In praise of persnickety

Ann Dowsett Johnston July 23 2001

In praise of persnickety

Ann Dowsett Johnston July 23 2001

In praise of persnickety


Ann Dowsett Johnston

When I was 9, my parents made the radical decision to move our family from its small-town perch in Northern Ontario to a remote mountain village in

South Africa. As far as they were concerned, it made perfect sense: my father was working in the Transkei region, and we would all have a great adventure. But to me, a bookish kid with glasses who liked her school and her friends, it seemed

a questionable proposition. For starters, it was 1961. They were murdering people in the Belgian Congo.

And as far as I could tell from the tiny

map in Time, the Congo was pretty close to where we were headed.

At least our plane was stopping there to refuel. When Miss Holden, our local librarian, sent home an armload of books with a jungle theme, I felt vindicated: here, in living colour, was page after page of poisonous snakes and maneating cats, proof positive that this was a bad idea.

But my parents were unconvinced.

In 1962, our family relocated to Mount Ayliff, a village of 100, and my sister and I headed off to a two-room schoolhouse— full Afrikaans immersion. By day, we took comfort in our new pet, a frog named Sam, smuggled under my desk in a box with breathing holes. By night, we escaped into a large stash of books from the Albert Britnell Book Shop in Toronto. Occasionally, we would make the hour-long trek to Kokstad, browsing in the tiny book section of Moirs Sports & Stationery. (I still have my much-loved copy of The Princess and the Goblin with its green Moirs stamp.) But our favourite books—The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, Swallows and Amazons—came from that little shop halfway round the world. Our pleasure came from Britnells.

All readers have a personal map of the bookstores they call home. Mine starts with Munro’s in Victoria, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, The Bookshelf in Guelph, Ont. Of course, in Toronto there was always Britnells. But over the years, I added the Book Cellar, The Constant Reader, Nicholas Hoare—and best of all, five little stores within walking distance of my home.

But these are precarious times for bookstores: they fall off the map too easily. One by one, all the brave little bookstores in my neighbourhood have cried uncle and disappeared. Gone is the shop with the exquisite art books, the subterranean hangout with great jazz, the safe haven for adult fiction. Gone too are all the smart clerks, people schooled in much more than the art of reshelving. People who could connect the dots between Annie

Dillard and Edward Hoagland, who knew the appeal of both Anne Carson and Carson McCullers. And what have we in their place? An upscale kitchen store, a copy shop and a new Tim Hortons. Two years ago, Britnells closed its doors after 106 years in the business, its memorable storefront morphing into a Starbucks, of all things. Believe me, this is not progress.

Now don’t get me wrong: yes, I have an Indigo Circle card, and if I’m in a hurry I’ll use it. But when a store

follows a formula, you shouldn’t be surprised if it feels formulaic. At Indigo, I’ve learned not to expect too much. Just last week, I asked a clerk to locate a certain graduation gift for an aspiring journalist: the collected columns of Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindien. “Anna Quindlen only writes fiction,” she reported, staring at her computer screen. “How

about Black and Bluet ”

At times like these, I know why they invented the word “persnickety.” When it comes to books, persnickety is good. Walk into any great bookstore, and you know at least one persnickety person has been hard at work. Take McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, a store with 80,000 titles that is not lit like a barn, a store with all the amenities of a chain ands mart “booksellers,” as they call them, to help you. Above all, a store with a strong sense of community—home to regular readings, local book launches and the McNally Robinson Book of the Year Award for Manitoba authors. A place with a brain, a heart and undeniable soul.

Or take The Constant Reader, a gem of a children’s bookstore in a redbrick house on Toronto’s Harbord Street. A store with Virginia creeper curling around the sign and a jingly bell on the door. In fact, a store with more than a passing resemblance to Meg Ryan’s Shop Around the Corner in You’ve Got Mail—before it closed.

Last week, parents were lined up at the counter, seeking advice on summer reading from Jessy Kahn, the store’s delightfully persnickety owner. When one mother complained that her five-year-old hated reading, Jessy’s response was unorthodox: “Go to the library and take out your limit of very easy stories. Trust me, something will stick.” The library? “I often suggest they try a book at the library first,” says Jessy matterof-facdy. “The most important thing is matching the child with the right book.”

Which is what Jessy Kahn does, all day long, at her little shop on Harbord. Every book in her quirky little store, both old and new, is handpicked. And with books, it’s the handpicking that counts. Sometimes, life doesn’t turn out to be a Meg Ryan movie after all. And for this, we should all be grateful.