Robert Fulford's column about a new bookstore in midtown Toronto

(The National Post, July 1, 2000)

For readers of books who live in the Deer Park neighbourhood, it's like that sublime but all-too-rare moment when the clerk at the Air Canada check-in counter tells you they can't squeeze you into economy, for which you've paid, so they're putting you in business class instead.

We Deer Park book buyers, who live in or near the district that straddles St. Clair Avenue West between Yonge Street and Avenue Road, are about to get a surprising and delightful retail upgrade.

Book City, a first-class chain of local stores, will soon, perhaps as soon as July 10, open a new store at 1430 Yonge St., a space left vacant when the Lichtman's chain went bankrupt. This means that, at least for our district, the retail book business is improving. We will not speak ill of the dead, but no serious book buyer would for a moment consider Lichtman's the equal of Book City.

It's big news when a new independent bookstore opens; in that world, the talk these days usually concerns closing or barely surviving. Perhaps Deer Park offers a special niche. Chapters and Indigo are staging epochal battles for midtown readers to the north and south, but they remain at a fairly safe distance. Their contending Bloor Street stores are either 17 or 18 blocks to the south and west; their Yonge-near-Eglinton stores are either 15 or 17 blocks to the north. The chains may consider Deer Park a dead zone, but Book City's owner, Frans Donker, is planning to bring it to life.

Donker grew up in a publishing family in Rotterdam and apprenticed in half a dozen stores and publishing houses in Europe and Canada. Since 1976 he's been operating the original and excellent Book City at 510 Bloor Street West, and over the years he's added satellite stores on the Danforth, in the Beach and in Bloor West Village.

Their stock is always good (up-to-the-minute new books, pretty good classics in paperback, excellent remainders) but it's the staff that sets them apart. Astonishingly, in the age of the chains, salespeople in Donker's stores give every sign of knowing something about books; many know a lot.

With the opening of the fifth store, Donker will have 80 employees, 30 of them full-time, the rest part-timers, including a poet, a freelance editor, a short-story writer, a sometime film director, and many graduate students. He thinks he needs that kind of mix, "even if it creates problems when they have to shoot their movie."

Donker and his managers never hire people without discussing books with them, and Donker makes a point of asking them what newspapers they read. (If the candidate answers simply "the Sun," that pretty well ends the interview.)

Donker understands that Deer Park is strange territory. "My challenge here is to mix Noam Chomsky with David Frum. I've so far been trading in left-leaning communities -- the Annex, the Danforth, the Beach. This is different." He has heard that there are people in Deer Park who are (don't mention it to his Annex customers) Mike Harris voters.

That's where the individual store managers come in. "Each manager," Donker explains, "has independence, and each orders the books for the store. The manager has to learn the district and find out what people there are reading. We tailor the stores to the neighbourhoods."

There's nobody at head office peering at a spread sheet and imposing decisions from on high. Peter Ykelestam, who will manage the new store, has been with Book City for six years.

Imaginative gestures have helped draw attention to Book City: The window displays, for instance, are among the best in the business. In 1991, to celebrate his 15th year in business, Donker commissioned and published The Whole Megillah, a mystery novella by Howard Engel, who set two scenes on the second floor of the Annex store, at the round table where a generation of Annex dwellers have lingered over the art books.

A plan to have a well-known author write something similar for the 20th anniversary in 1996 fell through when his publisher vetoed the idea, but Donker is now thinking about something like a book of 25 stories for the 25th anniversary next year. As thousands of readers across the city know, that will be an event worth celebrating.

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