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Bookstores

Balfour Books

Posted by Guest Contributor / Posted on December 2, 2010

Balfour BooksBalfour Books, in its new, smaller, location at 468 College St (west of Bathurst), almost doesn't seem like a used bookstore. Sure, there is a dollar bin right outside the entrance, but unlike used bookstore powerhouse BMV, there is hardly any other feature promoting the store's low prices.

Balfour BooksIn fact, there is something almost defiantly non-commercial about Balfour's book pricing. Books are priced $4 and $35, rather than $3.99 or $34.99, for example, and the original prices are either blacked out or cut off. This has the interesting effect of making the used book price appear to be the book's only, original price. Buy the book for the content, Balfour Books seems to say, not for the discount.

Balfour BooksThe atmosphere is relaxed, and while the space is small, books are set up neatly, gallery style, with hardcover and coffee table selections in alcove displays. That, owner Joyce Blair told me, was a far cry from the state of the building only a few weeks ago. After fifteen years at College and Clinton, Balfour Books decided it was cheaper to just buy a space rather than continue paying rent. They bought the building at 468 College from Gamelle (a French restaurant) which, though it had been closed for a long time, still left behind equipment that the bookstore staff had to remove.

Balfour BooksHow do they like the new location? "It's more a daytime crowd," Joyce said, observing that their previous neighbourhood had more nightclubs, and so they were busier at night. "But it's hard to tell. We've only been open two weeks."

Balfour BooksOne feature that has remained from the previous location is the wooden Scrabble tiles spelling out the genres on the shelves. Perhaps it's because I'm a word nerd, but I love the look of those tiles - discreet and intellectually playful. The book selection and presentation are also impressive. A lot of the art and coffee table books for example are kept in very good condition with plastic-wrapped covers.

Balfour BooksBalfour Books also features fairly new releases. I found Roberta Pianaro's Brunetti's Cookbook, which was published just this year, and features recipes based on scenes from Donna Leon's Commissario Brunetti mysteries. It's a beautiful hardcover book, with excerpts from Leon's mysteries, and a bargain at $12. For those who may have enjoyed Nora Ephron's interview with Jian Giomeshi earlier this month, I found her latest collection of essays, I Remember Nothing, in one of the displays.

Balfour Books also carries DVDs for rent, though unfortunately, none for sale. DVD cases are shelved in the far corner of the store and behind the cash register.

Balfour BooksFinally, one factor that should set a small bookstore apart is its staff, and the sales associate I encountered at Balfour Books was efficient and helpful. She seemed genuinely apologetic when I asked about a book they didn't have in stock, and encouraged me to drop by again. Convenient location, good books, and wooden Scrabble tiles - I'll definitely be back.

Balfour BooksOpen daily from 11am - 8pm.

Writing by Jaclyn M. Qua-Hiansen. Photos by Dennis Marciniak.

Discussion

30 Comments

randy / May 3, 2009 at 09:25 am
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The staff at this bookstore are very rude and lack customer service skills. Most likely why customers shop at Chapters.
marty / June 7, 2009 at 05:10 pm
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The staff at this bookstore were also really rude to me. I will never be returning. There are lots of great used bookstores that I can give my service to.
Cristina / June 16, 2009 at 01:26 pm
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This is my favorite bookstore in the city. They are VERY well stocked - every time I visit, I leave with a stack of books I've been meaning to read.

Personally, I've never had a problem with the staff, in fact I've always found them to be very friendly (in a laid-back sort of way). I particularly like the fact that you're left alone to browse without 'helpful' interruption. Maybe that's a matter of preference.
Colleen / June 23, 2009 at 04:22 pm
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I too absolutely love this bookstore. I always find things I can't find anywhere else and it's so remarkably tidy - I honestly don't know how the one person who seems to be working there at any given time can keep it so neat.

I think of bookstores as the place where we should be protected from the hard sell and retail voice of a place like Chapters. I don't think Christina's the only one who wants to be left alone to browse.
Diana / November 2, 2009 at 02:14 pm
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This store is truly well stock in contemporary and classic literatures. The atmosphere is really good for a quiet date with a good guy and exposes a warm vintage feel. I think the privacy given to the customer is a plus because I usually take my time choosing and browsing for a good read.
Betty Seshpape / November 29, 2009 at 08:11 pm
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The only time I liked going to this store was when I was a kid, and I'd only go there when the owner had the big german shepard walking around the store. Nicest dog ever!
Jerry Kitich / December 1, 2009 at 07:30 am
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This is a fantastic store, more art, design, photography and architecture books than I've ever seen in one place before available for purchase. The rest of the store is terrific too, you can do a fast run through like I did or you could easily make a day or two of it.
James Derale / July 15, 2010 at 04:47 pm
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The staff was extremely rude and pretentious when i was inquiring about a book that wasn't there. Even though the place has that cosy study environment, i still rather shop at amazon (if not for its selection, price and less rude and annoying service).
Jerry Kitich / July 15, 2010 at 04:59 pm
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You inquired about a book that wasn't there at a used book store? Its a used bookstore, what they have they have, what they don't have they don't have. If you want specific books go to a new bookstore.
Robert Moulton / November 2, 2010 at 10:46 pm
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Say it ain't so, but did the store recently go under?
Matt replying to a comment from randy / December 3, 2010 at 09:09 am
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They're not rude, they're just a bit stand-offish. Whatever. If I want perky perky customer service drones I'll go to Indigo. (Where a good friend of mine works, by the way, and can't stand the constant exhortations to up-sell and make customers buy shit they didn't even come in looking for.)

They generally don't approach you at Balfour, but I find if you go them they're fine. I do feel as if they could stand to be a bit more welcoming though-their business model is precarious.
too bad / December 3, 2010 at 09:19 am
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great books and great atmosphere... but, absolutely the worst prices I've ever come across.
I remember when they used to always buy the Mirvish art book remainders and then double the prices - I haven't been back in years (I'll check out the new location though and see if anything has changed).
It's unfortunate that this place is one of the few surviving small used book shops in town.
nick d / December 3, 2010 at 09:37 am
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chalk one more up on the "rude service" list.

A friend and I were browsing, when he accidentally knocked a precariously balanced book off the shelf-- to which the lady chimed in: "Thank you, Thank you" in a VERY sarcastic tone.

Minutes later, at the other end of the bookstore, a couple was browsing, when the man knocked a book off the shelf. His partner started laughing-- the lady behind the counter replied "oh, so it's funny now?" to which the woman answered "I'm laughing because I am embarrassed".

It's a used book store. Books fall. It's going to happen.
Lose the attitude lady.

I'll stick to MY favourite book store on College-- She Said Boom. Best. Used Bookstore. Ever.
nick d / December 3, 2010 at 09:37 am
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chalk one more up on the "rude service" list.

A friend and I were browsing, when he accidentally knocked a precariously balanced book off the shelf-- to which the lady chimed in: "Thank you, Thank you" in a VERY sarcastic tone.

Minutes later, at the other end of the bookstore, a couple was browsing, when the man knocked a book off the shelf. His partner started laughing-- the lady behind the counter replied "oh, so it's funny now?" to which the woman answered "I'm laughing because I am embarrassed".

It's a used book store. Books fall. It's going to happen.
Lose the attitude lady.

I'll stick to MY favourite book store on College-- She Said Boom. Best. Used Bookstore. Ever.
nick d / December 3, 2010 at 09:38 am
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chalk one more up on the "rude service" list.

A friend and I were browsing, when he accidentally knocked a precariously balanced book off the shelf-- to which the lady chimed in: "Thank you, Thank you" in a VERY sarcastic tone.

Minutes later, at the other end of the bookstore, a couple was browsing, when the man knocked a book off the shelf. His partner started laughing-- the lady behind the counter replied "oh, so it's funny now?" to which the woman answered "I'm laughing because I am embarrassed".

It's a used book store. Books fall. It's going to happen.
Lose the attitude lady.

I'll stick to MY favourite book store on College-- She Said Boom. Best. Used Bookstore. Ever.
nick d / December 3, 2010 at 09:39 am
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sorry for the double-post. that's how I roll.
Paul's Boutique / December 3, 2010 at 09:54 am
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What is the point of even being "stand offish" at a USED bookstore? These establishments are barely making rent every month and I'm not just speaking on Balfour but ALL of them.

The owners of these places need to be grateful for the traffic alone and should greet and each customer (with a sincere smile) like its going to be their last.

They are all just bitter because things are not what it used to be 30, 20, hey even 10 years ago with all the possible options there are to shop for reads.

If I were one of these owners I would be serving complimentary hot apple cider in the winter and soda, squeezed lemon and ice in the summer just to lure in customers. IT IS A FIGHT TO SUCCEED IN THIS MEDIUM!!

I don't know maybe I'm just too passionate on proper retail customer service or are they just tired of being "cheated on" with Amazon from all these years..

bookLovah / December 3, 2010 at 10:02 am
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A year ago I went to Balfour specifically because I'd read a recommendation online. Never having been in the store before, my friend and I asked for help from the older man behind the desk. He was lounging in his chair, and perhaps we disturbed his mesmerizing daydream, but he basically told us to leave him alone or get out. Of course we never went back, and I never will. Just to clarify: my friend and I are Lovely Little Old Ladies. If we want to get gifts for our friends or grandkids, books are our first choice. The staff at She Said Boom [an excellent store just a couple of blocks east on College], Book City and BMV on Bloor are all delightful and very knowledgeable. I was warmly welcomed by the lovely folks at the newly opened Bakka/Phoenix on Harbord. Its presence is a positive addition to the neighbourhood. With so many great people and fine bookstores in the area, Balfour can reap the karma it deserves.
AK / December 3, 2010 at 01:09 pm
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Favourite Balfour story - During the summertime a couple of years ago my girlfriend and I were on walking through Little Italy, being stalked by a really creepy would-be pickpocketer who followed us up and down the street, and waited outside for us when we popped into Balfour. After ten minutes of browsing the creep was still outside the front doors so we asked the clerk if he had an employees entrance we could use. While I would have forgiven him for questionning my sanity, he confirmed the creep was still outside and then cheerfully unlocked their back/emergency exit door for us. I hope the staff would be so gracious again at their new location.
Jake / December 3, 2010 at 02:20 pm
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It's sad to hear the stories about poor customer service. As far as selection goes, this is one of my fav spots in Toronto.

That said, as a self-published writer, I generally love any independent bookstore. Especially now that I'm getting more and more into CanLit, you need places like this to carry your work.

My next book is about the Toronto waterfront, and I'm blogging about the publishing process on my website www.jakebabad.com.
jamesmallon replying to a comment from too bad / December 4, 2010 at 05:13 am
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Terrible prices: my thoughts exactly. Isn't the point of buying used to save money? Well, wonder if they've heard of this thing called the Internet? I don't mind spending a little more to buy in person, but I won't spend triple.
Donna Samoyloff / May 30, 2011 at 04:34 pm
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I just got back from Balfour Books, having read all the comments posted here, to date. Nobody was rude to me (and I can be pretty abrasive myself). The behind-the-counter guy let me be when I didn't want help, helped when I did. He was respectful of customers' space, even when one butted in whilst figuring out my bill.

I bought almost exclusively hard-cover books, in terrific shape at reasonable prices. I'll be back to sift through the racks of paperbacks when I'm done reading today's purchases. Looks like Balfour coffee-table books, too, for those who decorate coffee-tables. The children's books are in surprisingly good shape and I saw no crap in Balfour's display. There's a very cute duckie chair for young'uns which looks like the one my dad made from a Canadian Tire kit circa 1960.

My experience makes me wonder if others who posted negative comments are impressed by [trained-into-the brain] cheeriness -- or just obnoxious themselves. I ignored the curmudgeonly comments on this site because I was going to be in the neighbourhood anyway; I'm very glad I did.

The store presents itself in a first-rate fashion. Good light, attractive, well-organized and -stocked. Airy. Pleasant, like the guy behind the counter.
M. Dacey / December 10, 2011 at 02:10 pm
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I must have spent close to ten grand at this place over the last 15 years, and really have to throttle back on my hardcover habit. The stock is very conprehensive, and while there's everything from ancient Penguins and genre fiction, there's also half-price remainders or sell-backs of pretty recent books. I bought the hardcover of The Night Circus here for $14 two months ago and it's still on the bestseller lists, for instance. I particularly enjoy the many non-fiction titles on science, history and travel, and I have never had a problem with the staff, whom I know on a first-name basis, or the "attitude", which, while non-servile, is erudite and happy to chat at some length about books and authors. All of them have been there for years, and perhaps could not now work elsewhere, but I'm OK with that level of "character", mainly because my own oddball taste in books is closely mirrored in what the staffers find in many acquisition trips for new or nearly new stock.

The new space is more compact, but I think easier to rummage through. My son sits on the duck chair and plows through their small but interesting kids' section while Daddy tries to find the latest in history, economics and science books. And usually succeeds.

Long life and prosperity to Balfour Books.
Rocky Mountain replying to a comment from Jerry Kitich / February 3, 2012 at 02:39 pm
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So you're not supposed to ask because its a used bookstore? Oh please ask a question so I can be rude to you! Come on, 'fess up, you're an employee aren't you?
Rocky Mountain replying to a comment from AK / February 3, 2012 at 02:41 pm
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Who was the 'girl friend' again?
Halran / March 20, 2012 at 12:10 am
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I love it when people like 'Matt' above comment and they try to respond to one extreme with another extreme as in (quoting):

"Matt replying to a comment from randy / December 3, 2010 at 09:09 am
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They're not rude, they're just a bit stand-offish. Whatever. If I want perky perky customer service drones I'll go to Indigo. (Where a good friend of mine works, by the way, and can't stand the con"


Listen MATT why would Randy or others on here want 'perky perky' --what--we only have 2 choices? Its either rude/ or standoffish or perky perky? how about just being a decent person huh?

And using 'whatever' in a sentence just screams 'jackass' you jackass.

I have shopped at used bookstores before I was published and the stores that survive are the ones staffed by honest to goodness human beings.

Halran Cobane / March 20, 2012 at 12:11 am
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Eliot's Bookshop is the staffed by humans and so is she said boom.
Daniel / April 15, 2012 at 10:02 pm
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Do you sell Bob Browns book? (In Balfour street)? I cant find it anywhere?
R. Howard / April 14, 2013 at 08:40 pm
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Does the store carry back issues of Canadian magazines, such as Toronto Life February 2010? Thank You.
s / April 2, 2014 at 07:23 pm
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Great store. Came to pick up one book I'd bought online. Ended up purchasing two more in the store - both books I'd been looking for elsewhere but had been unable to find.

Excellent prices & selection. I found the staff (the owners) really nice. But these aren't kids working for minimum wage at a chain. They own the building. They're keeping this prime real estate as a book store because they love books and culture. Treat them with respect and they'll be happy to help you.

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