There are plenty of other places in Toronto to buy used books, and some, like ABC Books of 662 Yonge St., even have consistently newer copies. But as for richness of experience, Eliot’s Bookshop of 584 Yonge St. is unparalelled.
The building itself has three stories, each packed floor-to-ceiling with old books in wooden shelves. The customer who finds something of interest on a higher shelf is aided by a fleet of footstools positioned in various strategic locations around the store. And with a selection boasting of something around 60, 000 thousand titles, you’re almost certain to find what you’re looking for. If you act fast, that is. There’s a surprising amount of turnover: on more than one occaision I’ve found that the book I’ve left for a later visit has up and disappeared upon my return.
The last time I entered Eliot’s I found the proprietor on the floor in front of the door with a couple of potential sellers, each standing over a few boxes of books. There wasn’t much space left, so Eliot, as bookish as he might seem, nimbly vaulted over the impossibly high counter to get to his usual perch. When I went upstairs to find what I was looking for I could hear strains of the conversation by the door floating upwards. Eliot wasn’t just haggling over the price of the books, inspecting the titles with the eyes of a shrewd businessman, he was carrying on a conversation about books in general, discussing books he liked, the art of collecting, and even telling one seller that he should hold on to a signed copy of Cohen’s “Book of Longing” because it might be worth something. He might be running the store to make money, but he certainly doesn’t seem to want to step on anyone’s toes to do it.
Collecting seems to be Eliot’s passion, as evidenced by the large shelf of ancient (and beautiful) leatherbound books behind the counter. I asked him about them the first time I entered, wondering if any of them were for sale. “No,” he said, kindly, “these are just for me”. He shrugged and said that the reason he collected was that he “just liked books”, as if that needed any explanation. When I told him I was interested in picking up something with Art Noveau illustrations (naive as I was) he patiently told me that those sorts of books were usually very expensive, but that if I really wanted them I should try church and garage sales. It’s how he built up a large portion of his collection.
When you buy books at Eliot’s, your package is wrapped and taped in a brown paper bag, of a quality much higher than what your mom used to pack your lunch in. It’s a detail that is unnecessary but appreciated, and it makes you feel as if your purchase was special. Special being something that Eliot’s doesn’t need to work hard to be.