Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Intro: First Morning Alone without Pages Books

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Good morning, Toronto. My name is Jake and this is my guest blog for the pea green month of September.

I want to try and fold my personal WiR introduction into an anecdote about Pages Books, which, as of this morning, no longer exists at the corner of Queen and John Streets.

Like most people growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, much of my knowledge of Toronto was in fact a knowledge of Queen St. West. Derived from a studious observation of MuchMusic and the briefings of more worldly friends, the stretch from approximately University to Bathurst stood alongside the CN Tower, the island, and the Exhibition Grounds in my mental map of the city. It’s natural, then, that when I first moved to the GTA in 2006, I made the street among my early explorations. Some time on that first trip, I crossed the street from the CityTV building and was distracted by what I saw in Page’s window.

Poetry. Facing out towards the sidewalk, where people could see it and, I suppose, use it as a barometer to decide whether or not to enter the store. How foolish! Now, I had come from six years in a small city (St. John’s) with a greater-than-average appreciation for a good poem, but still, all of our bookstores kept the thin little poetry books under low light in the backmost corner. But here it was, used as a marketing tool. It took me a few moments to come to my senses and stagger through the doors.

Inside, I found a complete reversal of the usual bookstore layout. There were more poems, and combined with something labelled “Small Presses”, their section was equal in size to the one marked “Literature.” And this “Literature” section actually had “Literature” in it, not just the most popular novels of the week! And there was a Philosophy section! Which was not the same as its Eastern Philosophy section! Which was not the same as its Cultural Studies section! Who knew these were more than just synonyms?

I couldn’t believe I got to live in a city that had this in its geographic centre. I pulled my recently-printed Grad School reading list out of my pocket, and bought six books. It took me two and one-half hours to leave the store. Slightly less than three years after, it’d take me fifteen minutes to make my final purchase, the Summer 2009 issue of Brick Magazine. It’s possible I never lived in the city I thought I did that first September afternoon, but at the time I was utterly convinced. This was a city of thoughtful people. These people looked at a poem in a shop window and felt compelled to come inside.

**

But as of this morning, the city has lost a thriving, Canadian-focused business, thrown out of its location not because sales are down but because members of the neighbourhood it helped create have made an executive decision to be a different kind of neighbourhood. This isn’t the grassroots evolution of taste it’s been made out to be. Sure, there’s a Club Monaco and a Starbucks on the block, but Pages’ two closest neighbours are still a basement-bred used clothing store and a mid-level sushi place. Rumours of the death of Queen West have been somewhat exaggerated for commercial effect.

Somewhere along this error chain, there simply must be a handful of people who went out of their way, or who inconvenienced themselves, to see to it that there was no longer room on Queen West for Pages Bookstore, and it wouldn’t be at all childish to call these people “enemies.” Enemies to literature, to art, even enemies to the city. It’s possible that one of those enemies is Pinedale Properties, Pages’s landlord, though as of this January CBC.ca article, the store’s owner, Marc Glassman, seemed to think they were trying their best to keep the store in its home. Maybe one of the enemies is around the corner, at the Chapters location south of Queen and John, though whereas sales volume was not among the key reasons listed for the store’s demise (given only as “skyrocketing rents”), possibly not. I’m just a new arrival who liked the bookstore. I can’t know these things for certain.

People are willing look at gentrification like it’s some sort of natural organic process, the urban equivalent of wrinkles or bad knees. It’s not, and such a mythology fails in its reflexive removal of blame, or even causation, from the complicated patchwork of events leading up to this very sad Tuesday morning. It’s a wrenching disappointment to believers in Toronto the Good that a store like Pages isn’t the natural fit we assumed it was when we moved here. And it’s not helpful, really, to remind ourselves that this is still a great city for independent capitalism, if not a great one for independent bookstores. God knows, with a loyal customer base and a great relationship with local producers, if Pages sold organic apples instead of books, its death would warrant editorial coverage from a whole summer’s worth of Now Magazines. However.

It’s lonely, though, in this first day without Pages Books. It makes it hard to write about literature like it matters. I would say that I’ve pitched a tent in the sand only to discover that the tide is coming in, but such a metaphor ignores what I’ve been saying in these last few paragraphs. This didn’t have to happen, after all, and our city isn’t made up of simple elements reacting to the physical forces behind them. It’s made up of people, and those people make choices. These choices can be inspired by greed, or by fear, or even by ambition and occasionally, hope. They can affect citizens whom their makers may have never even met. These choices are active, confrontational. And every so often, one of these choices will completely break your heart.

Happier posts to follow,
Jake.

PS- The above is my Pages Books story. If you’d like to hear more, I recommend attending “Afterword: A Celebration of 30 Years” to be held at the Gladstone Hotel a week from today, September the Eighth. Find out more at http://pagesbooks.ca.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Related item from our archives

Jacob McArthur Mooney

Jacob McArthur Mooney is the author of the acclaimed collection of poems The New Layman’s Almanac (McClelland & Stewart, 2008) as well as an upcoming second collection from the same publisher.

Go to Jacob McArthur Mooney’s Author Page