t know what you need. That’s what was so intimidating, but also so intoxicating (and advantageous) about the smorgasbord that is a brand new hometown inhabited by an abundance of high-quality second-hand bookstores. Every time you walked through the door of one of them, you knew that this could be it, today might just be the day your life could change for good. Even more remarkably, sometimes it actually was.
Some of the most revelatory and life-altering reading experiences of my life were the result of nothing more deliberate or methodical than liking the way a book looked (William Barrett’s Irrational Man) or already admiring the work of someone who blurbed it (Thomas McGuane’s The Bushwhacked Piano) or because another book made owning it desirable (The Selected Poems of Delmore Schwartz) or because it was too cheap to pass up (a two-dollar copy of a dust-jacketless first American edition of Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night) or for reasons long forgotten but likely no less capricious (Carson McCullers’s The Heart is a Lonely Hunter). Not every volume brought home and proudly lined up on one’s growing shelf of books made it into the permanent collection (Did people really read Sartre’s plays and fiction – Nausea excepted – for pleasure? Did anyone actually read Stephen Spender at all?), but that was okay, because all one had to do was gather up all of the misses and near-misses and sell them back to the bookstore for credit and another roll of the dice at finding this season’s all-time favourite novelist or short-story writer or philosopher or poet. Until next season came around, of course.
But it wasn’t only the books they sold and the dreams they proffered; it was also – and maybe just as importantly – the actual stores themselves. Like About Books, which had that wonderfully reassuring, creaky-old-wooden-floor feeling to it that you want in a second-hand bookstore. It also had the smell of pipe tobacco courtesy of the male half of the store’s owners. His wife and daughter were always there and part of what About Books was about, too, just like the lazy old white-haired dog who was usually stretched out asleep on the floor somewhere in the shop. Sometimes he’d be lying directly in front of the section you wanted to get at and you’d have to sort of step around him to find the book you wanted because you knew he wasn’t going to move. This, most certainly, was not The World’s Biggest Bookstore.
Abbey Bookstore was another one of my favourites; it felt like you were stepping into a church, it was always so quiet and cozy and dim. Decades after its closing, my eyes will occasionally spot a volume on my bookshelves at home, and I’ll remember where I bought it. Like Black Lamb and Grey Falcon by Rebecca West, from Abbey. A two volume, 1,100-page part-travelogue and part-history of Yugoslavia that was published in 1941 and that I’ve never read and very likely never will, but that I’ll also never get rid of because I read an interview with West once where she said that she knew when she was writing that book that no one was going to read it because it was too long, yet unfortunately that’s just how long it had to be. From that moment on, that’s what a writer was to me. Somebody who failed on their own terms. How could I possibly part with a book like that?
Now that I think of it, I can also remember where I got the copy of The Paris Review Interviews (Sixth Series) that contained the interview. Village Books, right across the street from the Rex Hotel. It’s gone now, too, but not forgotten.
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