Monkey's Paw is unlike any other bookstore in Toronto. There's no Harry Potter or Suzanne Somers Eight Steps to Wellness here. Instead, the shelves are a treasure trove of the rare and the bizarre with titles like Indian Police Today, Why China Has No Inflation, Artificial Impregnation, Cocaine Changes and Understanding Japanese Bantings.
Located in the old Carte Blanche digs on Dundas, just west of Ossington, Monkey's Paw was opened in March 2006 and named after a cheesy early-20th century horror story by W.W. Jacobs. The moral, or message, of the story is Careful what you wish for.
Owner Stephen Fowler figured that at a shop like Monkey's Paw, you'd never find the book you were looking for; but you might well find the book you didn't know you were looking for. Get it? So, don't go here looking for anything. Just go, browse the shelves and be amazed at what you'll find.
Even when the store is closed it's worth a visit. Fowler regularly rotates some of the most random titles in stock in the front window. Definitely makes for an interesting conversation piece after stumbling out of nearby Communist Daughter at 1am.
He also updates the store's blog on a weekly basis with some of the new and strange titles in stock. Customizing Your Van circa 1983 anyone?
For more details on the store, keep reading for my short Q&A with owner Stephen Fowler.
What distinguishes Monkey's Paw from some of Toronto's other bookstores?
We stock primarily odd, obscure, overlooked, and forgotten books. Other stores usually attempt to carry established classics; we look for books which are specifically NOT classics.
We select our stock according to an aesthetic formula: the beautiful, the arcane, the macabre, the absurd. We try to make sure that every book fits one of these descriptions...and the ideal Monkey's Paw title fits all four.
We also take into account the books' artifact value. In other words, we look at old books as not just texts, or collections of images, but as cultural artifacts in their own right: snapshots of their cultural moment, printed on paper, and gathered in bindings.
We try hard to offer good service...no bored, condescending staff. We'd like to convert the uninitiated, rather than exclude them.
Who is your typical customer?
We get lots of graphic designers, artists, journalists, grad students, and info-damaged postmodernists. Most are younger than the shop's proprietor.
What sort of events do you have at the store?
We've had a site-specific poetry contest (the "Detournement Tournament," where participants were challenged to compose texts using only the titles of books in the shop); a site-specific art show; and a few parties. We've also had a garage sale (thousands of books, nothing over $2) for the last two summers.
Anything else you'd like to a share?
A friend of mine who works in academic publishing said of my shop, This isn't a bookshop, this is a gift shop that sells books. This was probably meant as a slight dig, but frankly I'm comfortable with the characterization. Very likely the same statement could apply to any solvent bookshop in the 21st century; and I for one am honored to help discover a new role for old media in people's lives. Besides, who wouldn't be delighted to receive as a wedding present a 1940s clothbound edition of Van de Velde's Ideal Marriage, Its Physiology and Technique?