Saying goodbye to a bookshop

One of my favourite bookstores is closing. If you live in the Toronto area, particularly if you’re interested in books (and you probably are, if you’re reading my blog), you might have heard that Nicholas Hoare is retiring and will be closing his flagship store on April 1.

I can’t remember how old I was when I first visited Nicholas Hoare, but I do remember the impression it made on me. The warm lighting and the beautiful displays of books against the wooden shelves mesmerized me. Now, whenever I open that door and walk up those few steps, when I hear the creak of the floorboards, the classical music, when I walk by the fireplace–it all feels so welcoming and comfortable. And it might help that the store specializes in British books, as I admit to being a bit of an anglophile.

The quietness of the store has its appeal, too. I’ve always loved listening to other people discuss books. With these kinds of conversations, it somehow seems okay to eavesdrop or to jump in with a comment.

When I think of some of the books I’ve purchased from the store in the past year, I can’t think of one that was disappointing. I’m not sure if this is due to fine selection by the staff, or just some magical luck, but the books that immediately come to mind were all enjoyable: David Sedaris’ Me Talk Pretty One Day, Jeremy Mercer’s Time Was Soft There, Tom Rachman’s The Imperfectionists, Alix Ohlin’s Inside, Mary Horlock’s The Book of Lies, Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.

It was at Nicholas Hoare where I found a beautiful copy of Philip Larkin’s The Whitsun Weddings that I gave to my father for his birthday one year. I’ve shopped for books for my cousin’s daughter in the children’s section at the back of the shop, and I’ve purchased various Christmas presents for friends and family here. And, of course, there have been those occasions when I’ve come in just to browse.

Near the end of 2012, I attended an in-store event where Nicholas Hoare presented some of his favourite books of the season. I feel fortunate to have had the chance to hear Mr. Hoare speak in person, as his passion for books was certainly evident.

I wish Mr. Hoare a happy retirement, and I thank him and his wonderful staff for all of their hard work. I’ll miss this store quite a bit, more than I thought I could miss a bricks-and-mortar shop, probably because it’s been much more than merely bricks and mortar.


Literary Boston

I recently returned from a brief stay in Boston. It was my first time visiting the charming city, and there was a lot to see and do (certainly more than I had time for). I tasted some delicious seafood, watched whales swim off into the sunset in the middle of the ocean and wandered leisurely through many beautiful public spaces. But the sojourn also had a noticeable literary angle.

On my first full day, I visited the Boston Public Library. I was impressed with the building’s design. One of my favourite areas was the Bates Hall Reading Room. It was gorgeous and quiet and serene. I could have stayed there all day.

Bates Hall Reading Room at the Boston Public Library

As I peeked through one of the building’s windows, I was pleasantly surprised to discover the library’s courtyard. Later on I took the opportunity to go downstairs and wander around in it.

courtyard at the Boston Public Library

I stopped by the rare books section of the library. The featured exhibit was on Robert Browning, with some focus on his relationship with Elizabeth Barrett Browning. I thought it was neat to see their marriage certificate up close.

Robert Browning and Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s marriage certificate displayed in the Boston Public Library

Lucky for me, a literary landmarks walking tour was scheduled to take place during my stay. The tour started on the oldest street corner in Boston, near the building that used to be the Old Corner Bookstore. Not only was this building a bookstore, but it was also a publishing house. This is where books such as Walden and The Scarlet Letter were published. It’s now a Chipotle Mexican Grill.

What was once a bookstore and a publishing house is now a Chipotle Mexican Grill.

The tour stopped by houses that were once lived in by such literary figures as Henry James, Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Louisa May Alcott. But I didn’t take many pictures of these houses. I was too busy imagining myself living in a different time.

Throughout my visit, I took the chance to browse in some of the bookstores I stumbled across. I especially enjoyed looking at books in the open air…and looking up at this neat mural. (I don’t remember the name of this bookstore, though.)

outdoor book-browsing

I told myself that I would only browse, and that I wouldn’t buy anything. But then I decided I’d let myself purchase one book. After all, it would be nice to have a souvenir. I thought Walden was appropriate enough. I picked up a copy at the Harvard Book Store.

Harvard Book Store

Harvard University

The trip had a great balance of activities and opportunities to relax. There was ample time to sit back with a book and some lovely settings in which to do so.

Public Garden

Yeah, I’d say Boston and I will meet again one day.

Dreaming of a writer’s life in Paris

I’ve got Paris on my mind.

About a month ago, I picked up a book called Time Was Soft There by Jeremy Mercer. I was browsing in one of my favourite bookstores when I saw it. I had never heard of the book before, but the subtitle caught my eye: “A Paris Sojourn at Shakespeare & Co.” The memoir is about one Canadian writer’s experience living and writing above the famous bookstore.

I’ve spent some time writing in Paris as well. All right—my experience was nothing like Mercer’s. I was in Paris for a brief time in 2007. For the second half of September, I wandered the city streets, visited landmarks and ate pastries. But, maybe because I went alone, I ended up writing a lot, too. I took a notebook with me everywhere I went. I wrote from the lookout of the Eiffel Tower. I wrote under a tree in Père Lachaise Cemetery. I wrote in quaint cafés and on benches that line the Seine.

I made a point of visiting Shakespeare and Company, too, and was entranced by the store’s beauty and by the amount of books surrounding me. But at that time, I was unaware there were writers living upstairs, typing and scribbling away as I shopped below.

before entering the shop in September 2007

Since finishing Time Was Soft There, I’ve read a few other books that are set in Paris. Sometimes it was because of a conscious effort (Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London). Other times, it was a coincidence (David Sedaris’s Me Talk Pretty One Day). I just can’t seem to kick my Paris habit. At least not yet.

I don’t believe anyone has to go to Paris in order to write. And I know the idea is a cliché. But the romantic in me can’t help but dream about living and writing in one of the most beautiful cities in the world.

The best gifts are found in the bookstore

Whenever I want to buy a present for someone, I often end up getting a book. It’s kind of my go-to gift. Books are great for everyone, not just “readers” or lovers of literature.

For people who say they don’t like to read, there are lots of books that are light on text and heavy on images. Actually, it doesn’t matter if the recipient can read at all. Babies and toddlers like books because they’re attracted to the colours and shapes.

As Christmas approaches, the bookstore is the only store I can stand to be in for very long. There’s no need to worry about buying the wrong size; there’s no rummaging through shelves or bins hoping to stumble upon something appropriate.

It’s possible to walk into a bookstore without a specific title in mind and manage to leave with a personalized gift. It doesn’t matter if it’s for someone you’re not very close to (books also make great hostess presents); you just have to think about what you know about the person. If they recently took a trip to Paris, get a book of photographs of the city. For the sports fan, there are several biographies of athletes available. Even if the person has already read the book, the thought put into the gift will be clear.

Years ago, my boss at the time gave me Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club for Christmas. I had already read the book and owned a copy, but the gift meant a lot to me. My boss knew I enjoyed reading novels, he knew I loved the on-screen adaptation and he’s also a film buff. So there was a personal connection.

It was personalized even more because he included an inscription. Unlike cards, which are often tossed aside or lost, the words written inside the book itself will always be there. They remind the recipient of the gift-giver and of the sentiment.

And if you’d rather not put much thought into the gift, books are still a good choice. They can entertain us, educate us, make us see the world in ways we never did before. Not to mention, they provide nice décor for the home.

I’m sure some of my family members will read this, but I’m not spoiling any surprises. They already know they’ll get a book from me this Christmas; it’s kind of an unspoken tradition. Now I just have to come up with something meaningful to write inside.

Book design’s role in interpreting words

How much does a book’s design effect how you interpret the words? Last week I attended a panel discussion at the Design Exchange that got me thinking about the relationship between design and content. The event was called Book: Burning Questions—The Future of The Book and Book Industry in Canada.

The panelists:

Gilbert Li R.G.D., Founder and Creative Director of The Office of Gilbert Li
Margie Miller, Creative Director of Harlequin Enterprises
Scott Richardson, Vice President & Creative Director, Canadian Publishing of Random House Canada
Laura Stein, Creative Director, Communications, Bruce Mau Design
Kate Taylor, Globe and Mail Arts Writer and Novelist

I don’t give book design much conscious thought, but it’s obviously important. In my last post, I mentioned how a cover influences which books I pick up in a bookstore. We do judge books by their covers.

The idea of online browsing came up. In a traditional bookstore, or in a library, visitors aren’t usually looking for anything in particular. They walk around until an attractive cover or spine gets them to pick up the book. With online bookstores, such as Amazon, visitors tend to search rather than browse. Most of the time, they already know what they’re looking for. It becomes more about getting the right title to pop up when someone does a search, rather than trying to draw someone in with design.

Book design goes deeper than the cover. Designers choose how words are laid out on the page, the size of the pages, which fonts to use. The panel mentioned that designers are losing control. With e-books, the reader controls many or all of these elements.

I found all of these points interesting, but I was most fascinated by the discussion of how design can effect the written content. Knowing the format of the book might influence what the writer chooses to write about. For example, panelists discussed the idea of multimedia add-ons. If the writer knows the content will be published with these extras that will describe what the writer wants to convey, then perhaps there won’t be a description offered with words.

The evening left me with a lot to think about. How will the increasing digitalization of books change how stories are interpreted? Will it change how writers write? Will it alter the way the content is valued?

There will always be new formats and new technology. This doesn’t necessarily make the experience of reading better or worse. It just makes it different, as it has for any generation before this one. And, the truth is, we will never know what we’re missing.