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Four days after Book City announced on Twitter that its flagship location at 501 Bloor West would be closing this spring, I reached long-time store manager John Snyder at his usual place behind a raised desk at the back of the store.
Snyder, who's been with Book City since January 1977, says that when Frans Donker opened the Annex store in August 1976, it was only half the size of the current main floor. The back, a former print and motorcycle shop, was only accessible from an alleyway and was used as a warehouse for Donker's remainders; the two upstairs floors were apartments.
Eventually the Annex mainstay expanded to the entire first and second floors, with offices on the third accessible only by a spiral staircase.
Having devoted 37 years to the place, Snyder is understandably hesitant to speak about the closure.
"We've had a deluge of customers coming in in various emotional states," he says. "It's been hard."
But when I mention that I'm reaching out to former Book City staffers to share their memories, he perks up.
"I wish I had a photograph and bio of everyone who worked here," he says.
Snyder recalls the 25th-anniversary party on the top floor of a local hotel. "Everyone who worked here had a carnation on. The room was filled with hundreds of people."
I started at Book City in the Beach in 2001. Book City alumna Alana Wilcox, now editorial director at nearby Coach House Books, worked at various locations including the Annex store for seven years, and still drops off boxes of Coach House books by bike.
"It was a real community space," she says of working there in the mid- to late 90s. "People would go to the bar, have a drink and on the way home stop at Book City and have long neighbourhood conversations. They'd stay for hours just chatting with their friends."
Nathalie Atkinson, now a culture columnist and editor at the National Post, concurs. "I loved working the Friday-night shift because it was festive," she says. "You could tell who was on a date."
Atkinson also enjoyed being "table jockey," which meant deciding what titles to display. "During the week, the full-timers would have what they wanted on the table, and then we'd come in on the weekend and be subversive," she says.
"I sold a lot of books that way - I loved that. Amazon recommends books to people; I can promise you I've never purchased a book that Kobo has recommended to me."
"I was there 74 years," jokes author Derek McCormack, who was at Book City for about a dozen years and whose first book, Dark Rides, was published in that period, during what he calls the "CanLit boom." (He now works at Type Books.)
"There was a moment there with Ondaatje and Atwood and Rohinton Mistry when Canadians seemed really proud that we were suddenly stepping onto the world stage, and there was also a boom in young writers and in presses starting up."
As a young writer/bookseller, he knew he was brushing shoulders with publishers, editors and journalists as well as writers like Margaret Atwood, Graham Gibson and Barbara Gowdy.
"Half of literary Toronto has worked at Book City," says Wilcox. And I'm not sure that's much of an exaggeration: André Alexis, John Lorinc, Howard Akler, Chris Chambers, Paul Vermeersch and Jason McBride all did.
Poet Mark Truscott, a former staffer, recalls the time lightning struck the Annex branch: "It hit a NOW box outside and then went right through the store and fried a number of the computers at the back," he says. Luckily, no one was hurt.
A semi-secret subset of the writers who worked for Book City were fired over the years, including Catherine Bush, who now coordinates the MFA program in creative writing at the University of Guelph.
Bush has only nice things to say about the store despite the fact that she was canned, calling it a "complete godsend" to her financially while she was writing her first novel.
"I'm very glad to have been a bookseller as part of my writing and reading life," she says. "It was an essential rite of passage for me as a writer."
Another writer who worked for Book City (though not the Annex location) was Adam Sternbergh, now culture editor at the New York Times Magazine and author of a new novel, Shovel Ready.
Though he wasn't a 501er, he was a "groupie" who would go there every weekend.
"I had a ritual every Sunday," he says. "I'd go in and ask Howard Akler to recommend a book. He would take 20 minutes, and then I would never buy it, which became a running joke between us. Over the span of eight years I may have bought one book he recommended."
Though the Annex shop has become quieter in recent years, it still has its share of devotees, as Kerry Clare's Pickle Me This blogspot attests.
"Our customer base is very dedicated and makes us very much part of the community," says Snyder. "The trouble is, that base is getting older and buying fewer books, and younger individuals will line up for sushi on any given night but won't come into a bookstore.
"I would rather the store had continued, and that I'd have had a position in the store through my working life and then as a customer," says Snyder. "You become part of the community, and I'll certainly miss both the work itself and the customers we served all these years."
Book City's other locations - on the Danforth, in the Beach and at Yonge and St. Clair - will remain open. Here's hoping they continue to weather the Amazon storm and provide a "comfortable, classy and cheap" meeting place for bookish people, access to interesting new and local books and, for creative types, as Atkinson puts it, "my favourite joe job I ever had."
With thanks to long-time "Book Citizens" Rachel Bokhout and Patrick Rawley for remembering some of the many, many people who worked there.