Yes, the title is meaningless in the age of Amazon, but The World’s Biggest Bookstore in Toronto is an Experience. Twenty-seven kilometers of bookshelves under fluorescent lighting that makes every reader look like Adrian Mole–spotty and earnest, with no hope of getting laid–in a room that could host an Indian wedding. Canada does big like India does crowded. There. Is. No. Competition.
TWBB was born in 1978, when the Coles brothers converted a bowling alley into a bookstore. Clever brand-namery there–some say TWBB is no longer the biggest, but the store still claims the right to the name, which it wears in pugnacious red letters.
This picture is from 2005, but the cop car and delivery truck apparently haven’t moved since.
TWBB is owned by a mega-corporation (Chapters Indigo, Canada’s largest book retailer), so the titles are pretty much those at any big chain bookstore. Lots of shiny happy rows of genre fiction; I’d still go to Ms. Internet to find that obscure title. There’s also a section peddling fake-scented candles and oversized teddy bears and gilt toilet paper and other frou-frous for People with Too Much Disposable Income, which has no business in a bookstore.
The good stuff: there’s a great children’s selection, and a really deep SF section. And a huge magazine section, with a heartening array of literary journals–I found not just Geist and Queen’s Quarterly but also their younger, funkier brethren. The lit. mags. are stacked on the very bottom of the shelf display, and I had to crawl on my hands and knees along the concrete floor to browse, so I couldn’t note down any new names where I could send my rejected work.
Lots of books on sale, yes, but prices are standard across all Chapters locations. Where TWBB scores is volume–if the Chapters website has the book, this location will probably have a copy. The store has hundreds of thousands of gazillions of books, making me feel a bit like a seventeen year old in the Playboy Mansion–not knowing where or how to begin. But look elsewhere for a bookshop that welcomes the reader; TWBB does not encourage browsing. No squashy couches here–after much searching, I found an ass-numbing bench right next to the restroom, and I bet its location was deliberately chosen. No places to plug your laptop. No sunlight, and Hades at the till. But TWBB is as solid and self-assured as a brick shithouse; go to the nearby Eaton Centre Indigo if you need macchiato and smiling staff with your reading.
TWBB is unapologetic about its dourness–I hear the store ran an ad campaign some years ago which included the line “Like other bookstores, we have places to sit. But why aggravate your hemorrhoids?” TWBB’s attitude would sit a lot better if I didn’t believe some marketing podperson at HQ had figured out how striking an anti-commerical pose could make more profits. That said, I have never visited a bookstore without making a purchase, and in my last visit, I left with three books, including James Wood’s How Fiction Works (on sale for $6.99, original price $24). Whether that was a bargain of course remains to be seen.