About Me

A blog wherein a literary agent will sometimes discuss his business, sometimes discuss the movies he sees, the tennis he watches, or the world around him. In which he will often wish he could say more, but will be obliged by business necessity and basic politeness and simple civility to hold his tongue. Rankings are done on a scale of one to five Slithy Toads, where a 0 is a complete waste of time, a 2 is a completely innocuous way to spend your time, and a 4 is intended as a geas compelling you to make the time.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

World's Bakka-est Bookstore

So I'm just back from Toronto, where I was a guest agent at Bloody Words. Toronto is my kind of place. Urban. Walkable. Good mass transit. TImbits on every corner, chocolate glazed and cherry and original and apple fritter and duchie timbits and more timbits when you've finished those. Timbits, timbits, timbits!

But I digress, for this post is supposed to talk about two of the best Toronto treats, known respectively as The World's Biggest Bookstore and Bakka Phoenix Books.

The World's Biggest Bookstore is not actually the world's biggest by square footage, though it is very big, and when it first opened almost 30 years ago may even have been. Regardless, the name is I believe trademarked by the current owners, the Canadian bookstore chain Indigo.

But the important thing to me is that for many many years it has clearly been the case that the World's Biggest Bookstore does indeed have the biggest selection of new books of any bookstore I've been in. It is sometimes a struggle because it is part of a big chain and does kind of have to fight upstream against what the chain is supposed to be doing, but it's given just enough support to keep its reputation intact, in part because of the excellent staff it has. Morticia (a "stage name," if retailers can have) is now part-time but has been working the sf/fantasy section for years and years and years. The past several years it's always been a treat to see Jessica Strider when I visit the store. She's the full-timer in charge of keeping the selection and the endcaps in good shape. She's moonlighting with her own scififanletter blog, and if you read my blog I encourage you to check out hers and show her blog some comments and love because she's the kind of bookseller every author dreams of finding in every bookstore.

I gave Jessica a bit of a hard time on this visit. Over the course of 2008, I think it's possible the very best book superstores in the US may somewhat routinely start to have around 100 JABberwocky titles on the shelves, but it's still not entirely uncommon to find closer to 65 than 105. Last year, World's Biggest had around 115, so I was expecting to see more this year, and after a quick visit to check if there were any Evil Librarians or a Wolf Pack lurking in the kids section upstairs I returned downstairs to check out the mystery section with my title count over 120 and every confidence of getting to 130. But for some reason the Charlaine Harris section was sadly lacking. Well, I told Jessica in no uncertain terms that it wasn't acceptable for her store to have only 50% more of my title than good US superstore. No, not acceptable at all! Well, talk about quick action. I went back two days later with Violette Malan, a reorder had come in, and the World's Biggest count was up in the range of 140 titles. Almost twice the typical US superstore, 50% more than the next best Indigo outlet I visited (the store at Eglinton & Yonge Sts., with an amazing 90) and three times the worst of the Indigo stores I happened upon (Yorkdale, around 45). The only bookstore in the US that consistently comes close to ballparking the selection at World's Biggest is the main branch of the University Bookstore in Seattle (thanks, Duane!), though I confess there are some specialty shops like Borderlands in San Francisco which maybe I would give credit to were I able to visit them more. It truly is the World's Biggest. It's located very close to downtown, just north of the Eaton Centre mall. I worry a bit that its building is low density in an area that is becoming more and more high density. There's a used bookstore with an excellent sf section next door, with lots of older/op JABberwocky books, making it a bibliophile's paradise.

But Toronto doesn't have just one amazing place to buy books. Just off the intersection of Queen St. W. and Bathhurst, one finds Bakka Phoenix Books. Which had been on Queen St. W. a little less west, then on Yonge St. a klick north of World's Biggest, and now back on Queen St. W. in a neighborhood on the verge of getting a Starbucks and a Home Depot.

This is the kind of sf specialty shop that hardly does exist any more. It's got a loving staff who are thrilled to hand-sell and also do right by authors. In fact, a great many sf/fantasy authors have worked at Bakka at one time or another, including Rob Sawyer, Tanya Huff and Michelle West, who's still part-time on occasion. Ben the owner and Kris the manager are great people to talk sf with. New books, used books, shelf-talkers, signings, everything. I spent so much time talking that I didn't have the time to do a title count, but it would have been big. There were plentiful copies of the new Brandon Sanderson and the new Tanya Huff and the new Tobias Buckell, and Jim Hines aplenty from his visit to Toronto a few months ago (as also the case at World's Biggest). It was especially gratifying to see the hold shelf behind the registers, since just about everyone with a hold pile seemed to be eager for Tanya's Heart of Valor in paperback. The store has a Live Journal blog.

I was very happy for Bakka when I saw them prominently mentioned in a recent NY Times travel article about Toronto. Maybe Bakka won't be so much our secret, but the more customers they have the happier I will be.

No trip to Toronto can be considered complete for the sf/fantasy fan if you haven't visited both. World's Biggest may have a better selection but it is a chain bookstore with long hours and you may not find Jessica to talk to all the time. Bakka has both new and used, you're almost certain to find someone to talk sf/fantasy with whenever the store is open, and for an author that the chains haven't totally caught on to yet Bakka is going to be your better bet.

Of course, all that time I can spend talking to booksellers when I'm in Toronto does keep me away from my timbits.

One final bookselling note in Toronto: There is a Chapters in Runnymede just steps from the west entrance to the Runnymeded stop on the Bloor/Danforth line. It's in a gorgeous old theatre building with much of its ornamentation intact, the children's department in the balcony and magazines on the stage. It's weak in sf/fantasy, but I love going just to admire the building.


Ulysses said...

Thanks for the Canuck blurbs, Joshua.

I spent my university years in Toronto and was delighted to discover Bakka in its first incarnation on Queen. Unfortunately, I haven't been there in years. Do they still have the little employee tag reviews pinned to the shelf below the books? They were always wonderful guides to great books.

The World's Biggest Bookstore has lost some of its luster since the early eighties (haven't we all), but it's still a great destination.

Purchases at Bakka and WBB accounted for about 20% of the student debt I spent my thirties paying off. It was worth it, though.

Lee Horne said...

Thanks for making me start craving Timbits! It's horrible that they haven't migrated to the US. It's a travesty for all donut and coffee lovers.

I've been to Toronto several times in recent years but sadly I have never heard of Bakka books. I am floored that such a bookstore even exists.

I used to go to this great specialty bookstore in my hometown weekly as a teen. It was the kind of place where you knew everyone who worked there and they knew you. For an avid reader it was practically my joy. The employees picked up on the types of books I bought and would have recommendations for me at my next visit. It was great. I'm happy to hear these places are still around. Next time I'm in Toronto I'll definitely stop by and probably buy more books than my suitcase can hold.

Jessica Strider said...

Thanks for sending readers my way. I'll have to read your blog more often!

Maybe next time you visit we'll have your full complement of titles in stock...

The Brillig Blogger said...

Oh, Lee Horne, but Timbits have migrated to the United States, certain parts of it at least. Border areas to Canada, and down even into Massachusets and CT do have Tim Hortons.

Paul Phillips said...

Hi Joshua,
Glad you like Toronto. I've spent most of my life here and it is a great place to live. If yo get a timbit craving, I'd glad to send some down to you. ;-)



Lee Horne said...

What! That's wonderful news! Lets hope they migrate to the midwest soon! :) So deliciously wonderful! You sir, have made my day with the glorious Tim Hortons migration news.

ducKy Boyd said...

I used to work at WBB (for five years and reluctantly quit due to "life"), and I'm really glad you enjoy the store! I spent a lot of my time in the fiction section working with Jess and company to make the sci-fi/fantasy & manga sections the best in the city (even though I was a cash supervisor). I'm glad that you approved of the section, and that's really a tribute to Jessica's upkeeping, since the store has had so many changes in management, staff, procedure & policy, and prioities. The store has changed DRASTICALLY from the time I started working there, to when I left, but I still adore it.
Please take the time to speak to other staff members other than those in the fiction section (nto that they're not wonderful!), and you'll see that most of the team there know just as much about their department as Jessica knows about sci-fi/fantasy! And I think that's what sets WBB apart from all the Chapters & Indigos out there.

PS. WBB WAS the world's biggest bookstore at it's conception. It had a place in the Guinness Book of World Records for many years, and was originally owned by Coles before Chapters took over. :)