Disappearing Bookstores: a Letter from Sweden, Toronto, and Iran

I returned to Toronto in May 2010 as a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto. When I find Sweden (where I am resident) uninhabitable, and Iran (where I was born) too dangerous, I take refuge in Toronto, undoubtedly, the most ethnically diverse city in the world. I rented a suite on the southern fringe of the University campus, close to the Art Galley of Ontario. The day after I arrived, ignoring my jetlag, I headed to the Queen West neighborhood, known for its counterculture and bohemian character. It is a compelling part of downtown, where small nineteenth-century brick houses stand still glamorous in the shadow of mushrooming high-rises. I have loved this neighborhood, above all, for Pages—without question, Toronto’s best independent bookstore.

In almost 400 square metres, the bookstore offered a mixture of scholarly books, poetry, comic series, fiction, and art books, and an eye-catching section of magazines and journals. Recent arrivals were displayed on tables on the right side near the entrance, first fiction and next to it, non-fiction. The table beyond was wholly dedicated to poetry, and after that stood a table for Canadian authors. Bookshelves along the wall to the right displayed more fiction, and the ones along the left wall were packed with books on art and visual culture. Between the walls, books on gender, race, philosophy, anthropology, and literary criticism filled the space. Pages was more than a bookstore. The owner, Marc Glassman, also an editor of journals and a radio broadcaster, has produced innumerable cultural events and during three decades has supported small and independent publishers. The commitment of Pages to the progressive cultural movement was evident in a section dedicated to “counterculture.”

Pages, one of the most exciting bookstores of my experience, with its broad and inspiring selection, was a gateway to the land of imagination. Regular visits to Pages were the highlight of my stays in Toronto. I spent hours there, going from section to section, picking up books and leafing through them. Every visit to a good bookstore, if it carries small-press books, is an adventure.

This time, after a fast breakfast in a small coffee shop and full of expectation, I was geared up to spend the whole morning in Pages. But Pages was gone. Not moved. Closed down. Forever. Dead—as I got to know, after asking around and searching online. After a few days’ searching, I found a former employee, now working in a nearby boutique. He told me how a sudden doubling of rent was the last shot to the heart of Pages. As the bohemian and counterculture neighborhood had been commercialized, and fashion brands moved in one after another, rents soared. The rent for Pages doubled from $15 000 a month to more than $30 000 a month in a short time. One of the new arrivals to the neighborhood was a huge Chapters store, belonging to Indigo Books & Music Inc., the largest book retailer in Canada, which opened one block south of Pages, and where, in three floors, books—selected by company people far from the store—are miserably indiscernible from fanciful and colorful toys, coffee cups, fitness kits, candles, chocolates, water bottles, and yoga mats.

Pages Books and Magazines is gone, after thirty years in the same location, selling books and organizing events. A Persian saying for missing someone is “Your place is empty.” Pages’ place is metaphorically and literally empty. Looking inside the store, I could see bare cement floors, disconnected wires, and pipes hanging from the ceiling. The empty concrete space expresses a bitter coldness. It is pornographically naked. You can see it all. Nothing is hidden. There is no space for mysteries, where before, well-stocked bookshelves covered walls, and thousands of pages concealed “something” from your eyes, luring you to pick up them and look inside.

To my sorrow and pain I found in the following days that Pages was not the only bookstore that had disappeared in recent years in Toronto. Three others of the best bookstores in the city were gone, as well: This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, in Kensington Market, Harbord street’s Atticus Books with its compelling collection of used scholarly books, and, also on Harbord, the Women’s Bookstore, a feminist bookstore. Well, the Women’s Bookstore was not really dead, but it seemed to be in a coma, oscillating between death and life. Attempts to bring it back to life were ongoing that summer, through online fundraising and a search for a new investor. Time to time I checked its homepage to be sure it still breathes, just as we check on an old family member who we know may leave this world any day.

The bitter coldness of the empty place of Pages, not long ago filled with ideas, imagination, dreams, stories, and voices, was heartbreaking. The disappearance of Pages reopened the old sores, as the experiences of one exile recalled another. Decades ago a large number of my beloved books were criminalized in post-revolutionary Iran. In fear of the state’s inquisition apparatus, I witnessed books being burned and buried. Those books burned or buried in front of my eyes were not ideological manifestos but novels. Among them, I loved many: the Persian translation of The Gadfly by Ethel Lilian Voynich with Francisco Goya’s painting The Executions of the Third of May 1808 on its cover; The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck; Animal Farm by George Orwell; and Hamsayeha, a compelling novel by Iranian author Ahmad Mahmoud. Three decades later I found that four years before my lived experiences of the cremation of books, Bohumil Hrabal, a Czech author, had illustrated a similar suffering in Too Loud a Solitude. First published in 1976, the novel is about the criminalization of books during the communist dictatorship. The book tells the affecting story of Hanta, caught between an intense love of books and his job: to destroy books with a paper-crushing machine. And with books, so too, disappeared bookstores.

In my hometown, Isfahan, in Iran, bookstores have also disappeared, one after one. When I was teenager, Nora, a little bookstore in the innermost part of the Sepahan shopping center, was my haven from school, war, revolutionary guards, and parents who were upset about my incessant reading of non-schoolbooks. They were also worried for my safety. Reading books in the early 1980s could be dangerous. I remember being told to hide certain books under schoolbooks to not attract attention on the street. Nora for me was a window into the world of imagination. In Nora I bought excellent translations of world literature: Zola’s La Terre, Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir, Robert Merle’s La mort est mon métier, Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, and Agatha Christie’s mystery novels, as well as Iranian masterpieces: Sadegh Hedayat’s Boof-e Koor, Samad Behrangi’s short stories, Simin Daneshvar’s Savushun, Ahmad Mahmoud’s Dastan-e yek Shahr. Nora was run by two young men in their twenties. It was suddenly gone, closed down, in the mid-1980s, without any notice. Dealing with books, writing them, publishing them, selling them, and even reading them, has never been a safe enterprise in Iran. I still think about those two young men’s destiny: prison or exile.

Today Isfahan, Iran’s second largest city, once home to several famous Iranian novelists, like Houshang Golshiri and Jaafar Modarres-Sadeghi, has only one bookstore worth the name. Several years ago the owner, a retired middle-aged teacher, told me in a woeful voice that he was not sure how long he could endure. Bookstores in Iran disappear not because of high rents but because of state repression. Along with newspaper closures, arrests of intellectuals, journalists, and writers, bookstores have been closed down in large number. Bookstores are a refuge for thoughts, a place for exchange of ideas, and hence, subversive and dangerous for tyranny. Morgh-e-Amin, a bookstore and publishing house in central Tehran, was attacked by “the supporters of the party of God” (Ansar-e Hezbollah) in August 1995. The justification was the publishing of Gods Laugh on Mondays, a novel about a homosexual basiji, a paramilitary volunteer. “The supporters of the party of God,” humiliated to be associated with homosexuals, first beat the bookstore personnel and then poured gasoline on the books, and burned down the bookstore. No one was arrested or prosecuted. In winter 2004, Roshangaran, a prominent publisher of women’s books, was burned down. In the mid-2000s, when bookstores in Tehran opened small cafés where book tables, book launches, and literary meetings were organized, the authorities’ attacks intensified. In 2007 alone, six bookstores were targeted for crackdown in Tehran. To survive, many bookstores have stopped selling books and become office supplies shops (lavazem ul-tahrir fouroushi). Some others sell only schoolbooks. Many good books, often “banned” books, have moved beyond the bricks and mortar of bookstore shelves to the sidewalks in front of Tehran University. A sad scene, to view the great books of Iranian and world literature, dirty and timeworn, spread on the pavements.

I stand outside Pages in the Queen West neighborhood. It is my last day in Toronto and I have come to take some pictures of the empty locale of Pages. The only trace left of the bookstore is “Business Hours” on the left door: 9 am – 10 pm weekdays; 10 am – 10 pm Saturdays; 11 am – 8 pm Sundays. On the large glass window to the right, a big white sign—For Lease—is pasted inside. Under it there is another sign, the only one linking the cold, bitter, empty storefront to a once lively, exciting, inspiring bookstore. It is barely visible. Someone has written Pages in a heart shape and next to it: ”I still weep for you!”