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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.