A new chapter for Ben McNally Books

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Around this time last year, I learned my favourite bookstore, Ben McNally Books, would have to move. They didn’t know where they were going, and they didn’t know exactly when it would happen, but they’d have to be out by the end of August 2020. Today they announced they are heading to 317 Adelaide Street East on a short-term lease.

Ever since I heard the store would be leaving 366 Bay Street, I’ve felt a bit sad when I stopped in, knowing my visits there were coming to a close. The December 2019 edition of 45 Books in 45 Minutes–a twice yearly event that I always look forward to–would be the last in the space. And my dream of holding my own book launch there one day was clearly not going to come true.

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standing in the middle of my favourite bookstore

Ben McNally Books has been a home away from home for me. I feel like I know every nook and cranny of that store. And while I don’t work there, and never have, I often refer to it as “my bookstore.”

I can’t remember my first visit to the shop. I don’t know if it was after I moved downtown in 2009, or if it was during the first two years of the store’s existence before then, when I lived in the suburbs and travelled downtown to visit friends, shop, or attend events.

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readers browsing on a Saturday afternoon

But I do remember one Christmas season, several years ago, when I asked Ben for his help selecting a good mystery for my grandmother. As we walked through the shop, he paused and looked at me, “I know you, don’t I?” he asked. I was a little taken aback. I’d known who Ben was for at least a couple of years at this point, but not in a personal sense. “Only from me shopping here,” I said, “or from events,” as I’d often see Ben selling books at the Toronto International Festival of Authors, The Word on the Street, or at author events in other venues in the city.

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Ben McNally and me at the December 2019 edition of 45 Books in 45 Minutes

I don’t know if he recognized me from his store or from the events, or whether he had mistaken me for someone else, but, after that, Ben always remembered me. And the more I came in, the more we would talk and get to know each other.

Nowadays, it is almost unheard of for me to leave the bookstore without at least one book in hand. But there was a time when I had to be a bit tighter with my cash, and I would sometimes go into Ben’s knowing I’d have to come back later to pick up what had caught my eye. If I left empty-handed, I still felt appreciated for coming in.

In most recent years, I’d gotten into a habit of going into the store on Saturday afternoons. Ben was usually the only one working. I’d stay for a couple of hours, taking my time, narrowing down which books I wanted to purchase into something manageable. I always felt welcome. I always felt like it was my place, too–that it wasn’t at all strange to spend so much time browsing, often going back to look through sections and tables I’d already combed through once or twice that same afternoon.

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the fiction nook

The paperback fiction nook at the back of the store has always been my favourite spot. Part of the reason is because paperback fiction is what I buy the most of, so it was often where I’d be pulling my purchases from. But more-so I loved it because I could tuck myself away, far from the noise of Bay Street, and relish in the quiet, save for the places in the floorboards that would creak when I shifted my weight, the sound of the occasional opening and closing of the door as other customers came and went, the tapping of Ben typing, or the phone ringing, and Ben’s soft voice answering, “Ben McNally.”

Those afternoons browsing meant a lot to me. It was my way to unwind and recharge after the workweek, and, of course, gave me great reading material to take home.

I especially loved the Saturdays in December, when I would do my Christmas shopping. I have no idea if the people I bought books for really liked what I picked out for them. But every year I enjoy looking for something I think they would appreciate (and picking something up for myself, too).

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readers mingling at an in-store event

There were also so many wonderful events I attended in this store: the aforementioned 45 Books in 45 Minutes, the shop’s In Her Voice series, and various book launches and readings. At some of these events, I felt more social than others. Sometimes I’d try to strike up a conversation with the person sitting next to me, or with someone across the refreshments table who was also checking out the selection of cookies. Other times, I simply wanted to listen and be around other readers and writers.

But I always felt like I was exactly where I belonged. The store wasn’t simply a place to buy and sell books. It was a community centre.

While I haven’t been able to browse the shelves at Ben’s or attend an in-store event since COVID-19 infiltrated our lives, I’ve still been ordering books and picking them up. Each time I’ve stopped by, I’ve had such wonderful conversations with Ben, Rupert, and Danielle–from a distance and through a mask–that have uplifted me when I’ve needed it most.

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admiring the fiction titles

But this is not how I was hoping to say goodbye to 366 Bay Street.

I know it’s not how Ben, Rupert, Danielle, Olivia, Patti, and everyone who has worked there over the years, shopped there, or attended events there, had hoped to say goodbye.

But Ben McNally Books is more than that physical location. It’s more than the beautiful shelving, the gorgeous high ceilings and chandelier, the wooden floorboards. The store is bigger than that space.

This is not the end of the store. They are moving. That’s different from closing. They are changing, but they are not done.

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window signage at the new bookstore location

Ben built something that goes beyond those walls. He built something that Rupert and Danielle continue to expand upon and move forward.

So it’s not the end. It’s just a change–a twist in the plot. We had good times in the old place, and I can’t wait to see what memories we will create in the new one–and in whichever space Ben McNally Books may call home in the future.

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On the desire to be better at gifting books

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books on display at The Paper Hound in Vancouver, BC

Surprise, surprise: I love books. I love buying books, browsing books, borrowing books, looking at books, learning about books and, of course, reading books. But, as much as I love gifting books, I’ve been doubting how good I am at it.

I’ve written about why books make the best gifts, and I truly enjoy going into bookstores, thinking about the recipient and choosing something I think they will like based on their interests/life/other books they’ve read and liked. But, as much as I like doing this, I don’t know if I’ve really done a good job of getting it right.

When I think about it some more, it’s not even just gifting books. It’s also giving book recommendations, or lending books to people when they ask for “whatever you think I’ll like.” I like it when people do that, but how many times have people come back and said they loved the book? (Well, it’s happened for sure. I don’t always get it wrong. But I guess I’m saying I wish it happened more.) Thankfully, booksellers and librarians are there to help.

Maybe I’m putting too much pressure on myself. After all, I don’t always love the books people give or recommend to me, but I do always, always appreciate it when I can see the thought that was put into that selection, when I can see how the person had my interests/life/books I’ve read and liked in mind.

I’ll continue giving books to people (sorry if you’re a person in my life who hasn’t liked what I’ve picked out for you in the past). I can’t help it; I love sharing the book love way too much to stop now.

Are you good at gifting books or offering personalized recommendations? What do you think about when deciding which book to gift or lend someone?

One lit(erary) weekend in New York City

I recently returned from a brief visit to New York City. I had been to NYC only once before, 10 years ago. Back then, I visited some of the more standard tourist destinations (Times Square, Central Park, etc.). This time, seeing more of the literary side of the city was a priority. Here are some photos of some of the bookish places I checked out on my latest trip to the Big Apple.

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe

Housing Works Bookstore Cafe is run by volunteers and its stock comes entirely by donation. All proceeds go to services that support people living with AIDS and HIV.

I told myself I wasn’t going to buy any books in NYC that I couldn’t get in Toronto, because 1.) I didn’t want my luggage to get too heavy and 2.) I want to support my local indies as much as I can. But I made an exception for Housing Works. I picked up a copy of The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and a cute Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland  journal.

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Three Lives & Company

Three Lives & Company is located on a street corner that is easy to miss. But I had heard many good things about this shop, and I also wanted to stroll around Greenwich Village, so I made sure to check it out. It’s a fairly small shop–which I loved because it felt so cozy–but it certainly seemed well-stocked.

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The Strand

If you’ve heard of only one NYC bookstore, chances are it’s The Strand. Maybe you’ve even taken the quiz that the store gets job applicants to take, such as this version published in the New York Times a couple of years ago.

The store opened in 1927 and claims to have “18 miles of new, used and rare books.” The Strand is also the last remaining bookstore from NYC’s “Book Row”–48 bookstores that used to cover six city blocks.

20180929_18062420180929_18150320180929_181515Browsing the shop was a lot of fun, but what I enjoyed even more was attending Banned Book Bingo in the store’s Rare Book Room. Hosted by drag queen Sol, the evening included free pizza and beer, lots of trivia about banned books, and prizes made of Strand-branded tote bags filled with books and other items (that I did not win). The event cost $15 to attend, but, in return, everyone received a $15 Strand gift card. So, really, I felt like I got a lot for my $15.

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Rizzoli Bookstore

In contrast to The Strand, which sort of feels like a giant warehouse filled with books and book-related items, Rizzoli Bookstore has a much more sophisticated feel to it. Walking in, I was struck by all of the dark wood and chandeliers. In fact, the decor reminded me a bit of Ben McNally Books here in Toronto.

Rizzoli Bookstore has two rooms, The room at the back has two comfy chairs for reading, and, being far back from the street, it’s the perfect place to do some quiet reading.

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Albertine

Since Albertine is located on Fifth Avenue, it was convenient for me to pop in for a quick look on my way to the Guggenheim. Albertine specializes in French-language books, but there are some English-language books, too. (It looked like the English books were all original French titles translated into English, but I could be wrong about this.)

This is a gorgeous bookstore. The mural on the ceiling of the second floor is stunning, and the lighting and furniture almost got me to curl up with a book on one of the couches and forget about the Guggenheim (even if I didn’t understand the language the book was written in).

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New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building)

Going inside the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building (the main branch of the New York Public Library) was a must for this visit. The only problem was, I went on a Sunday. I didn’t realize much of the library is closed on Sundays, so there wasn’t as much to see as there would on a weekday or a Saturday. Even the shop is closed on Sundays. But I did manage to take a guided tour and go inside the Rose Main Reading Room, so I’m happy.

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Alice’s Tea Cup

I’d read about Alice’s Tea Cup. A book-themed tea shop? I had to check it out. Alice’s Tea Cup has three locations: Chapter I, Chapter II and Chapter III. I went to Chapter II on East 64th Street.

The tea was pretty good (I ordered Anna’s Earl Grey) and the scones were delicious (and quite large), but the cream and preserves were disappointing. However, this certainly is a cute place that does feel special.

Before I went, I thought this place might be geared toward children, and I wondered if I would feel out of place. Maybe the cafe does get more children on weekends (I went on a Monday morning), but, while I was there, the place was filled with adults and there appeared to be at least two business meetings happening. So I guess I shouldn’t try to judge who’s going to be interested in an Alice-themed cafe.

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Where the books I read come from

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Taking a cue from Laura at Reading in Bed, I’ve listed the last 30 books I’ve read and have included how I got them.

Putting this list together reminded me about a post I wrote a while back titled How did your bookshelves get so full? In that post, I selected a few books from my shelves that I thought had some interesting stories tied to how I acquired them. This, however, is a straight-up list of the last 30 books I’ve read.

All of the books I review on this blog are books I’ve acquired personally; I don’t receive copies from publishers in exchange for reviews. If you’ve noticed that my reviews seem unusually positive (except for one that I wrote early on), it’s because I’ve decided to only write about books I really enjoyed–the ones I want to rave about to other readers. That being said, there are books on this list that I have not reviewed but have still enjoyed immensely. What can I say? I guess sometimes I’d just rather be reading than reviewing.

The last 30 books I’ve read

  1. Smile by Roddy Doyle — borrowed from library
  2. Brother by David Chariandy –borrowed from library
  3. Marlena by Julie Buntin — borrowed from library
  4. The Clay Girl by Heather Tucker — purchased from publisher (ECW Press) at Word on the Street Toronto
  5. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng — purchased from Book City (Bloor West Village location)
  6. Words on Bathroom Walls by Julia Walton –borrowed from library
  7. The Burning Girl by Claire Messud — borrowed from library
  8. Things that Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini — purchased from Queen Books
  9. Kitchen by Banana Yoshimoto — purchased at used book sale in Toronto Reference Library
  10. All Our Wrong Todays by Elan Mastai –borrowed from library
  11. Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese — purchased from Queen Books
  12. Strange Light Afar by Rui Umezawa –borrowed from library
  13. Slow Boat by Hideo Furukawa — purchased from Book City (Danforth location)
  14. Be Ready for the Lightning by Grace O’Connell — purchased from Book City (Danforth location)
  15. Flâneuse by Lauren Elkin — purchased from Queen Books
  16. Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash — borrowed from library
  17. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel — borrowed from library
  18. Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami — purchased (secondhand) from Eliot’s Book Shop
  19. Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez — borrowed from library
  20. For All the Men (and Some of the Women) I’ve Known by Danila Botha — purchased from Ben McNally Books at the Trillium Book Award readings at Toronto Reference Library
  21. Pedal by Chelsea Rooney — borrowed from library
  22. The Nix by Nathan Hill — purchased from Ben McNally Books
  23. The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Mohsin Hamid — borrowed from library
  24. Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller — purchased from Ben McNally Books
  25. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami — given a secondhand copy from an acquaintance who was getting rid of some books
  26. Rain: Four Walks in English Weather by Melissa Harrison — purchased from Ben McNally Books
  27. It Happens All the Time by Amy Hatvany — borrowed from library
  28. So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum — purchased from Ben McNally Books
  29. Clothes, Clothes, Clothes; Music, Music, Music; Boys, Boys, Boys by Viv Albertine — borrowed from library
  30. I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid — borrowed from my mom

Looks like I’m pretty evenly split between the books I purchase and the books I borrow. It feels like I buy more secondhand books than is reflected in this list, and also that I buy more books at events than is shown here. I do admit to having several books on my bookshelves that I haven’t read yet (don’t we all?), so that might be why. But I can’t say that acknowledging this is going to put a pause on my trips to the bookstore or library.

The literary side of Halifax and Lunenburg

Halifax and Lunenburg may not be as famous for their literary culture as, say, London or Paris are, but during my recent trip to Nova Scotia, I was delighted in the bookstores, libraries and cafes I visited. Book lovers, take note: You will want to stop by these places the next time you’re in the Maritimes.

Bookmark

Bookmark, on Halifax’s Spring Garden Road, carries not only books but also a selection of literary accessories, including toys, mugs and tote bags. I visited the store on a Sunday morning. While it was quiet, there were a few other customers browsing along with me.

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Trident Booksellers & Cafe

I had heard about Trident ahead of my trip, so I was super excited to check it out. It’s a used bookstore that’s also a cafe and bakery–basically, it has all of my favourite things under one roof.

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I browsed the bookshelves for some time before ordering my breakfast.

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Although the view isn’t much to get excited about (a parking lot is across the street), I was happy to get a table by the window. A screen door allowed a pleasant breeze to come through. Top that off with a pot of Earl Grey, a cinnamon bun fresh from the oven and a good book, and that makes a pretty perfect morning.

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Halifax Central Library

love browsing in bookstores, but I think what makes a city absolutely fantastic is when they have a top-shelf library. The Halifax Central Library was built in 2014 and it is gorgeous.

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I love this display of books for Halifax Pride. Beautiful!

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This room is called The Sunroom, and it’s basically the upstairs cafe in the library (there is another cafe on the ground floor). The place was bustling on this Wednesday afternoon. It’s not surprising. Who wouldn’t want to hang out in here?

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The library, of course, has many books too. This is the view I had of some of them as I looked down from the staircase.

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On a lovely day, it can seem a shame to read or study indoors. The library offers a rooftop patio so that you can enjoy sunshine and work or read at the same time.

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If you prefer to enjoy the sun from a distance, here’s a great spot to hunker down in: This is what it looks like from inside that cube on the top of the library shown in the first picture.

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There are so many different nooks and crannies in this library, I suspect it would be hard to get bored hanging out here.

Woozles

It seems odd for me to visit a children’s bookstore, since there aren’t many children in my life and I’m not a particularly big fan of children’s literature. But Woozles is Canada’s oldest children’s bookstore, so I had to stop by. And with that charming exterior, it’s a pretty inviting place.

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Lunenburg Bound

I didn’t know what to expect in Lunenburg. I hadn’t heard much about this fishing town before I was actually in it. But once we arrived, I was thrilled to find three bookshops on one street. The first store I visited was Lunenburg Bound, which primarily sells used books. I loved all the old typewriters lined up across the windows.

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In here you’ll find lots of tables piled with books, packed bookshelves and some comfy chairs for reading.

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Elizabeth’s Books

Sadly, I did not get to go inside Elizabeth’s Books, as it was closed during my brief stop in town. But I do have a photo of the shop’s lovely exterior.

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Lexicon Books

While Lunenburg Bound is the place for used books, Lexicon Books is where you’ll want to shop for new books.

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I loved the lights that were strewn all over the store as well as the wooden beams. They give the shop such a cozy atmosphere.

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I noticed a poster advertising the Lunenburg Literary Festival and asked the woman working in the store about it. It’s happening in September–a great time to visit Lunenburg.

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Statues of literary figures

What I didn’t expect to see when I was strolling through Victoria Park in Halifax was a statue of Robert Burns looking down at me. But of course there is a connection between this province and Scotland, and when you think about that, seeing the great Scottish poet isn’t so surprising.

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I’d barely passed Robert Burns when I came across a bust of writer Sir Walter Scott. Both of these monuments were put in place by the North British Society.

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Nice places to read

There’s nothing particularly literary about Halifax’s Cabin Coffee, but it’s a cozy place to curl up with a book. The place is designed to make you feel like you are in the wilderness, with lots of wood, a canoe and even fake trees.

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The Old Apothecary, located on Halifax’s Barrington Street, is also a cute place to read. The old-fashioned couches are adorable. (I had a delicious chocolate-almond croissant but was told later that their chocolate eclairs are even better.)

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When it’s nice out, there’s no better place for reading than down by the Halifax Harbour. I was happy to snag a bench in some shade.

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I must say, as much I enjoy browsing bookstores, visiting libraries and viewing literary landmarks, sometimes there’s nothing better to do while on vacation than to read a good book. And when you can read by the ocean–well, that’s just the icing on the cake.