When Amazon packages can be delivered to your door within 24 hours, it’s easy to fall into the trap of shopping for books online. But by shopping online, you miss out on the pleasure of getting lost among the shelves and the chance to connect with people who are passionate about reading. Re: Reading Used Books (548 Danforth Ave. at Carlaw) and the Scribe (375 Danforth Ave. at Chester) are two independent bookstores that truly capture the magic of in-store browsing.
Re: Reading Used Books
Re: Reading Used Books carries books and movies in a wide range of genres, but the atmosphere of the store is a homage to sci-fi. A TARDIS (the iconic time-travelling police box from Doctor Who) is painted on the door to a back room, and a sign in the window proclaims that “unattended children will be sold to the Borg,” referencing the alien antagonists from Star Trek. The soundtrack to movies like Back to the Future play over the speakers, further immersing you in a sci-fi environment.
From my visit, it’s clear that owner Christopher Sheedy delights in engaging with his customers—after our interview, he and I spent a good ten minutes enthusing about Doctor Who. The community has responded to Sheedy with equal enthusiasm. When Sheedy was first looking to open a bookstore in 2009, he chose to set up shop on the Danforth for a reason. The locals’ support for small businesses is, in Sheedy’s opinion, what makes the Danforth stand out. As he puts it, “They don’t just talk about it. They actually do want [the] stores that are in their neighbourhood to be successful.” The books and movies customers sell and donate are essential to keeping the business running. Customers “interact” with used bookstores; it isn’t as straightforward as coming in regularly to make purchases. It’s that interactive nature that helps to solidify the store’s connection to the Danforth community.
Sheedy regularly sees familiar faces wandering into his shop, busily scanning the shelves of narrow aisles that hold their favourite genres. Many enter the store with a specific item in mind and keep coming back to see if it’s in stock. Others stop in to say hello when they’re out walking their dog and might take a moment to browse the shelves to see what they can uncover.
Re: Reading is often relied on to carry the backlist titles of prominent authors like Michael Connelly, whose older books are less likely to be shelved at stores that sell new editions. Once, Sheedy even encountered a unique edition of Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time: copies from the book’s very first print run were recalled because the table of contents and dedication were accidentally omitted. The book was worth up to $1,500, but Sheedy’s rare and collectible items all sell for 12 LABOUR OF LOVEhalf their valued price because “we’d rather it was on your shelf than ours.”
Sheedy’s customers tell him that “they want [the store] to stay here, they want [it] to be here in a year or two years.” It’s clear that Sheedy, with all his enthusiasm for his neighbourhood and the books he carries, gives people a reason to keep coming back.
The Scribe doesn’t rely on time machines to offer its patrons a portal into history. The bookstore, which opened in December 2020, specializes in first editions. These include contemporary hardcovers and a number of books signed by prominent figures from Andy Warhol to the Dalai Lama. But the store’s biggest claim to fame is its expansive collection of vintage and antiquarian books—many from the Victorian era and even some illuminated manuscripts that date back to the thirteenth century.
Owner Justin Wood holds a passion for the artistry of these old books, painstakingly handwritten by monks and scribes, which ultimately inspired the store’s name. “We owe it to the scribes, for start[ing] the evolution of the book,” he explains. “I wanted to create that kind of time capsule of […] scribes writing things by hand […] in this day of the mass market paperback.”
Wood finds that his store gives off a mysterious air, drawing in passersby who are curious about a unique business in the neighbourhood. The Scribe developed a cult following shortly after opening— its distinct inventory makes an exciting experience for customers just looking to browse shelves at leisure. Not many stores in Toronto specialize in hard-to-find books, so having the chance to buy a book from the nineteenth century or earlier is a major drawing point.
Many of The Scribe’s patrons visit the store for items of sentimental value. For Wood, this presents an opportunity to connect with his customers over books in meaningful ways. Customers might enter the store in search of a book that entered their lives during a difficult period, but which they couldn’t afford at the time. “Sometimes that’s what [a book] is,” says Wood. “It’s a symbol of someone’s life.” Being able to see that passion emerge from his customers is one of the features that he finds most gratifying in running his store.
Whatever you’re searching for, there’s something valuable in being able to take a moment out of your busy day and get lost among the shelves—and it’s the exact kind of experience Wood hopes to provide for the neighbourhood. “I think that’s what bookstores should be,” he says. “A place you come in and just kind of get lost in the books. We don’t really have a lot of those types of avenues in life to just walk into a shop and kind of let your worries go for 20 minutes.”
Ordering books from online retailers might save time. But allowing yourself to be delighted by the items you encounter at a used bookstore, and taking the chance to connect with owners who are devoted to their community and enthusiastic about their inventory, is an experience that cannot be replicated in the digital sphere.