Pages From a Reading Life

Pages Books as seen through Michael Cho's eyes.
Pages Books as seen through Michael Cho's eyes.

Pages Books and Magazines opened in 1979, so it must have still been a relatively spanking new store when I first started shopping there in 1981 or thereabouts. I was a teenager and Queen Street was a good place to hang out if you were a kid in Toronto. It was still a grungy street with a post-punk ambience, home to all sorts of businesses that could only thrive in a low rent neighborhood (head shops, used book stores, comic book stores, used record stores, vintage clothing shops, biker bars, incredibly cheap ethnic restaurants). Queen Street has changed tremendously since then, in part because those sometimes skuzzy stores drew in all sorts of other people: it’s now an outdoor shopping mall, home to upscale outlets for the Gap and Old Navy.

Pages will be closing up at the end of this month, a victim one could easily argue of its own success. Pages was instrumental in the economic transformation of Queen Street: it was one of the major reasons people all over the city, indeed all over the country, made the trek to this once downscale downtown Toronto neighborhood. But now that Queen Street is a shopping Mecca, rent has skyrocketed to the point where it is nearly impossible to run a book store in the area. In the case of Pages the landlord wants a rent of $400,000 per year.

Pages from the outside.
Pages from the outside.

Many eulogies have already been written about Pages. It has been over the last there decades one of the world’s greatest book stores, and a Toronto landmark. The store has been so important in my life that I feel compelled to add a few words about what it meant.

A good book store, to my way of thinking, is more than a business: it’s also a cultural and educational institution, in the same league as a museum, a literary magazine, a gallery, or a university. As a cultural institution Pages ranked with other stores like St. Mark’s Bookshop or City Lights.

There are so many books published that no brick-and-mortar store can carry them all, so all book stores are by necessity selective. What’s key to a good store is the sensibility of the selector. In the case of Pages, the proprietor Marc Glassman is a man of wide curiosity who is plugged into contemporary culture (he’s had a noteworthy career writing about film). The book on display at Pages reflected Glassman’s lively mind. To walk into the store and see the latest books being showcased was to get the inside scoop as to what’s happening in the art world, in contemporary fiction and poetry, in cultural studies, and many other fields.

As I matured as a reader I realized that certain publishers, usually very small presses that put out only 10 or twenty books a year, had a strong sensibility: New Directions was the home of modernism, the Porcupine’s Quill of cutting edge Canadian fiction, Verso of trenchant political analysis, Drawn and Quarterly of stylish comics. Much more than any other bookstore, Pages highlighted these small publishers and their lists, so that the books they published could be seen as a part of coherent intellectual and cultural project. This commitment to the small presses, seen also in the many readings and book launches the store organized over the years, made it possible to see books as outgrowths of organic communities, rather than simply an endless Niagara of kitsch overflowing from an anonymous industry (which is what publishing seems like when you walk through one of the big chain stores).

Our own taste always seems to us something very personal, private and intimate. This is an illusion. Taste is social: it grows out of meeting other people and sharing enthusiasms, usually in an environment conducive to discovery. What would our taste for art be like without museums, or our taste for movies without film festivals? Sad, impoverished, barren. My own taste for a certain type of book, challenging and visual, was nurtured by Pages.

Some of Cho's signs.
Some of Cho's signs.

Physically, the store had a strong aesthetic component. Michael Cho’s designed all the witty blue-washed signs for each section of the store in his comic book noir style (a unique mixture of Alex Toth and Dan Clowes). When I took the Chicago-based cartoonist Ivan Brunetti to Pages he was fascinated by Cho’s signs and photographed some of them. The window displays at Pages were often works of art in themselves, cleverly commenting on the books being sold.

Some window art.
Some window art.

Bravely and admirably, Glassman has always been adamantly anti-censorship and has stocked books other, bigger book stores were too timorous to carry: Rushdie’s Satanic Verses, Mein Kampf, the issue of Harper’s carrying Art Spiegelman’s smart analysis of the Mohammed cartoon controversy. (Not surprisingly Pages was where I first encountered some of the outré underground comics of Robert Crumb, including the great Weirdo magazine). Again this is an example of the way Pages was more than business, it was a store with a sense of community service.

Much more could be said about Pages, about its importance as a meeting place, about its role in the street culture of Queen Street, about the knowledgeableness and kindness of the staff. But I’m afraid writing too much of the store is making me  uncomfortably wistful. I’m too young to be nostalgic, or at least in an ideal world I should be too young to be mourning the fading of a cherished place.

Although Pages will disappear as a bookstore its role as a cultural institution will continue in a new guise: Glassman and his colleagues will continue to organize their famed reading series (which is of course called Not a Reading Series). Since the core of Pages was always about building a community of readers and writers, the continuation of the reading series means that the mission of Pages lives on.

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