Books are a Girl’s Best Friend

The headline for Kerry Clare’s blog post said it all. The Morning After: What Do We Do Now?

News of the imminent closing of the Annex branch of BookCity hit hard. There’s a terrible finality to it. We’ll probably never see an independent book store on that strip of Bloor Street again. Bookstores are intimate place which weave into our personal stories. When they disappear, they carry a lot of memories with them.

I lived south of Bathurst and Bloor through many tough times in my twenties and thirties. There were nights when I’d go to Book City just to get out. Well into the evening, the doors were open, the lights were on, and I knew there would be other people there, people who shared something with me, even if I didn’t talk to them. When I was broke, I knew I wouldn’t be pressured to spend money. I could just be there among books and magazines, dipping into worlds created by people I knew were probably as lonely as me but had somehow turned it to their advantage. (By the way, whenever times were better I did spend money there as I continue to do.)

All these thoughts came at a time when I was gobbling up Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky, which evokes the neighbourhood where I lived during those years, the area just to the west and south of Bathurst and Dundas. The descriptions of the neighbourhood are richly detailed, as are the accounts of what it was like to be a kid in Toronto in the seventies. The book is set in the Portuguese community, following the murder of a shoe-shine-boy, Emanuel Jaques, on Yonge Street. This is, in my memory and that of many others, the year when Toronto lost its innocence. For the Portuguese community, the experience was devastating.

Kicking the Sky is a dark book, in which we see a group of adolescent boys exposed to the seamiest and most corrupt aspects of adult life. Redemption comes through family and friendship, but there’s also an escape presented … through books. In the midst of the violence of their everyday lives, the group of boyhood friends talk about Lord of the Flies, which they’re reading in school. The intelligence and sensitivity of that conversation tells us that they’re going to be okay, that they’re building a capacity to create meaning from whatever happens to them.

Introducing himself at the beginning of the book, the narrator, Antonio, throws in a few remarks about his love of learning and of language. He has found a way of hiving off and protecting this part of himself, and we know it’s developing and maturing, even as he experiences a violent coming-of-age. Reading allows this part of him to grow, and so does public school. We know that new possibilities await him beyond the story’s end. To me, the most subtle aspect of this brutal book is its greatest strength.

It’s yet another argument for the importance of books and reading in children’s lives.  What about book stores? So many discussions, since the news of Book City’s closure, have hinged on whether we will live to see the end of bricks-and-mortar bookshop in our lifetimes, always with the question of whether the next generation will ever know the magic of being introduced to books this way.

Kerry’s post is accompanied by a photo of her daughter, giving rise to the chilling thought that Harriet may some day look at the photo just as I look at the picture of myself  on the deck of a ship in 1960, back when the most reasonably priced way for a family to cross the Atlantic was by ocean liner. As a middle-aged woman, will Harriet look back on this photo as evidence that she was part of a vanished way of life?

It’s scary to imagine a generation who feel that way about bookstores. They are places where the value of valuing books is transmitted from one generation to the next. Libraries are, too, of course, but in a bookstore, money changes hands. It’s good for kids to read, and see their parents reading, no matter how the books get into the house. But an online purchase is abstract. In a bookstore, the parent (or in the case or yours truly, the aunt) takes out her wallet and pays. When you leave, there may have to be some calculation to see if there’s enough left for ice cream. Maybe there’s discussion about where the money came from to allow this splurge in the book store.

My most cherished bookstore memory is one of largesse. Whenever there was a windfall in our house, my father, an artist, would take me to what we called “Britnells” at Yonge and Bloor. Officially, it is was The Albert Britnell Book Shop, and The Starbucks which took it over has, fortunately, preserved the woodwork and lighting, the tiles on the floor. It was a plush, classy place, and had a hallowed quality. Our household income fluctuated, but in the big picture, we didn’t have much. A visit to the bookstore would happen when my father got a grant, sold a drawing, or got some other one-time infusion of cash. In Britnells, we were rich.

My father would buy me whatever I wanted, as many books as I wanted. I remember a particular visit, when I was about eleven years old. I left the store laden with a pile of so many Anne of Green Gables books that I had to balance them with my chin. These were hardcovers, with dust-jackets. I still have them.

Afterwards, we went to the Coffee Mill for a treat, and talked enthusiastically, both of us on a kind of high. I told him my ideas and plans, and he listened very earnestly. My father’s way of taking me seriously nourished me in the most profound way. In these discussions, I could feel my self growing and strengthening, just as I could feel my nightly glass of milk feeding my bones.

I knew I was being initiated into something, prepared for something. Books were the currency of love in our household. At Christmas and birthdays, and sometimes “just because,” my father would buy my mother books in the anticipation of sharing them. He loved my mother,  his mother, had loved his father in the same way. I looked forward to a friendship with the generation before, that would be built through books.

The value being conveyed to me in Britnells was that you can, and should, gorge yourself on books and stories – on culture, whether or not you really have the money for it. You should always have more books than you can carry. To this day I don’t feel like I’ve really got anything to read unless there’s a pile of five books on the arm of the chair. Years later, I watched the film Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend, on late-night-TV. There’s a scene where Jane Russell, selects jewelry. “I’ll have that and that, and that and that,” she says, in the most delightfully nonchalant fashion. It made me think of that day in the bookstore.

It was a kind of largesse my father got to display only in this setting, only at times like this. Maybe he was being the father he most wanted to be. All I know is that I felt utterly loved, utterly taken care of. That feeling was just the first part of that scene to disappear, but the memory is beautiful.  And so are the books.

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3 Responses to Books are a Girl’s Best Friend

  1. Pingback: Is Running A Reading Series A Rite Of Passage? - Ursula Pflug

  2. This is such a wonderful piece. I think many of us have memories of significant bookstores in our lives but how beautifully you’ve expressed your own. Thank you.

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