by Jean Mathew
Published at 2019-06-06
When I moved to Toronto three years ago to become a part of Canada’s publishing scene, I got a job working at the Anansi Bookshop, and it was surreal. “Anansi publishes very good books” is their slogan, and my time at the bookshop has shown me how and why.
House of Anansi Press was founded in 1967 by writers Dennis Lee and Dave Godfrey. House of Anansi Press (and their children’s book imprint Groundwood Books) has built a reputation of publishing influential Canadian literature, especially in the areas of fiction, non-fiction, poetry, crime, and more. Today, both the publishing house and the bookshop are located in Toronto’s West End at the intersection of Dundas and Sterling. The area is noticeably industrial. The other prominent businesses in the area include Henderson’s Brewing, The Drake Commissary, and the recent addition of the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA).
Since I work on the weekends, I often met a lot of relaxed couples and families browsing our collection. It is always especially exciting when a visitor recognizes the publishing house, but never realizes how close they are to the press and bookshop. And it’s only when you visit the bookshop that you realize the shop and the publishing house are attached, quite literally, at the hip.
“It’s very farm-to-table,” my bookshop associate friend says to surprised guests.
We do get a wide range of curious questions, strange encounters, and fun conversations at the bookshop — here are some of my favourites.
Our collection reflects quite a wide range of talented Canadian authors, many of whom live in Toronto. We have the chance to meet authors when they come in to visit, say hello to the staff, and even sign copies of their books. One particularly memorable moment was watching a book launch hosted by Anansi for Matt Beam, author of The Zombie Prince. It was a really great turnout and the crowd was overwhelmingly supportive, buying copies of the book and having Matt sign them. A handful of children, many in costume since it was Halloween, did crafts and read from Matt’s book. It turned the bookshop into a space to celebrate.
Another fun thing to watch at the bookshop is when friends or family of authors visit. They’ll point out the book and say something like, “That’s Uncle Tony’s book!” Others will only discover that a friend/family member/coworker is an author when they recognize a name on our shelf. “Hey, is that our friend Rachel?” they ask the friend they're with. More often than not, it turns out to be true.
The most intense conversations at the bookshop are on the topic of the Canadian literary scene — and how the bookshop visitors are connected to it personally. Every once in a while, a drop-in visitor reveals that they have gone to school with one of our authors back in the day — or was taught by them, or went to dinner with them. For people who grew up in Toronto, visiting Anansi is like recognizing how small Toronto actually is.
Not long ago, a woman came in asking us for audio books. She worked at a seniors' home. Although they had a library, many of the seniors had trouble reading the small font or holding the weight of the books. The home didn’t have the budget for any technological devices. She was hoping to hook up an audiobook to a sound system, or an eBook to the television, to play for a group of seniors. Despite the fact that she would have to purchase audiobooks for the home out of her own pocket, she really wanted the seniors to enjoy books. Although this wasn’t necessarily our area of expertise, one of the bookshop associates who had the most experience with audiobooks walked her through a few options that would work best for her situation.
We have teachers come and visit often, looking for books that would be great for their students. A lot of our children’s books feature diverse characters and narratives. A Family Is A Family Is A Family by Sara O’Leary has been widely popular thanks to its depictions of many variations on the family unit, including queer families.
Maybe one of the most exciting things to see is the love the Anansi staff have for the books the press publishes. Many of the folks working in the publishing house visit on the weekends, bring friends and family, and showcase their favourite books. Some even give very thorough recommendations to visitors — recommendations full of thoughtfulness, care, and intense affection and pride for the titles on their shelves.
Working behind the scenes at the Anansi Bookshop has been quite a fulfilling experience thus far. It’s quite wholesome to see that the people who write books love books. The people who sell books love books. The people who buy books love books. And what I've found is that even people who don’t think they love books, love books too.
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