World’s Biggest bookstore, downtown Toronto “icon,” set to close in February

November 21, 2013 by · 1 Comment 

World's_Biggest_BookstoreWhen I was a kid in Toronto, my father used to take me on weekends to look at the model trains at the flagship Simpsons department store at the corner of Queen and Yonge Streets. When I got a little older, on one of our weekend sojourns my father walked me a few blocks north and introduced me to something I came to consider even more magical and fascinating than the elaborate toy railway constructions that were such a huge part of my childhood.

The World’s Biggest Bookstore, a sprawling, 64,000 square-foot building located on a side street off of what was at the time a seedy stretch of Yonge north of Dundas, was a marvellous refuge for an already bookish kid: row upon row of books stretched over two levels, covering every subject imaginable, and then some. As a child, I mostly confined myself to the sci-fi and horror sections of the store; in my later teens I branched out into mystery, then started looking further afield, scouring the shelves marked “Fiction,” “History,” “Political Science,” “Film,” “Music,” and even, eventually, “Poetry.”

My literary sensibility has obviously evolved since I first walked through the glass doors of that enormous red building on Edward Street, but one thing has not changed in all those years: I’ve never stopped dropping by the store to poke around and see what I could find.

It now appears that the iconic downtown Toronto location, opened by bookseller Jack Cole in 1980, will disappear in the new year. An article in the Toronto Star indicates that the store is in the process of being sold to a developer, and will close to the public in February 2014.

The store had been leased by Indigo Books and Music for $1.5 million a year. The lease is up at the end of December, and according to the Star, Indigo cannot afford the new rent:

[Dan McGowen, vice-president of real estate and development for Indigo] said the company is rebalancing its real estate portfolio.

“You have to look at your portfolio on an ongoing basis, and we have a very large store at the Eaton Centre,” he said.

“This isn’t us in a mode of shutting down stores. We will be going back out in the market and looking for some net new stores,” said McGowen.

McGowen’s comments stand in contrast to those quoted in The Globe and Mail in June 2012. Word had spread that the landlord for the Edward Street property was scouting new tenants for the location once the lease came up, but McGowen insisted at the time that the World’s Biggest Bookstore was a “one-off” and the company would fight to keep it open. “I realize it isn’t literally the world’s biggest, but you know what, it’s the biggest for us. It is an absolute icon.”

Icon or not, it appears the store is set to go the way of another downtown Toronto landmark, Sam the Record Man, which was located right around the corner on Yonge until it was torn down in 2009 (the spot is now being developed as part of Ryerson University).

Perusing the shelves at the World’s Biggest Bookstore in recent years has been bittersweet. An air of mustiness pervades, and the stock on display has depleted noticeably. The volume of books on the shelves has been becoming increasingly sparse, with huge swathes of space given over to a handful of bestselling authors (the ubiquitous James Patterson, for example, or E.L. James and J.K. Rowling). What stock remains is somewhat tattered from being thumbed, and many of the books are noticeably yellowing as a result of exposure to the store’s harsh florescent lighting. Precious few customers can be seen browsing the aisles, and the generally decrepit state of the merchandise testifies to books that have been sitting unsold for some time, victims of a buying public that makes more and more of its purchases online rather than in-store.

However, for a kid who spent hours roaming the shelves, and an adult who kept returning to poke around on the odd weekend, there is a palpable air of nostalgia attached to the news of the store’s closing. It is not just another spot from my childhood that is set to disappear; the World’s Biggest Bookstore played a fundamental role in nurturing my love for literature and writing, and I, for one, will miss it when it’s gone.