Toronto book store beloved by the autism community to close after 35 years

Parentbooks has become a go-to community resource for parents in the city and beyond

A photo of Toronto bookstore Parentbooks
Parentbooks / Twitter

Parentbooks owner Patti Kirk has been a book seller since 1974, but listening to her describe her job she sounds more like a counsellor.

“We had no idea how enmeshed with the special needs community we would be when we opened,” she tells NOW over the phone. “A lot of the people who shop here have special situations and they want to talk to somebody. I had a call this afternoon from a woman in Owen Sound who has cancer and wants a book for her kid.”

After nearly 35 years running the book store on Harbord, Kirk, 68, has decided to retire and permanently close, a decision she calls “bittersweet.”

Though the closure is not pandemic-related, COVID-19 restrictions rule out hosting a big sale and a party. Toronto book stores are currently closed for in-person shopping as per the protocol under provincial lockdown rules.

Though often mistaken as a children’s book store, the shop is primarily for adults, specifically caregivers, educators and health-care professionals, as well as LGBTQ+ families, families with special needs and families with foster care kids.

However, each section also has a corresponding selection of children’s books.

“People shop here because they feel it’s curated and they don’t have to sort through and pick out the crap,” she says. “We don’t have a mandate to be complete in children’s books so we pick and choose what we want to sell.”

Kirk managed the now-shuttered Toronto Women’s Bookstore for 11 years before opening Parentbooks in 1986. Within five years, publishers began pumping out resources for parents with autism and her business took off.

Parentbooks quickly became a focal point for that community throughout the 90s and early 00s.

Though school boards and agencies formed the backbone of the business, Kirk says staff regularly fielded calls from parents desperately searching for resources on everything from dealing with divorce to adoption.

“We have been asked from time to time to assess people’s children,” says Kirk. “Needless to say we do not do that. But we do a lot of referrals. If we can’t help the person, we always try and direct them somewhere else so at least they feel like they’ve got somewhere to go when they hang up.”

The shop will be open for online and phone orders until its final day on January 29. When it closes, many people will lose a one-stop shop for titles that can be hard to find or non-existent at other book stores.

The store is the either the exclusive Canadian distributor for speciality publishers or one of a handful. Fortunately, Caversham Booksellers across the street will take on some of the autism resources the Parentbooks has carried.

And 50-year-old indie bookstore Different Drummer in Burlington will become the exclusive Canadian distributor for Italy-based Reggio Children, a highly discerning publisher specializing in early childhood education pedagogy. Parentbooks has been the exclusive Canadian distributor to date.

The children's corner at Parentbooks in Toronto
Courtesy of Parentbooks

The children’s corner at Parentbooks.

Cuts to autism services had a big impact on business

The rise of Amazon and the COVID-19 pandemic have created a challenging environment for independent book stores, but Kirk says years of provincial funding cuts has been the biggest struggle for Parentbooks.

The Ontario government is the primary source of financing and administering treatment – which can cost up to $95,000 a year – for people under age 18 with Autism Spectrum Disorder.

In 2019, Premier Doug Ford’s government changed the way it allocates funding in order to reduce waitlists, slashing the amount each family received in the process.

Outraged parents have pressured Ford to walk back the cuts, but many autism care professionals were nonetheless laid off and the province’s promised needs-based program has yet to materialize.

Kirk says cuts to social services have been affecting her business for decade. Before that, Parentbooks did “tens and tens and tens of thousands of dollars” in sales to school boards, day cares and government-funded agencies in need of resources.

“Now, if they have $2,000 left at the end of the year to scrape together to buy a books, it’s a miracle,” she says.

However, in what Kirk calls the “law of perversion,” Parentbooks is having a busy final few weeks thanks neighbours who bought holiday gifts and long-time customers rushing to place orders before the closing date.

“We’ve had a few customers bursting out crying at the door,” she says. “This is so not the way we wanted to finish, but we’re going out on an up. We’ve got a ton of business.”

While Amazon and big chains can offer things like free shipping, Kirk says community shops provide a service and connection that is hard to put a price on.

“I love the books that we sell,” says Kirk. “And I love when people call back and say that was so helpful. This book changed my life.”

At the beginning of the pandemic, Kirk was walking with her brother in Dundas, Ontario when they ran into a woman with an autistic son in his early 20s.

“She said, ‘Oh are you Charles’ sister who owns Parentbooks? She started crying and said, ‘You’ve changed my life. I had nothing to help with my son until I discovered your book store. I have bought so many things from your store and it’s changed out lives.’ There are hundreds of stories like that.”


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One response to “Toronto book store beloved by the autism community to close after 35 years”

  1. I am always saddened to hear about independent bookstores closing. It is important to note, however, that there is a difference between “Autism Community” and “Autistic Community.” I wonder how many autistic parents found this store helpful.

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