Register Friday | February 28 | 2020
Curio Illustrtion by Joren Cull.

Curio

It’s tough times for bookstores, so how is one Toronto shop thriving—while stocking nothing on your reading list?

From the street, the storefront of the Monkey’s Paw looks like it belongs in a faded photograph. Twin display windows are set up like living rooms from another decade, complete with oriental rugs and antique furniture. So low as to be easily missed, a Carol Beach York novel has been carefully placed in one corner; as if guarding the entrance, a sculpture of a monkey hoists the small volume over its head. “Beware of this Shop,” the book’s title reads.

The glinting gold print on the opposite windowpane provides something of an explanation: “Old & Unusual Printed Matter.” The Monkey’s Paw—part bookstore, part curiosity shop—draws visitors from around the world. One reviewer from India declared it “nothing but a paradise”; an American man wrote in a Google review, “If you enter one building in southern Ontario, make it this one.” 

On a slushy January morning, proprietor Stephen Fowler welcomes me inside, trading winter boots for a pair of leather shoes before taking a seat behind his desk. Around him, dark wooden bookcases hold volumes of every size, colour and age. The largest are balanced near the ceiling. There are thousands more in the basement, he tells me. 

With a blond beard and almost translucent skin, Fowler talks with his head rather than his hands, all the while toying with a Staedtler eraser. “I have this backwards orientation,” he says. “The past is a thing that really happened, but you’re permanently cut off from it. The books are peepholes through which you can look back at what happened. There’s just a huge amount of human experience walled up in these things.”

He likens experiencing culture from years past to time travel. “If you look at a silent film, and you see a Model T parked there and somebody going by in their weird clothing, you have this flash where it seems weirdly familiar to you, even though you obviously had nothing to do with it. And that happens with the books, constantly, to me. That feeling of familiarity is like a weird high.” By “familiarity,” Fowler seems to allude to a sentiment some have called “anemoia”—a longing for a time you never experienced. He believes that especially here in Toronto, people are starved for it: “Toronto has no memory at all. They just tear down all the old buildings; everything is a glass tower now.” 

In many ways, Toronto is indeed a city that continually obliterates its past, with little hesitance or heed for sentimentality. A few blocks east of the Monkey’s Paw on Bloor Street, the corner where the iconic all-in-one bargain store Honest Ed’s once stood will soon boast several new apartment towers; further east, Yorkville has relinquished its hippie days in favor of designer flagships and luxury hotels. Yonge and Dundas, too, is almost unrecognizable from what it was a few decades ago, having traded its historic seediness and grit—strip clubs, greasy spoons, taverns—for such hallmarks of global capitalism as Muji, Uniqlo and Adidas. 

The familiar is readily at hand, but not in Fowler’s sense of the word. In certain parts of town, it can be a stretch to find any semblance of enduring character amidst the concrete and glass. Toronto’s skyrocketing population has made it the fastest-growing city in North America; the city is straining to house its people, which has generated a relentless drive to tear down and build higher. 

Still, you can find pockets of nostalgia here and there. If the city is overwriting its history, it appears to do so carelessly, leaving seemingly arbitrary fragments of the past in its wake like debris missed in an upsweep. Once you’ve been tipped off to this, the signs are (quite literally) everywhere. There’s the Communist’s Daughter, a hole-in-the-wall of a bar that has retained the facade of its long-closed predecessor, displaying “Nazare Snack Bar” in large red lettering in lieu of its own name. The outdated declaration “Toronto Stock Exchange” is still embossed into the concrete front of what has since become a design museum. There are indications, too, of an awareness that something is slipping away and a desire to hold tighter. Although Sam the Record Man has been out of business for over a decade, its neon sign was recently restored and hangs over Yonge-Dundas Square. In Chinatown, the dancing lights of the El Mocambo palm tree once again preside over the entrance to the tavern where the Rolling Stones once played. 

Toronto has become a haphazard patchwork of the old and the new: it foregrounds progress at the cost of memory, sometimes overwhelmingly, but its culture is not ready to succumb to that. And neither is Stephen Fowler. 

Fowler isn’t even from Toronto. Originally from Missouri, he dropped out of college at eighteen to become a poet and then relocated to San Francisco, where he got his first bookselling job in the Tenderloin district. “This was in the late 1980s,” he recalls, “and the neighbourhood was a really fucked-up, scary place.” In an area famous for punk rockers and drug dealers, he felt most at ease among the autodidacts who plied the antiquarian trade. “There was this old hippie guy who taught me how to work a bookstore. He had a section in the basement that he called ‘floop,’ for books that didn’t fit in anywhere else. I wondered, why can’t you have a whole bookstore of floop? It was obviously the most interesting part of the shop.”

While there is an order to his bookstore’s miscellany—here, books on birds, there, rare Bibles, elsewhere, a rather slim section of fiction—it is true that many of his volumes would stump any shelver at a more conventional establishment. Fowler’s system has worked well for him, he tells me: “It’s unusual in that we’re solvent.” He pays his own salary, foots the bills and has enough left over to purchase more books; the shop has also endured two uprootings in the last four years, escaping a rent hike and other real-estate problems, remarkably well. 

This is in a city where bookstore after bookstore is vanishing in what seems to be increasingly rapid succession. In April 2014, the CBC reported that Toronto was in the process of losing six bookstores in six months, and the decline has continued. Albert Britnell, Dencan Books, and Eliot’s Bookshop were among the early casualties; Ten Editions was the most recent to go, in 2019, with Bay Street institution Ben McNally set to follow sometime in 2020. Predictably, rising rents and the dominance of online retailers have shouldered much of the blame for this phenomenon. But Fowler says small bookstores must also contend with the loss of retail space to ruthless urban development and the absence of apprentices to sustain a shop when the owner retires or dies. 

What is it, then, that has kept Fowler’s bookstore afloat? After our first meeting, I drop back into the store several times. It’s typically bustling, though not crowded, with no apparent demographic: there are parents with children, a university-age girl, an old man. I strike up some conversations and find that many of the customers discovered the Monkey’s Paw online. A man from Quebec tells me he’s been looking for used books: “In Montreal, there are some, but not a lot.” India Miller, a recent university graduate visiting from the UK, says she did a quick Google search for “strange and unusual things to do in Toronto,” and Fowler’s bookstore popped up. 

Is she a fan of old books as well, or just the offbeat? “Both,” she tells me, citing an interest in books on female sexuality, Islamic calligraphy, and “anything with nice covers.” She’s in the right place: Fowler had emphasized that many of his books were “interesting not for their text, but for their images. The eye candy is really important to me.” 

When Fowler is not at the shop, whether for a day off or to attend antiquarian book fairs, a single helper—one of two people he occasionally employs—tends to customers. In the Monkey’s Paw, this means taking quick note of books that browsing visitors seem drawn to and pointing them to volumes that are somehow similar amid the assortment. On a bitterly cold Friday in November, Sarah Irvine, a grad student in museum studies, sits behind Fowler’s desk. She tells me she first stumbled upon the Monkey’s Paw while walking down the street ten years ago and was a customer for years before Fowler began asking her to help out. She was initially drawn in by the shop’s “magical books” and mysterious nature, she says. “There’s something satisfying about going into a place [where] it’s a little bit creepy and there’s weird old stuff everywhere.” 

She crosses the room to show me a volume on old instruments for tooth extraction. Around the corner is a section on food, or rather food niches, containing the likes of The Butter Industry in the United States and The Official Cookbook of the Hay System; nearby is a shelf of books on “Native Americans” that, if released today, would cause an uproar. Fowler believes in preserving everything, the obviously outrageous included. The January morning I meet him for the first time, he pulls out a copy of Mein Kampf, dropping it on the table and citing an interest in the politically extreme. “I’m not making any moral judgments,” he says. “I don’t promote any ideology. I just think all of them should be saved.” 

Sorting through thousands of volumes, he picks and assesses them according to a personal set of rules. To be worth acquiring, each must be beautiful, arcane, macabre, or absurd. Among his favourites is a children’s cookbook that had been set on fire. “It was blackened, but it was obviously laid open to this page for broiled steak,” he says. “Some kids were actually using the cookbook to broil steaks, and they set the oven on fire. Maybe that’s absurd, maybe that’s macabre. The book itself is evidence of what happened.” 

There’s so much to see—a rack of beetles preserved in resin, a stuffed crow dummy, the eye-catching covers—that a casual observer might miss the store’s claim to fame, nestled in the corner near the back of the shop.

The Monkey’s Paw is best known for the Biblio-Mat, a green vending machine that, in exchange for a $3 token, spits out a random book with a ding. “It’s the world’s only antiquarian book vending machine,” Fowler says. “In October of 2012, there was gonna be some kind of festival, and all the shops were supposed to put stuff on the sidewalk. I imagined a fake vending machine. My skinny assistant would be inside, and somebody would drop in a coin and he would drop out a book. I told this friend of mine, Craig Small, about it, and he said, ‘You’ve got to have the actual vending machine.’ So he built it for me.” 

Within a mere two weeks, the vending machine had become an internet phenomenon. “So I get used to the sound of the machine going, and we just can’t keep up with the demand,” Fowler recalls. He tells me about a woman who made a special trip to use the machine. When she discovered it was out of order, she burst into tears. “I feel enormous pressure to keep the damn thing stocked,” he says. “I can’t have people crying in my store.”

Antiquarian booksellers have worked in North America for at least three hundred years; in the early days, like many trades, theirs was often passed through families from generation to generation. Broadly speaking, the term “antiquarianism” refers to the trade, collection, or study of old items, usually valuable ones. Those in the field try to preserve the rare and one-of-a-kind, while keeping lines of communication open to bygone times. However, some antiquarians, especially the younger ones, have a sense that the trade itself is becoming a relic of the past. Fowler tells me most of his colleagues are “now really old—or dead. I remember working in antiquarian bookstores before there was an internet,” he tells me. “I’m the last person who has a memory of that.”

It would be impossible to work in his line of business and avoid confronting the brute fact of human mortality, if only because most antiquarian books are sourced from the estates of the dead. “Tomorrow morning, I’m gonna be in the east end looking at some lady’s book collection,” Fowler says. “I guess her husband died, and left his books. Sometimes, I’ll sell them to rare-book libraries who guarantee that they’re preserved for eternity—or at least until the ceiling leaks.”

On a sunny day, light hitting the windshields of passing cars might refract through the shop’s windows, dancing off the far end of the shop; that day in January, a thick cover of clouds linger over the city and the bookstore is still. This only enhances the sense that the room is set apart from time, like a stone in a river. It’ll wear away eventually, but it’s still holding its ground. 

In a world where nearly unlimited information is at the tips of our fingers, Fowler is a staunch believer in the power of the printed word. And it’s true that we don’t often consider how vulnerable our internet-centred way of life is. Last March, Myspace permanently lost millions of user-uploaded music files. A few years ago, the Atlantic published an article on the possibility of defunct software resulting in a forgotten century—our own. Little remains of the early internet, and even today, disappearances on the web go almost unnoticed: its stretches are so vast and its contents so ever-changing, it’s virtually impossible to effectively archive it. While an organization by the name of the Internet Archive has been plugging away at that endeavour since the late 1990s, its records are by no means exhaustive and are limited to the publicly accessible web. With the advent of built-to-disappear communications like Snapchat and Instagram stories, it’s entirely possible that sizeable chunks of the history being made today will escape record. 

This is how Fowler puts it: if I, a nineteen-year-old, became prime minister someday, a biographer would be hard-pressed to find the same kind of records on me that we have on Pierre Trudeau—who I was talking to, what I was talking about. In the age of print, we could save love letters, political correspondences, diaries, newspapers. We could later cobble them together into an entire picture of the way someone’s life, as well as the world around them, looked at a given point in time. 

There was a time when Fowler believed that, to protect records of the past, he had to adapt to the digital age, but he’s since reassessed that view. In the mid-nineties, he worked on a print preservation project, a column called “Salvage Culture” on the website word.com, in order to get ahead of the digitization curve. “I would find a pamphlet published by a breakfast cereal company about the dangers of constipation from 1930, or something,” he says. “I would send it off, and it would go online. The hilarious thing is that word.com was around for two to three years, and then they lost their funding. I still have all those pamphlets and books. The paper persisted, and the website’s gone.”

His blue eyes are lit with humour, but they retain a hint of seriousness. “I mean, nobody’s thinking this about the twenty-first century, but there’s gonna be a crisis. There’s gonna be a war one of these days, and all that shit” (by which he means the internet) “is gonna be wiped. One side is gonna wipe the other side, the other side is gonna wipe that side, and there won’t be any information left.” 

Fowler shakes his head, laughs a little: “People are gonna say, ‘Jesus, I need to know how to wire a house! I’m gonna have to go to the bookstore.’”