Read the North Episode 4: The Booksellers & Librarians

30 May 2022 / by Quinton Bradshaw
A woodblock carving illustration of hands holding a book, under the title text "Read the North"

Visit a few of Toronto’s famed independent bookstores and sneak into the archives of the Merril Collection with us in this celebration of booksellers, librarians, and their communities. 

Hosted by Rebecca Diem
Produced by Quinton Bradshaw
Music by James Ellercamp

Special thanks to Anjula Gogia, Cory Doctorow, Sephora Henderson, and John Degen. You can learn more about Judith Merril and The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation & Fantasy by visiting

Reading List:

Another Story Bookshop
Bakka-Phoenix Books
Merril Collection at 50: Stories From the Spaced Out Library
Attack Surface – Cory Doctorow
Tales of The Captain Duke – Rebecca Diem 

Presented by The Word On The Street & CJRU 1280AM, with support from the Community Radio Fund of Canada. 

Episode Transcript:

Rebecca Diem: Hi, I’m Rebecca Diem, the Digital Strategy and Communications Manager for The Word On The Street. This is Read the North: a series about CanLit, brought to you by your favourite neighbourhood book festival.    

[theme music – ambient indie/electronic by composer James Ellercamp]

When the Word On The Street–also known as WOTS–was first dreamed up, one of the big hopes for the festival was that it would make books and reading accessible to a wider audience. For one exciting day, every year, the vibrant festival streetscape could welcome both hardcore fans and reluctant readers– who came for the fun… and then stayed for the books. 

For over thirty years, we’ve been achieving that goal. This year, we’re even expanding the festival to two full days. But WOTS isn’t the only place that people go to celebrate the written word. We are but one tiny cog in a big machine. Because while we hope to make an impact with each festival we run, there are still 363-or so other days in the year. And on every single one of those days, it’s the booksellers and librarians who play the biggest role in making books accessible to readers.    

[dreamy scoring begins]

Be honest, how many of you dreamed of a library like Belle’s growing up? I grew up in Chatsworth, Ontario and lived in my elementary school library. I would visit big city bookstores and libraries as temples to reading, and I’d walk their hallowed shelves with reverence. And once I started earning my own money, I began my own collection, filling my tiny apartments in Ottawa and Toronto with as many shelves as I could, and then some. 

Booksellers and librarians are at the forefront of literacy and making books–and the knowledge and experiences they contain–accessible to people. This episode, we’re going to dig deeper into how they do this work, and why. And we’re going to start with a guest from my own local neighbourhood bookstore. 

[dreamy scoring fades out]

Rebecca Diem: Hi, Anjula.

Anjula Gogia: Hi, Rebecca. Thanks for having me here today.

Rebecca Diem: It’s really good to see you again. 

Anjula Gogia: It is!

Rebecca Diem: Anjula, or Anju, really knows bookselling. I mean, just listen to this resume: 

Anjula Gogia: I am a bookseller at Another Story Bookshop and also the events coordinator at Another Story Bookshop. I’ve been there for probably nine years, and I’ve been a bookseller for over 25 years. So I was the co-manager at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore from 1996 to 2006. After that, I worked at PEN Canada for a year and then Between The Lines. And then I went off and was a stay-at-home mother for four years. And then I realized walking into Another Story Bookshop one day that oh, I’m a bookseller, this is what I really need to be doing. And so I started working there, and here I am nine years later.

Rebecca Diem: Over the past two and a half decades, Anju has had a front row seat for big evolutions in CanLit. But she hasn’t just been a passive viewer. Her first workplace, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, helped move the needle on a whole bunch of issues. And through her time there and beyond, she’s become a force of change in the industry.  

Anjula Gogia: The Women’s Bookstore went through a lot of iterations in its 35-year-plus history. And in the late 80s, there were a lot of struggles going on within the feminist community in Toronto and beyond about issues around race and anti oppression work. And the Women’s Bookstore was really part of, very much a part of that. Because it was part of the feminist movement in Canada. So we had–in the late 80s, there were a few women of colour who were really pivotal to opening up the space to writers of colour. So people like Mona Oikawa, Sharon Fernandez, were folks who were very important in The Woman’s Bookstore history, and at that time, it was very hard to find books written by women of colour and Indigenous women and Black women, right? The publishing houses weren’t publishing them, right? They just weren’t publishing them. The presses that were publishing them were often small feminist presses like Women’s Press, which then branched out to Second Story and Sumac Press. Sister Vision started by Makeda Silvera was a very critical press that published books by Black women and Indigenous women and other women of colour, and we were– probably sold more of their books than anybody else. 

And we had sections at the Woman’s Bookstore that were dedicated for, you know, Indigenous women, for women with disabilities, for Black women, for lesbians, for trans folks. And we did that before anyone else did, right? We also hosted events, with authors that you wouldn’t be able to find elsewhere, right, and we put money and attention and time and love into them. I did a lot of book launches and events. And I have many memories of them. But we brought in Octavia Butler the year before she died. And she had a conversation with Nalo Hopkinson at Innis town hall. And can you imagine doing that now? Right, like she’s still one of our consistent bestsellers. But back then, people didn’t know her in the way that the world knows her now, right?

Rebecca Diem: Oh my god, I’m freaking out. I’m such a huge fan! [laughs]

Anjula Gogia: It was a brilliant conversation! So we did things that other people didn’t do, and we profiled authors and events. Souvankham Thammavongsa and I go way back. She won the Giller Award in 2020 for How to Pronounce Knife, but I’ve been selling her books for 25 years. Her first book of poetry, Small Arguments, came out with Peddler Press, Beth Follett published it, and it is the most exquisite book of poetry ever. And I handsold it, and handsold it, and handsold it. 

And she writes in the Kenyan Review, the importance of having her work sold at the bookstore and what that meant for her, and how she saw herself as a writer. Right? And how–that having her name, which most people could not pronounce, at that time, right–how the bookstore gave her a place for her own work, right? And we sold her zine, we sold her poetry. And she was such a special poet to us, because she’s a brilliant poet. So fast forward, 2020, and her book becomes a national bestseller. But, you know, that’s one example of the kind of work that we’ve done, profiling writers and having writers as part as part of our community, and part of our family. 

Rebecca Diem: All these things Anju is talking about – having dedicated sections for specific communities, platforming writers who were underrepresented elsewhere – are part of what she sees as a bookstore’s responsibility to create a welcoming and inclusive space. Especially for folks who otherwise might not feel comfortable accessing literary spaces. 

Anjula Gogia: So if you’re a bookstore, you know, how diverse is your staff team, right? And this is a huge issue in bookselling, it’s still a very white industry, right? That’s a separate conversation. But bookselling by and large is a very white industry, I’m probably one of the only long term women of color in the bookselling industry that I can think of. Right? That’s at a senior level. That’s been doing this for 25 years plus. So, who are your staff? Right? What are your staff doing? What are they programming? What’s the environment when you have people coming into the store, right? 

And also in CanLit, are spaces wheelchair accessible? Half of them aren’t, right? Our bookstore is not wheelchair accessible. So any event that I do off-site, I really work very, very, very, very hard to make sure it is wheelchair accessible, both the entrance and bathroom. So these are things that event organizers need to keep considering, right? So the kind of space, the kind of aura, the people that you have coming in there, right, and making them feel welcome, when they come in is very key.

Rebecca Diem: I actually caught Anju in a particularly reflective period with this interview. Clearly, she’s often thinking about these things. But when I spoke with her this past February, she had just been awarded The Writer’s Union of Canada’s 2022 Freedom to Read Award, literally days before our interview. The Freedom to Read Award is presented annually to recognize an individual whose work has directly supported access to books. And when we spoke, she was still processing what the award meant to her. 

Anjula Gogia: Ah, it was probably one of the most overwhelming professional experiences of my life. I have to say that I’ve been incredibly humbled, and extremely grateful, and just so honored that I have received this award. John Degen brought it to the store on Friday, and I just cried and cried and cried and I’m gonna start crying again if I talk about it! 

[reflective, optimistic scoring begins]

I’ll try not to, but this award really means the world to me, because I mean, I can speak endlessly about being a bookseller, but, you know, I’ve been doing this work for a very long time, and a lot of it has been behind the scenes and a lot of it is really hard work. Bookselling is a grind, it really is a grind. And the last two years have been hard as they have been on everyone. 

Rebecca Diem: Not only is bookselling a grind–it’s also a skill. Handselling books, building relationships, creating that welcoming space, it’s an art that is honed and developed over years. 

Anjula Gogia: I think that’s why this award has been so meaningful to me, the Freedom To Read Award, because it is actually the first time I’ve really received formal recognition of the kind of work that I’ve done. 

[reflective, optimistic scoring fades out]

Rebecca Diem: In the future, Anju would like to see more Black and Indigeonous, and people of colour given the opportunity to develop that skill.

Anjula Gogia: One of the things we don’t talk about with publishing is that it’s a very class-based industry where you have to have class privilege in a lot of ways, especially in a city like Toronto, to stay in it for a long time, because bookseller salaries are low. Right? And you see a lot of staff turnover, because it’s very hard to live in Toronto on a bookseller’s wage, right? I would like to see very specific cultural support given to independent booksellers, right? And to independent bookstores. Moreso than ever has been, right? I’d love to see a paid mentorship program within indie bookshops for BIPOC staff, right? With salary levels that will sustain them. I would love to see that, and I’d love to work on it.

Rebecca Diem: For Anju, conversations of diversity and inclusion aren’t secondary to the job. They’re a fundamental part of her everyday work.  

Anjula Gogia: Yeah, so I consider myself an activist. And I consider myself an activist bookseller very much, because everything that we do is political, right? And the kinds of books that we sell are political–not all of the books that we sell are political, but many of them are. And bookselling as activism is so multi-layered for me, both at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, and at Another Story Bookshop, we very much feel ourselves, you know, we’re part of the communities that we’re in. And that’s reflected in not just the books that we carry, but the events that we put on and the other kinds of work that we do. 

People still need bookshops. You know, I remember in the early 2000s, when we knew Amazon and Indigo were coming, you know, people thought that was the end of the bookshop, and a lot of bookstores closed at that time, a lot of them closed. But what I’ve always said is that we will only be around as long as our community wants us around.

Rebecca Diem: And truly, there’s no better story to represent this than one our next guest told us. 

Cory Doctorow: So I’m Cory Doctorow. I’m a science fiction novelist, and an activist, and a journalist. I’ve written some 20 books. I grew up in Toronto, I was a bookseller there. I worked at the first Word On The Street at Bakka Books, when, back when it was on Queen Street, and I have published many things as a publisher, as well as, as a writer. 

Rebecca Diem: These days, Cory lives in LA, is an internationally-renowned author, and even had a short story collection championed on CBC’s Canada Reads program. His Toronto bookselling days are a few decades behind him. But although this story takes place back then, I think it perfectly demonstrates something that’s still true today: while communities need bookstores, bookstores also need their communities.

Cory Doctorow: So my boss then was a lovely fellow named John Rose, he was the second owner of Bakka, Bakka’s on its third owner now. And John was selling books at a time when the economy was really tight. And when we’d come through a recession, and when it– he had through a combination of some bad managerial choices and bad luck and a bad economy, had ended up on hold with most of the major publishers, so he didn’t have any credit left with them. And he couldn’t order books. And we struggled.

And we were very creative, and we had a community that supported us. So you know, when word got out among some of our best customers that we were in trouble, a lot of them came in and sold significant portions of their collection to us to sell as used stock, and then took payment in credit. So we didn’t have to lay out any cash, we could bring cash in. But we could not get around the fact that for new books that were coming out, that our readers wanted to read, that our customers wanted to buy, we just couldn’t get the publishers to ship them to us because we owed them too much money. 

[jaunty, upbeat music begins]

So my boss had a store at Queen and– around John Street, Queen and Peter, on Queen West. And his major distributor was H.B. Fenn out in Etobicoke. And H.B. Fenn was started by Harold Fenn, that’s the H in H.B. Fenn. And Harold’s office was in the corner of this warehouse out in the western suburbs. And John would drive his tiny hatchback out to the western suburbs every night with the money from the cash register and buy 50 or 100 dollars worth of books and bring them back the next day so that we could sell them. And Harold could see this. And he came down one day and he said to John, your store is on Queen West. You live in The Beaches. I see you out here in Etobicoke every night – maybe it was Mississauga, I forget – what are you doing here? And John told him, and he said, you know, any bookseller that would do that is a good credit risk. And Harold took us off hold. And that’s what saved Bakka. 

[jaunty, upbeat music fades out]

Rebecca Diem: Bakka’s still around today – now as Bakka-Phoenix Books in its new home on Harbord Street. As of this year, they’ve been serving the sci-fi and fantasy lovers of Toronto for half a century. That’s a testament to some pretty remarkable community support. And the communities that spring up around these places are doing more than just keeping the store(s) open. I mean arguably, Cory’s extremely successful career is kind of a testament to the Toronto sci-fi community. And when he reflects on coming up in the community as a kid in Toronto, one figure looms particularly large: 

Cory Doctorow: Yeah, so Judy was a pioneering science fiction writer, editor, and critic.

Rebecca Diem: Judy, as in, Judith Merril – a legend in the sci-fi community. In 1986, she moved to Toronto, where she quickly began to shake things up. Previously in New York, she’d been part of a group of lefty science fiction writers, called The Futurians.  

Cory Doctorow: And one of the things that the futurians used to do was they used to have this moveable feast called Hydra, where every couple of months they’d have like a spaghetti potluck dinner at someone’s house. And she brought that to Toronto. She called it Ontario Hydra. And she invited all of the writers, editors, critics, people who were making Prisoners of Gravity, the science fiction show on TV Ontario, people who worked in the, in the film industry, people who worked in publishing, booksellers, we would all gather at someone’s house every six weeks for a potluck dinner. And so, once I was working at Bakka, I started going to Hydra meetings too. 

Rebecca Diem: But Cory’s path had actually first crossed with Judith Merill’s some years earlier. After moving to the city, she had donated her entire personal book collection to the Toronto Public Library. They used it to create a special sci-fi collection called The Spaced Out Library, and she presided over it as the TPL’s first writer in residence. 

Cory Doctorow: So when I was about nine or ten, we took a school trip down to The Spaced Out, which was then at Spadina and Bloor, and she took this roomful of elementary school kids, and this towering doyenne of the field told us about science fiction and writing and said, “Look, if you write a manuscript, if you write a story, bring it to me and I’ll critique it”. So I started bringing Judy stories when I was like, 11, 12 years old– 

Rebecca Diem: No! 

Cory Doctorow: – for critiques. Yeah, it was amazing. And Judy, had, as a result of this practice, she had a kind of stable of science fiction writers who she was tracking the progress of, and because The Spaced Out had like a meeting room, she would group us into workshops, and she would say, okay, like you guys should like, come in on Tuesday nights. All of you have a critiquing circle. I’ll tell you how it’s done. But like, I’m not going to preside over it. This is a pure workshop. You know, and you just like you photocopy your manuscripts, you drop them off at the reference desk at the library. Everybody comes in, you know, on–by like Monday and picks them up. And on Wednesday, you sit down and you critique them and you have your thing.

Rebecca Diem: And it turns out, if not for Judith Merill, there wouldn’t have even been a Bakka Books for him to work at.

Cory Doctorow: I found out actually, later on, that Bakka itself was started when she cornered a local fan and said, you know, the city needs a science fiction bookstore. It was the oldest science fiction bookstore in the world, which she instigated, by getting it set up. So Judy is like, she’s like this origin node and powerhouse of Canadian science fiction, Toronto science fiction. She was so generous and such a great mentor. And, you know, I’ve hardly touched on her political life. But she was a very powerful and effective political activist, which is something that her kids have carried on, and her grandkids too.

And I think, you know, when we talk about Judy Merril, and all the lives that she touched and all the ways that she made a difference, you know, that’s, that’s an example of how someone who, who enters the field, and who just does it their own way, ends up having an effect that ripples out in all these different ways. And has this like–casts this very long shadow.

Rebecca Diem: Judith Merril passed in 1997. But while most of us will never know her the way Cory did, anyone who uses the Toronto Public Library can still visit one of her longest-lasting legacies. 

Sephora Henderson: So here we are at the door to the workroom of the Merril Collection.

Rebecca Diem: So is this where– so who works in this area?

Sephora Henderson: So we have our Information Desk. There’s always a staff member at the desk ready to greet you. Then behind you we have the entrance to our stacks area which is where we keep the materials.

Rebecca Diem: The voice you’re hearing belongs to Sephora Henderson. She’s the senior department head of the Merril Collection of Science Fiction, Speculation, and Fantasy at the Toronto Public Library. What began as The Spaced Out Library has today grown into the largest publicly accessible collection of sci-fi and fantasy materials in the country. Judith Merril’s initial donation was 5000 items, which seems like an enormous amount… until you hear that it’s since grown to eighty thousand items. Today, it’s located at 239 College Street, in the Lillian H. Smith branch of the Toronto Public Library.

Everything in the collection is available to view upon request, but the collection is closed to casual browsing. Some of the items are incredibly old and fragile, and the space is temperature controlled to prevent wear. But say you’re doing a series about CanLit, and you’re interviewing the collection’s head for it, and you promise to be, like, sooo careful… well, you just might be lucky enough to get a tour of the stacks! 

Sephora Henderson: Just watch your step because it’s narrow corridors here. [laughs] Yeah, so this just gives you an idea of the fiction on top of the ranges here you see– 

Quinton Bradhshaw: We’re still in the A’s, also, here. 

Sephora Henderson: That’s correct. 

Quinton Bradshaw: Following– We’ve passed what, like nine shelves? 

Sephora Henderson: Yes. Yeah.

Rebecca Diem: I found the D section.

Quinton Bradshaw: We’re gonna lose Becky in these stacks.

Rebecca Diem: No, I want to find my books.

Quinton Bradshaw: Oh! 

Rebecca Diem: They’re probably in this section.

Sephora Henderson: Just above your head. Oh, we could find your books, that would be exciting.

Rebecca Diem: There’s D-I… Oh, here they are. Yeah! 

Sephora Henderson: Tah-dah!

Rebecca Diem: Tah-dah. There they are. Oh, that’s fun. They’re on the shelf!

Sephora Henderson: That is special, that’s so nice!

Rebecca Diem: Yep!!! That is indeed a recording of me finding a full set of my Steampunk novella series in the Merril Collection. A quick digression here: one of the best things about having my books in the Toronto Public Library system–apart from the fact that it’s just really cool–is it means I’m eligible for the Public Lending Right Program. You’ve probably never heard of it, but it’s one of the most impactful programs for Canadian authors and yet another reason to love libraries. We got John Degen from the Writer’s Union to explain it: 

[inquisitive scoring begins]

John Degen: So everybody loves libraries, including authors and publishers, absolutely essential to the cultural landscape. But there’s no doubt that having, sort of, books available free through libraries, and library lending, puts a little bit of pressure on especially the first run of sales of a book. And so in order to kind of balance that out and compensate for that sales pressure, a bunch of very forward-looking people invented what’s called the Public Lending Right. So maybe I should backtrack a bit and then just say the Public Lending Right is this mechanism, which allows authors to be compensated, when their books are, are collected and, and lent through public libraries. So to be absolutely clear, money from the, for the public lending right program does not come from library funding at all, So libraries are separate to that. The funding comes directly from government. And it’s a cultural support.

And the connection to libraries is that the people who run the Public Lending Right in Ottawa, will go to different library collections around the country, seek out the books of the people who have signed up with the Public Lending Right. So let’s say you’ve signed up. And let’s say you have several books, let’s say you have five books, and they’re all collected in public libraries around the country. They’ll go to Winnipeg, they’ll go to St. John’s, they’ll go up into the Northwest Territories, they’ll find these public libraries, and they’ll search through their collection for Rebecca Diem’s books. If your book is found, if many of your books are found in each one of those libraries, you get what is known as a ‘hit’. And there’s a ‘hit rate’, which is a dollar amount. And so they just multiply the number of hits that you get by the dollar amount that they’ve decided is the hit rate, and then you get a nice cheque in February, which is really a thank you, from the government for allowing your books to be collected in public libraries and lent freely to people in Canada. What’s more beautiful than that? [laughs]

[inquisitive scoring fades out]

Rebecca Diem: So, if you’re low on funds or shelf space, one of the best ways you can support your favourite author is actually really simple: request their latest book at your local library. But, back to the stacks. While I was initially focused on the book sections, the collection is actually home to a way broader range of materials.  

Sephora Henderson: The tops of the ranges here, I’m just going to point out, these are called Hollinger boxes. They house our pulp and periodicals collection. We have a large collection of pulp magazines, uh, starting in, I think 1926 with Amazing Stories. And, you know pulp, pulp magazines, are quite fragile, as you could imagine, because they weren’t made of very good, you know, good quality paper in the first place, hence the name pulp. So we do our best to preserve them in these boxes, keep them away from light and handling as much as possible. Uh, let’s see… I’m just going to move over here to flap my arms around and see if the lights turn on, be right back. Oh there we go. [Rebecca laughs]

Quinton Bradshaw: Oh my god, this is fun.

Sephora Henderson: This is our role playing game collection. We are purported to have the largest role playing game collection in a public setting, anywhere. So we have over 1500 titles, and not just Dungeons and Dragons, although we have a lot of Dungeons and Dragons, which is wonderful. But a lot of other titles too. 

Right here on this atlas stand, we have what we call our artist editions of comics. So these are the size that the artist would have originally rendered. I’ll show you this one, actually, just–the rustling sound is me peeling back a piece of plastic. We cover everything in the collection when it’s not in use, if it’s exposed, because–just in the event that’s–you know, the ceiling caves in or something awful like that happens, you know [Sephora knocks on wood], hopefully it doesn’t! You know, the, the items would have a layer of protection. So, here – I’m looking at an artist edition of The Amazing Spider Man, for instance. So I’m just gonna flip open to show you. So these are, you know, basically all of the little markings that the artist would have originally included. Any little mistakes, that sort of thing –

Rebecca Diem: You can see like the pencil lines that – 

Sephora Henderson: Yeah.  

Rebecca Diem: – they’ve erased before inking it.

Sephora Henderson: Yeah. So you can get really great detail. And when you–it’s really nice sometimes to, um, look at this side by side with the finished product to see kind of what came of it after it’s coloured and whatnot. But yeah, these are, these are great, we bought these from The Beguiling. And we really like that we have these because they’re quite expensive. You know, if someone were to try and collect all of them, you know, it would be kind of prohibitive for people to, to collect a lot of these. So it’s nice that they can just kind of look at them, ‘cause we bought them for you! [laughs]

Rebecca Diem: Every year, the Merril collection gets a budget for new acquisitions, and they go out hunting for cool new additions. So much of the stuff here is the kind of thing the average person could never casually buy, especially some of these older and rarer items. But instead of sitting in some rich collector’s vault, they’re available to every single person who walks into the library. Or, in other cases, it’s a small press item that got released in extremely limited quantities. When the Merril Collection acquires those items, the number of people who can access and appreciate them increases exponentially. The access provided by the collection is pretty incredible. And then, there’s also the historic value of the collection. 

Quinton Bradshaw: Can I ask a question that is maybe–probably feels a bit obvious to you with your work, but why do you think archiving like this is important?

Sephora Henderson: Well, I think for a number of reasons. So it’s good to know–it’s a snapshot of what’s been happening in the genre, right? So the same way we talked about the sort of older white male exclusive point of view, all the way to the sort of present kind of more diverse, more, you know, marginalized voices coming, coming to the forefront. It teaches us the trajectory of where we’ve been and where we’re going. I think it’s just important to remember our roots, too. Like I, I don’t like to disparage too much the, the older white male narrative because that simply is what was available at the time and what was popular at the time, you know, so it’s good for us to have that information, but also good for us to move on and you know, move past it. 

Also, book art itself has had an interesting trajectory. So, just looking at the ways that which– the ways in which people create books, books as object as you say, you know, art items, the kinds of technologies that become available over time. You know, it’s, it’s interesting, because a lot of modern artists actually still use older methods to create books, which is kind of interesting, you know. Even, even in our day and age where we can, you know, where there’s an increasingly digital kind of treatment of material. But I think people who love books will tell you that there’s just still nothing like holding a book, you know, like, there’s something about the book that just takes you somewhere, you know, and…

Rebecca Diem: They’re like little portals to other worlds.

Sephora Henderson: Absolutely, yeah.

Rebecca Diem: Later, in Sephora’s office, she reflects on the way COVID has changed people’s relationship to the library. 

Sephora Henderson: Uh, well, I don’t think anything prepared us for, you know, what, what ended up happening and, you know, the length of time that we were sort of shut down and locked away, I guess is…ha, to sound a bit dramatic about it. But, you know, the library, because it is–it’s such a community-based kind of operation, at its heart, they certainly found ways to try and keep those connections flowing, even during the pandemic. So it was, you know, full steam ahead, trying to figure out and deliver good online programming. And there were so many programs, set up by the library and delivered to try and keep, keep these conversations happening. And we also tried our best to, you know, come up with blog posts. Using, you know, Twitter or Facebook, any social media, we had access to, to still connect with people.

The library works really hard to, I guess market their services to, to the public, you know? There are a lot of people who live in a community and maybe you use the library, maybe you don’t. I think, how do I say this? I think people are becoming more aware of the wealth of things that libraries offer. I think we’ve moved from the “Oh, it’s just books,” or “Oh, it’s just…” you know, whatever, whatever, you know, fill in the blank sentence there. I think people are starting to see, ‘Oh yeah, libraries really are community spaces’, libraries have programs, libraries have digital content, libraries have classes, programs, exhibits, you know, like, a lot more than – I never want to say “just” books because I feel like books will always be the heart of what a library is and what people perceive as a library. So we are more than books.

[dreamy, reflective piano scoring begins]

Rebecca Diem: When I reflect on the bookstores and libraries I’ve visited over the years, I remember how it felt to stand between the stacks, discovering new writers and genres like seams of gold or even finding the exact spot where my books might someday be. And I think of meeting classmates for study sessions, in high school, in university, and for writing meetups. I think of that time I did a poetry workshop in my hometown library for a group of tweens attending their first Girls Rock Camp. I think of browsing Another Story Bookshop the week my baby niece was born, getting recommendations from Anju and the other staff, and how full Avery’s little bookshelf is already becoming thanks to her adoring aunties and uncles.

And while I treasure those moments in these spaces, I am also aware of how vulnerable these institutions are. The survival of a bookstore depends on the community surrounding it. And the same goes for libraries. More than once, the public value of libraries has been threatened by austerity-minded provincial and municipal leadership. But we, as a community, have a say, too. 

[dreamy, reflective piano scoring fades out]

And because of this community–our community–more bookstores are opening in Toronto and across the country. And libraries continue to provide essential services while investing in new programs and bigger, more diverse collections. Booksellers and librarians are passionate about their work and serving their communities. And, to quote our friend John Degen, what’s more beautiful than that?

[ambient credits theme music]

Read the North is a co-production of CJRU 1280 AM and The Word On The Street Toronto. The series is hosted by me, Rebecca Diem, and produced and edited by Quinton Bradshaw. James Ellercamp composed our theme music and scoring. 

If you’d like to visit the Merril Collection, they’re open Monday to Friday from 10am to 6pm, and on Saturdays from 10 to 5. Walk-ins to view materials are welcome, and you don’t even need a library card!  

The bookstores we referenced in this episode were Another Story Bookshop, which is located at 315 Roncesvalles Avenue, and Bakka-Phoenix Books, at 84 Harbord Street. You’ll also be able to visit their booths at this year’s Word On The Street festival, which will take place at Queen’s Park this year on June 11th and 12th! For more info, you can visit 

This series is made possible thanks to funding from the Community Radio Fund of Canada. 

The next episode will be the last episode of this series, so be sure to tune in for the final, and possibly most significant piece of the CanLit puzzle: The Readers and the Writers. It’ll be live on CJRU 1280 AM next Monday morning at 11am. I hope you’ll join me for that, but for now, thanks for listening.  

[ambient indie/electronic theme music plays]   


Sephora Henderson: So here we have – ah! This is Amazing Stories. 1926 was the first edition of Amazing Stories. So this would have been the very first volume ever.

Rebecca Diem: Oh my gosh, it says stories by H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Edgar Allan Poe…

Sephora Henderson: Let’s see, that was the– another edition of the same year.

Rebecca Diem: H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Ellis Parker Butler– Yeah, they did not have a very large pool of talent to draw from, did they? 

Sephora Henderson: No. [laughs]