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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Summertime theatre for Toronto bookworms

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Photo by Nextvoyage on Pexels.com

Summer isn’t the best season if you want to attend book events. Bibliophiles will need to wait until fall before book launches and literary festivals ramp up again. Until then, readers in Toronto can attend these book-inspired theatre productions happening this July.

Take in a musical based on Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame

I’m not a huge fan of musicals. But when the musical is based on a book, I’m more likely to attend. And if you’re a Disney fan, this production of The Hunchback of Notre Dame should interest you even more: All of the songs are taken from the Disney movie. This production has only four performances, so if you want to go, you’d better get on it.

Run: July 6 to July 8

Venue: Isabel Bader Theatre (near Museum station)

Experience a new take on Paradise Lost

This adaption of John Milton’s book-length poem promises to include puppetry and animation. That seems appropriate since it’s part of the Fringe Festival, which champions experimental theatre.

Run: July 6 to July 15

Venue: Theatre Passe Muraille (near Bathurst and Queen Street West)

Take a crash course in Harry Potter

Unlike a lot of readers, I have not finished any of the Harry Potter books. But maybe that is even more of a reason to see Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience – A Parody by Dan and Jeff. This show condenses all seven of the books in just over an hour. This is the fourth time the production has come to Toronto, so if you are a fan of the books, there is a good chance you’ve already seen this.

Run: on now to July 22

Venue: CAA Theatre (on Yonge, south of Bloor)

Attend an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel Orlando

What’s even more exciting about Soulpepper adapting Orlando by Virginia Woolf is that the production has its own book club! Read the book and join in online using #SoulpepperBookClub. There are also two dates–July 8 and July 10–when you can attend a live book club discussion after the production. Seems like a pretty good reason to read Orlando, if you haven’t read it already.

Run: July 6 to July 29

Venue: Young Centre for the Performing Arts (in the Distillery District)

9 of Toronto’s best literary events in 2017 

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I try to get out to as many literary events as I can (at least to the ones that interest me). Here are a few of the highlights from this year. Looking forward to seeing what events this city has to offer in 2018!

Literary cocktail class at Famous Last Words

This was my first time visiting Famous Last Words, a book-themed bar in Toronto’s west end (I’ve since been back). We learned how to make cocktails that were inspired by authors and their books. You can read more about the class in the post I wrote back in February.

IFOA Weekly’s Lit Jam

This one is a bit biased because it’s not just an event I attended, but it’s also one I performed in. This was IFOA Weekly‘s inaugural interactive storytelling competition, held at Harbourfront Centre. Teams of emerging writers improvised stories on stage based on prompts from the audience. My team didn’t win, but it was a lot of fun. And, from what I can tell, the audience really enjoyed it, too.

Beer and Book Club with Zoe Whittall

Henderson Brewing Co. paired with their neighbour, House of Anansi Press, to present a series of beer and book club events. I’m not a beer drinker, but I am a fan of Zoe Whittall, so I attended on the evening when her book was discussed. For non-beer-drinkers, Henderson Brewing had their own root beer and lemon-and-ginger soda on tap. Whittall was interviewed by the brewery’s general manager, and while it wasn’t the best interview I’ve witnessed, I loved the casual atmosphere.

Trillium Book Award 30th anniversary readings

To celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Trillium Book Award, the Ontario Media Development Corporation organized an evening of readings by past winners. Authors who read included Kate Cayley, Wayson Choy and Nino Ricci. The event was free to attend, and was held at St. Paul’s Church on Bloor–a beautiful venue.

The Cooke Agency’s 25th anniversary event 

Celebrating 25 years of their literary agency, The Cooke Agency organized an event that raised funds for First Book Canada. Three Cooke Agency authors gave short readings–John Irving, Rupi Kaur and Jeff VanderMeer–which was followed by an entertaining and fascinating discussion among the authors led by literary agent Dean Cooke.

The Word on the Street

I couldn’t write a post about book events without mentioning The Word on the Street. It’s one of my favourite days of the year! This year, the book festival fell on what was quite possibly the hottest day of the year. This made it not as enjoyable for walking around, but I drank plenty of water and took breaks in the shade, and managed to stay almost all day. As always, I had a great time browsing (and buying) books at the booths of publishers and booksellers and attending some of the author talks.

IFOA: The Basement Revue

The Basement Revue is a showcase of Canadian musical and literary talent, where the performers are kept a secret until they are on stage. The showcase has been going on for more than 10 years, but this event, partnered with the IFOA, was my first time attending. Co-hosts musician (and Basement Revue founder) Jason Collett and poet Damian Rodgers put together a great lineup of music and readings. My favourite part was at the very end, when crime fiction writer and comedian Mark Billingham got on stage to provide some stand-up comedy, sharing some of the feedback he’s gotten from readers.

Between the Pages: Scotiabank Giller Prize readings

Held in Koerner Hall, each of the five Giller Prize shortlisted authors read from their books and then participated in a discussion led by journalist Johanna Schneller. At the time of the event, I hadn’t read any of the shortlisted titles. But after the event, I knew I wanted to read Eden Robinson’s Son of a Trickster (which I picked up that evening from Ben McNally Books) and Michael Redhill’s Bellevue Square (which I later checked out from Toronto Public Library).

Helen Humphreys at Toronto Reference Library

Helen Humphreys is one of  my favourite writers, and I was thrilled to see her promoting her newest book, The Ghost Orchard, at the Toronto Reference Library’s Beeton Hall. The room was packed–staff had to bring in some extra chairs. I’ve never heard so many questions from a book audience before, and while not all of them turned out to be actual questions, it was great to see the audience so engaged. I was also happy to have Humphreys sign my book afterwards. While I may have came across as a bit of a fangirl, it was nice to briefly discuss our mutual adoration of Robert Frost.

Fall events for Toronto book lovers

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Fall is a great time to be a book lover living in Toronto. In addition to all of the new releases to read curled up with some hot apple cider, there are also lots of literary events to attend in the city. Here are a few to look out for.

Toronto’s First Post Office’s used book sale

There are lots of used book sales happening in Toronto this fall, including the college book sales at U of T. But Toronto’s First Post Office is having their first used book sale ever to raise money for the Town of York Historical Society’s research library. The sale runs September 22 to 25 during the post office’s regular operating hours. Perhaps there may be some gems waiting for you.

Toronto Public Library’s Appel Salon Series

A new season of the Appel Salon series begins this month at the Toronto Reference Library. Authors appearing this fall include Claire Messud, Orhan Pamuk and Jennifer Egan. Tickets are free but are required. They can be reserved three weeks ahead of each event.

The Word on the Street festival

The Word on the Street festival is one of my favourite days of the year. A giant book fair that includes readings and talks by writers and publishing professionals? Yes, please! The Word on the Street is taking place at Harbourfront Centre on Sunday, September 24, 11 a.m, to 6 p.m. Buy some books and/or magazines, get some information about writers’ and literacy organizations and attend some readings or talks.

Toronto Public Library’s eh List Writer Series

The Toronto Public Library’s eh List Writer Series features Canadian authors at various library branches across the city. Some of the authors participating this season include Helen Humphreys, Catherine Hernandez and Alison Pick. These events are free and no tickets are required.

An Evening with David Sedaris

Humourist David Sedaris will be at the Sony Centre on Tuesday, October 17. At $45.13 to $60.13 per ticket, this is the priciest event on this list. However, Sedaris–who is quite an entertaining speaker and reader–has been known to not only sign books, but to also take the time to speak with every fan who lines up at the end of the event. It’s just a matter of whether or not you will be patient enough to wait your turn. (And whether or not you think the wait is worth the money.)

International Festival of Authors (IFOA)

October is filled with book events to choose from since IFOA runs from October 19 to 29 at Harbourfront Centre. Most events will run you $18 a ticket, but there are a few that cost a bit more and a few free ones, too. This year’s festival includes appearances by Heather O’Neill, John Boyne, Colm Tóibín and, of course, many others.

R. L. Stine at the AGO

If, like me, you were a fan of R. L. Stine’s Fear Street series growing up, you may want to attend his talk at the AGO on November 29. Tickets are $30 for the general public.

Various literary events at Famous Last Words

I’ve written about this west-end book-themed bar before and the literary cocktail class I attended. Since that time, Famous Last Words has created “Book Lover Tuesdays.” Each month, on different weeks, the bar hosts a silent reading party, a book exchange and a drop-in book club. These events aren’t specific to fall, but getting cozy in front of the bar’s fireplace with a cocktail and some fellow bookworms seems like a pretty good way to spend a fall evening.

Spring and summer in Toronto for book lovers

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There’s one month left of spring, and the May long weekend is the unofficial start of summer. Temperatures have been a little unstable in Toronto lately, but warmer weather is coming. If you’re in the city, here are some ways to make the next few months a bit more literary.

Go on a bookshop crawl

Step outside your comfort zone of your local indie and explore more of Toronto’s independent bookstores. Devote a day to walk or bike to as many as you choose.

Two of my favourite Toronto bookshops are Ben McNally Books in the financial district and Book City on the Danforth. The city’s newest bookstore, Queen Books in Leslieville, may also be of interest.

Need some help planning your route? BlogTO has a handy list of the city’s best bookstores that includes a map showing their locations.

Arrange a picnic for your book club

Book clubs often meet in a member’s home or in a pub or coffee shop. But when the weather’s nice, the options for meeting places increase. Sure, you can enjoy the sunshine on a patio somewhere, but there are also lots of beautiful parks to gather in. Organize a potluck picnic for your book club and sprawl out on some blankets.

If it weren’t for the recent flooding, I’d suggest going to the Toronto Islands. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look that that will be an option for a while. Luckily, there are lots of great parks in the city–High Park, Trinity Bellwoods or Withrow Park, to name a few.

Take your book outside

I know this one is obvious, but it can’t be omitted: Read outside. Go to a park, the beach, a patio or simply find a bench to occupy or a tree to sit under. Some of Toronto Public Library’s branches have outdoor reading gardens where you can hang out.

Spend some time alone with a book or try going on a reading date with a friend or romantic partner. (Tip: Break for ice cream or lemonade and discuss what you’re each reading.)

Use rainy days to your advantage

Sometimes the weather won’t be ideal to be outside. On those days, you can head to the Toronto Reference Library to do some exploring. While you’re there, stop by Page & Panel to pick up a literary T-shirt–perfect to wear when the sun comes out again.

If you want to enjoy some refreshments in a literary atmosphere, go to Famous Last Words to enjoy a book-inspired cocktail, or to Bookworm Coffee, where you can check out their library with a caffeinated beverage in hand.

Another option: Stay home. Sometimes there’s nothing better than curling up on the couch with a cup of tea and a good book, listening to the rain and thunder. No matter what the weather’s like, there’s never a bad time to be reader.