The World in Microcosm in a Basement Under Toronto Street: On Open Air Books and Maps

In this essay, John Zada visits Open Air Books and Maps, located at 25 Toronto St, Toronto, ON M5C 2R1.

For decades a small indie bookstore has been operating, virtually in secret, beneath the corporate hustle of Toronto’s downtown core. Open Air Books and Maps, a quirky and somewhat clandestine establishment is located in a basement-level nook at the corner of Adelaide and Toronto streets. Since 1976, this cramped and largely unannounced subterranean haunt has been selling maps and books on travel, nature and the outdoors. And, as anyone lucky enough to have stumbled upon it can testify, the store is a universe unto itself.

Walking in for the first-time can be a bit like finding buried treasure. A tsunami of books, unlike anything ever seen or experienced, greets the stunned visitor. Shelves heaving beyond capacity, and double-parked with colorful titles, fill aisles narrowed by pinnacles of stacked books (plucking one out of the precariously balanced piles with anything less than strategic precision would trigger a catastrophic bookslide). Maps of every size, scale, and detail, covering all corners of the globe, form an unrivalled collection and add to the jungle-like atmosphere. Other offerings in the form of inflatable globes, blindfolds for sleeping, Moleskines, and Canadian flags for backpackers taunt domestically in situ browsers.

The comprehensive section on France snags an unsuspecting passerby

This bookstore is a labyrinthine and borderless realm whose sections overlap and meld haphazardly into one another other. Cycling Michigan: 30 of the Best Bike Routes of Eastern Michigan stands sentry atop a towering section on cycling. Nearby, are two whole shelves each containing possibly every guidebook ever written about the UK and France. In another zone, language dictionaries pay homage to the phonetics of little heard tongues. English translation dictionaries for Azerbaijani, Pashto, Uzbek, Tajik, Basque, Bosnian, Marathi, and Wolof await their future owners with a Bodhisattva patience. And barely three strides away A Street Atlas of Bali rests in the shadow of a Himalayan mountain of books on Central and South Asia that teems with the accounts of explorers and includes, among others, several works on Francis Younghusband’s 1904 invasion of Tibet.

For lovers of travel – and related genres – the options here are bewildering. One is left somehow stunned: caught between the euphoria and melancholy born of endless variety. And then the inevitable question arises: Is the name of this cluttered basement a deliberate misnomer – or the complete opposite? For this bookstore presents itself like some chaotic interior ordering of the natural world.

One is reminded of Jorge Luis Borges’ Library of Babel, in which the author conceives of a universe in the form of an infinite library containing all possible works. That same flavour of infinity exists at Open Air Books and Maps – not in its outer dimensions, as with the Library of Babel, but in its interior density: in that mass repository of documents, the illuminated detritus of discovery, born of humankind’s quest to know its environment, and itself.

The supreme ruler of this vast realm is a soft-spoken gentleman who presides quietly, though omnisciently, from his bunker of books and travel knickknacks. Owner Jeff Axler, a veritable travel oracle, will dispense advice, track down hidden titles, and generally help guide visitors through the cascading ranges of books.

It is somehow fitting, and also a blessing, that in a city and society like ours – whose values increasingly centre on the hoarding of information and non-stop work – that a store like this should exist. For what could be more valuable than a true dimensional portal, an escape hatch, and an inspiration to help one make good on schemes to pursue something real?


One response to “The World in Microcosm in a Basement Under Toronto Street: On Open Air Books and Maps”

  1. I couldn’t agree more with the article about the “Open Air Books and Maps” store.
    I recently needed an enlarged map of a certain part of Buenos Aires prior to traveling there, and searched for it in every major books and maps store, Chapters, Indigo, The world’s biggest book store, CAA, travel agencies etc. and many other stores without any luck, until someone suggested I try the Open Books and Map store, which I never heard of before.

    I called the store first as I was already tired of running around looking for it, and asked for that map. The gentleman on the other side of the line asked me if I wanted it in English or Spanish…. I couldn’t believe it. He gave me the address and I left everything and immediately drove to that address, parked the car and went to the building.

    As I approach the house number 25, it was a restaurant there, so I backed off and tried again, and again I ended up in the restaurant. I checked again the street and house number to see if I wasn’t mistaking with the address, and I wasn’t.
    Just before I decided that something is wrong here and left the place, a lady who was standing out there for a smoke, saw me running around back and forth looking for something, asked me what I was looking for so vigorously? I answered, a book store, it’s supposed to be a book store here… She then said, pointing her hand and finger to that direction: “It’s down there on the left side of the building, down into the basement, there is no store sign there, but just go down there and you’ll find it”, and so I did.

    What I found there is hard to describe, the article described it best, and I won’t add to it, mountains of books, and of course my so desired map. I actually had a dilemma which one of them to choose as they were several there that met my need.

    In conclusion, it’s a books gold mine, and have you ever seen a gold mine that had a sign to it?
    You have to get into it, down below to find the gold.