Farewell to an iconic bookstore

How do you mourn the passing of a space? At its peak, Toronto’s Anglican Book Centre was a town square where people gathered to buy things they needed and to see people they liked. Today, the business is no longer viable and the store will close on Jan. 18, 2013.

"A bookstore for all Christians," was the longtime slogan of the Anglican Book Centre. Undated photo of 600 Jarvis Street location. GENERAL SYNOD ARCHIVES
“A bookstore for all Christians,” was the longtime slogan of the Anglican Book Centre. Undated photo of 600 Jarvis Street location. GENERAL SYNOD ARCHIVES

I never knew the ABC during its heyday, but my grandfather was a regular. During the 1950s and 60s, the Rev. William Rex Symons would regularly drive downtown from Alliston, Ont., taking his three young sons for voice lessons. Often they would swing by the Anglican Book Centre at 600 Jarvis Street to pick up commentaries, mission books, or Sunday School flannelgraphs.

Books were necessary objects back then. All four walls of grandpa’s study were packed floor to ceiling with books—many from the ABC. Sometimes he and my grandma, Jocelyn, would read the books aloud to one another. (Including, apparently, Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.)

The ABC is one of Toronto’s oldest bookstores. It began in 1900 as the Church Book Room on Richmond Street. In 1926 General Synod bought the store and moved it north to the national offices at 600 Jarvis. In 1953 the bookstore was established on the main floor of the church’s new square, brown brick building—a location that many remember vividly.

For decades, the bookstore hummed along but didn’t make much money. It reached a breaking point in 1967 when General Synod said the ABC it must earn its keep. That was when the Rev. Michael Lloyd, a priest and accountant, took over as director.

It was a tricky balance sometimes, running a for-profit business inside a not-for-profit, but Father Lloyd turned the store into a cash cow for General Synod. He focused on quality products—candlesticks from London’s finest silversmiths, vestments from the Vatican’s Belgian suppliers. He would travel abroad to handpick merchandise.

But even with all the chasubles and chalices, the ABC space “wasn’t spiffy,” remembers General Secretary the Ven. Dr. Michael Thompson. He can recall the geography of the space, with its plain tile floor, metal bookshelves, and separate room for children’s ministries.

The first time Mr. Thompson came to Toronto by himself was to visit the ABC. He and a friend drove down on a day off from their summer camp jobs and Mr. Thompson found a treasure: To A Dancing God by Sam Keen.

Later, as a city resident, Mr. Thompson and his friend John Privett, now archbishop of Kootenay, would stroll down from north Toronto through the city’s leafy ravines and emerge at the book centre.

“It was a place you ran into similarly nerdy people,” Mr. Thompson remembers.

Many people told me that they met friends, priests, professors, and students in the aisles of ABC. They would pull books off shelves to back up arguments. They would read for an hour to get a feel for a book.

Browsing through the ABC changed Dr. Stephen Martin’s life. Mr. Martin, currently a professor at the King’s University College in Edmonton, remembers living a block away from the store and dropping by to scan the shelves.

Here the young Pentecostal found Anglicanism. The burgeoning academic found a life love: South African theology, as displayed on ABC’s new titles tables. Dr. Martin went on to do his PhD at the University of Cape Town.

Sometimes the staff made the book introductions. There was Major Louis “Pat”
Paterson, the veteran salesman who served for 64 years up until his death in 1985 at age 91. The Rev. Dan Graves, a 12-year ABC employee and former retail sales manager, was also known for his wise selections. He loved taking ABC displays out to diocesan synods, bringing material for particular people.

Once Mr. Graves fought to get the ABC goods back. He chased a would-be VHS tape thief down Church Street and tackled him to the ground.

“Afterwards, I was both congratulated and reprimanded,” he laughed.

The ABC was a busy place back then, especially during the post-Christmas sale, remembers Dan Benson, who served as general manager and in other roles from 1996 to 2006. Faithful customers—including the Sisters of the Church—would line up before the store opened, and later truck out with shopping carts full of books.

It was Mr. Benson who coined the ABC’s slogan “a bookstore for all Christians.” The ABC aimed to reach all stripes of churchgoers, and was known across the Anglican Communion and in other denominations. The bookstore was also known through its publishing arm, ABC Publishing, founded during Father Lloyd’s time.

But industry changes pressed hard on the store. The rise of large and web-savvy retailers like Chapters Indigo meant a hit for the ABC. Already there were far fewer people buying Christian books than in my grandpa’s era.

In 2004, General Synod relocated to the bottom four floors of a condominium on Hayden Street. The ABC struggled in a new basement location with minimal parking. Meanwhile the popularity of e-readers increased. Liturgical texts, once a regular source of income, were published online.

In the face of mounting, yearly deficits, General Synod decided to close the ABC for good in 2006 but then along came Augsburg Fortress Canada, the not-for-profit publishing arm of Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada to pull the store back from the brink.

The ABC continued for several more years under this new management—even turning the occasional small profit—but then became too much of a liability. Augsburg Fortress and the Anglican Book Centre together announced in October that the Toronto store would close.

Everyone I spoke with is sad, not surprised, to see the ABC close. Some are bitter. Some said the life left long ago. Some invested years of their lives to keep this tough business afloat. They tried websites, partnerships with other independent bookstores, selling fair trade products, and more.

“I was sadder to see it so different, abandoned, and lightly used. I was sad to go downstairs and see that no one was there,” said Mr. Thompson.

“Yet I feel gratitude for how long and how well it served the church. Every person who worked there is part of that centre. The place is iconic.”‘

Mr. Thompson and I speak in his office, surrounded by books. He leans back to calculate how much money he spent at ABC over the years. $4,000? Probably more?

I scan the titles to see which books I recognize. I wonder how clergy offices will look different in the future.

As my Grandpa Symons got older, he passed out his books to people who wanted them. By the time he died in 1997 there were few left. Eventually Granny’s flannelgraphs went to an aunt.

My father recently told me that I have one of the old rectory bookshelves. I didn’t even realize it. It’s been refinished, repainted, and now sits in my living room, packed with many shapes and sizes of books. A few, maybe not enough, are from the Anglican Book Centre.

Augsburg Fortress Canada
500 Trillium Drive, Unit 19
Kitchener, Ont.
Tel: (800) 265-6397
Hours: Monday to Friday 9:00 a.m.to 5:30 p.m.; Saturday 10:00 a.m.to 5:00 p.m.

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