Edward Keenan: A fond farewell to Toronto's messiest bookstore
I bumped into my friend and neighbour Amy Lavender Harris among the dwindling piles of used books and magazines at Dencan Books on Dundas St. W. on Wednesday. She was talking to the owner, Eddie Roberts, and filling shopping bags with old magazines from the 1940s and 1950s, as she told me she has been more than once this week.
And when I asked her about the place, she was trying not to cry, as she told me she has more than once this week.
“Anytime something closes, it’s sad,” she said. “With bookstores it’s a longtime phenomenon. But this is, this is our local place.”
Amy is a writer and academic who has particular expertise in Toronto as it is depicted in literature. She wrote the book on it, Imagining Toronto. Dencan, she says, is where she found a lot of Toronto books, ones no one could find anywhere else, ones no knew remembered had been written. Then she handed me a Toronto book, The Short Happy Walks of Max MacPherson, written in 1968 by then-Star columnist Harry Bruce. I bought it.
Amy has brought her daughter to this bookstore. Years ago, she says, her husband used to sell books to Roberts. Shell miss the place, “And Eddie …” she said, wiping away a tear and gesturing to him.
He didn’t want to talk to me when I first came in. “I’m tired,” he said. “I don’t want to tell anymore stories.”
Dencan is closing this Saturday after more than 50 years as a Junction neighbourhood institution. Roberts has been running the place for 23 years. He bought it after first becoming a customer, as he told a Torstar reporter earlier this year, when he found a rare TV Guide issue he’d been seeking.
For years, it was famous for being the messiest bookstore in Toronto. When I first moved to the area over a decade ago, the display window in front was a giant pile of what appeared to be random books. The shelves inside were overflowing and stacks of books were piled up on the edges and tops of them. The aisles were lined with overflowing boxes, with piles of books stacked between them. You didn’t so much walk down those aisles as wedge yourself in between them and shuffle.
Longtime customer Norman Perrin says in those days, “at its most idiosyncratic,” the books were organized not in alphabetical order, but in “intuition order.” That is, if you asked Roberts for something, he’d walk over, move some boxes around, and find the title you'd asked for. Even rare, out-of-print, impossible to find books.
“I knew where everything was,” Roberts said, warming up reluctantly. “It was that way on purpose. People loved it. It was an adventure for them, to come in and disappear for half an hour, 45 minutes. It was known for chaos.”
He claims he didn’t particularly like it that way, “I had to sit here all day looking at the mess.” But people came from all over Ontario to shop here. Longtime loyal customers.
One of them was novelist David Rotenberg, who depicted Roberts and Dencan — fictionalized, and with names changed — in one of his books. More than once, in newspaper reader polls, it was named the best used bookstore in the city. Soon it will be gone.
All over the city, the same fate has taken longtime used bookstores: Orion Books, Elliot’s, Handy Book Exchange, Stephen Temple Books … all gone. More than most independent businesses, these places seemed, to me and people like Perrin, to be social hubs, neighbourhood signposts. Alike in some ways, but bearing the quirks of their owners, acting as reflections of their eccentricities. With each closing, the city seems a little less eccentric, a little more generic.
“The deal here is, every customer gets a dirty joke free with every purchase,” Perrin said with a smile at a point when Roberts was still saying he didn’t want to talk. “But you have to give as good as you get.” And then he wandered back into a space in the back to find a 1947 book on “How to Fight” that was just beside a 1980s-vintage stack of colour weekend comics supplements from the Toronto Sun.
Roberts doesn’t know what comes next for him. He hasn’t decided. He’ll miss the people, the customers, the neighbourhood characters. He’ll miss the snacks they brought him, he says, holding up a bag he’s eating from as evidence, the cookies and cakes and homemade goodies. “Now I’ll have to buy all that stuff.” He’ll miss the dogs in the neighbourhood who pass by each day and come to see him. Once he started talking, he kept remembering one more thing and then another that he’ll miss about the place.
And as he talked, one customer after another came in to pay one last visit, and tell him they’ll miss him, and his books, and his mess.
If you’re in the neighbourhood before Saturday, books are a buck apiece, with lots of treasures still to be found. The shelves are less crowded now, but they're still a bit of an eccentric mess.
Enjoy it while it lasts.
Edward Keenan is a columnist based in Toronto covering urban affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @thekeenanwire