Robert Fulford's column about the Book Cellar

(Globe and Mail, January 14, 1998)

The name wasn't the strangest thing about the Book Cellar, but I always thought it peculiar. For 35 of its 36 years in business, that remarkable store operated on the ground floors of various Toronto buildings. It's true that in 1961 Bruce and Vivienne Surtees started out in the basement below a Yonge Street record store, but within a year they emerged from the cellar and moved into an old Bay Street coachhouse. They kept the punning original name, for sentiment's sake, and pretty soon it was famous. In the early 1960s, when Pierre Berton was the biggest journalistic noise in town, he devoted a Star column to celebrating the Book Cellar's uniqueness--and that, Surtees recalled last week, put them on the map.

Having banged my head on the basement ceiling, I gratefully followed them to the coachhouse, where they spent most of the 1960s, and then to Yorkville, where they moved in 1968, around the time it became fashionable. Fifteen years later they sold out to Lori Bruner, a freelance writer, who ran the store till she closed it down on Nov. 30, about a year after a big Chapters outlet opened two blocks away.

The Book Cellar, my kind of place, was a full-service bookstore with exotic magazines and a knowledgeable, agreeable staff. In the 1970s John Krizanc, chief buyer as well as sales clerk, gave me clever advice on the new English novels, but that turned out to be the least of his talents. One day in 1981 he put up a poster for Tamara, his wonderfully inventive play, which went on to well-deserved success in New York, Buenos Aires, Warsaw, and elsewhere. Krizanc worked at the Book Cellar for 15 years, including the apogee of what he once called "Bruce's insane plan for world domination," when Surtees opened two satellite stores in Toronto and began muttering about fortunes to be made in franchising. (Today Bruce and Vivienne own a store in Dallas as well as the Classical Record Shop in Toronto.)

"I consider Bruce my own Canada Council," Krizanc said the other day. "Instead of giving me a raise, he'd give me more time off to write." Krizanc, who was for a while the only clerk without a graduate degree, says he received all of his higher education in the store. At one point the staff included a surgeon who was recovering from a nervous breakdown. In the 1980s Krizanc hired Paul Quarrington, who stayed five years, till he could live by writing. The late Barbara Betcherman, who went on to be a lawyer and the author of a successful thriller, Suspicions, worked at the Book Cellar for a time, and so did Barbara Amiel before she became a journalist.

A couple of years ago Joey Slinger clerked there while on leave from his columnist's job at the Star. He developed an original approach to merchandising. One day a woman picked out two thrillers and asked him which would make the better gift for her boyfriend. "How tall is he?" Slinger asked. "About six feet." Slinger pointed at one of the books. "Take that one. Tall people like it." She bought it.

The customers, too, were exceptional. Peter Ustinov became a great friend of the store. Robertson Davies and Marshall McLuhan were often there. Whoopi Goldberg, a serious book buyer, showed up often when working in Toronto; she bought a Timothy Findley novel and optioned the movie rights. In the 1970s, when the philosopher Allan Bloom was teaching in Toronto, he lived in the next block and dropped in every day, often just to say hello. After The Closing of the American Mind became a big best-seller, he visited Toronto. "I'm a millionaire," he told Surtees. "Aren't you proud of me?" Surtees said he was.

When I was young the Tivoli Theatre was demolished and Herbert Whittaker wrote in this paper that its destruction left a lot of people without a place to store their memories. At the time I hardly knew what he meant, but I've long since found out. I miss the Book Cellar.

What killed it? Bruner doesn't blame Chapters. One factor, she says, was the decline of Yorkville street traffic in recent years. More important, publishers imposed strict credit limits after they were stung by the bankruptcy of the Edwards stores a year ago. As a result, Bruner had trouble getting stock and her cash flow dried up. But certainly Chapters and the other chain, Indigo, have discouraged people from entering the business, which is why Bruner closed down rather than try to sell: "I don't think anyone in this day and age would buy an independent bookstore."

Does that mean we should be outraged about the superstores? Myself, I'd rather argue against winter, or entropy. Besides, for 30 years or so independent bookstores grew more numerous as chains grew bigger. We can't rule out something similar happening in the future--though, as Bruner says, it will be some years coming.

The Book Cellar may have a peculiar after-life, on TV. Krizanc and Quarrington, encouraged by CBC development money, have been writing a sitcom about a wacky bookstore owned by someone very like Surtees. Their working title suggests where they stand on megastores--The Last of the Independents.

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