It took me nearly a year to notice this place, despite the fact that it’s located about half a block north of my office. Maybe it’s because I don’t frequently walk north (the GO train lies in the opposite direction); maybe it’s because there’s no glaringly bright signage announcing its presence (if you don’t look directly at the window you’ll miss the quiet little logo — subtitled, ironically enough, “read the fine print”). Maybe it’s because I’m staring at my Blackberry too much.
Whatever the reason, I was happy to find it. Ben McNally Books opened up last fall in the heart of Toronto’s financial district, in brave defiance of the laws of 21st century book retailing economics, which dictate that There Shall Be But One Retailer, Its Scope Shall Be National, and Its Tastes Middlebrow. Ben himself is the former general manager of Nicholas Hoare Books, a quality bookstore of longer standing (it’s part of a three-city chain, in fact) which, while being located in what one must call “downtown Toronto”, is not truly positioned on the spine of Canadian finance as Ben’s shop is — Hoare is several blocks to the east, a culture zone of restaurants, cafes, and galleries which attracts slow-walking browsers just ripe for book buying.
Bay Streeters, by contrast, generally have somewhere to go, fast. Languid walk-ins, therefore, will be rare. What Ben’s store must be hoping to attract instead is that (not insignificant) sub-set of business people who read more than the financial and sports pages, and who will be happy to have a quality bookstore in the heart of the district, staffed by people who can point out not only the latest John Grisham, but also the latest J.M. Coetzee.
Unfortunately, this select group of patrons may not often include me. Because of my limited free time, I have fairly precise, project-related reading needs, and these I’ve found are best served via the search-and-ship magic of Amazon.ca and its peers. However, I shall probably buy something occassionally from Ben’s, if only because a physical bookstore offers a different kind of serendipitous discovery effect than on-line retailers can provide (although with its many suggestion-style features, Amazon can come pretty close these days). For example, while scanning Ben’s shelves I ran across an attractive collection of Charles Baudelaire’s poetry, and came very very close to buying it on a whim. But I didn’t; too many other unread books in my house.
Next time, Ben.