TheatreBooks–A Remembrance

by Lynn on July 2, 2014

in The Passionate Playgoer

Forty years ago I climbed a steep, creaky staircase to paradise. TheatreBooks. It was the first of four locations of that magical store that was indeed, paradise for any theatre lover. The first store was on the second floor of a building on Yonge Street, (in Toronto) south of Charles St. At the top of the stairs was a largish room with many tables of beautifully displayed theatre books. Along the walls were shelves of more theatre books plus books on ballet, opera, film and television. But theatre books were the mainstay.

In the middle of this oasis were the courtly, gracious proprietors, John Harvey and Leonard McHardy, partners in every way. John had a full head of black hair and a smart goatee. Leonard had fair hair that was located mainly around the edges of his head and a clear, shiny section on the top. Over the years John’s hair and goatee got greyer and Leonard’s got shorter with buzzing. From the beginning they have been known as John and Leonard (or more accurately, John’nLeonard) or “The Boys.” While both men are always soft spoken, John is the shyer of the two. Leonard is the more gregarious, if that’s the word. In any case they greeted every person who came in the store as if they were royalty, or family, or both. They made ‘customer service’ into an art form. They imparted that philosophy to every single person who worked there.

If a customer came into the store wanting a monologue for young teen girls from Malaysia about the angst of the teenager, they would either know of one or would find one. If a customer asked for a certain play, the customer was never pointed to the general direction of the section where the play was to fend for themselves. Rather either John, Leonard or whoever was on cash would take the customer to the exact shelf. The book would be carefully taken out of the standing books on the shelf and presented like a prized treasure, which it was. If the book was out of stock it would be ordered and the customer informed when it arrived. And it was a wonderful place to browse and find that book you had been looking for for years. The happy accident that comes with looking at a stack of books.

And theatre lovers flocked. A parade of fresh-faced theatre-music-opera-film students got all their books there. Teachers ordered their books for their classes there, and every kind of professional in the arts came to browse, buy, and kibitz. Sir John Gielgud climbed up those stairs whenever he was in Toronto. A who’s who of notables found their way to the various locations of TheatreBooks, having heard about it from others who raved about it.
The first store was hugely popular and eventually TheatreBooks needed more space. The next location was again on the second floor of a building on Balmuto Street, just off Bloor. More space, same impeccable treatment. At its height TheatreBooks occupied a wonderful three story house on 11 St. Thomas Street. The shelves were brushed steel that either John or Leonard were always dusting. The walls were exposed brick. The staircase leading to the second floor where the film section was, was quiet because it was carpeted. No creaks. I missed those creaks.

The third floor was an ‘inner sanctum’ where John and Leonard did their calling, ordering or other business when they weren’t ‘on the floor’, meaning at the cash dealing directly with customers. The third floor was also a place for readings, receptions, special events, book signings and the occasional significant birthday party. I had two such parties on that third floor, both perfect, except in the first case when I forgot to publicly thank John and Leonard for hosting the party, which I did by thanking them to each person by e-mail after the fact. The blunder did not happen for my second significant birthday party.

Sometimes book signings and receptions happened on the first floor, with a table set up for the author surrounded by food on the various tables. The place would be packed for such events and saw the likes of Terrence McNally, Neil Simon, Ronnie Burkett, Kamal Al Solaylee, Linda Griffiths signing their books. Canadian theatre artists especially were championed and nurtured there.

Eventually a changing economy reared its ugly head. Rents skyrocketed. Book buying changed from in person buying to on-line buying. People bought their books on Amazon and not at the store. There were even stories of people coming into the store, finding the book, taking a picture of it on their devices and seeing they could get it cheaper elsewhere, and left with the information, but not the book. The threat of re-development loomed too and TheatreBooks had to move again, downsizing to the cozy present location at 101 Spadina Avenue. The space is on one floor with the same neat tables and beautiful displays.

But a smaller space with less rent to pay was not enough. After much agonizing and soul-searching, John and Leonard had to make the heartbreaking decision to close the store. I read about it in a press release on Friday, June 27. It was like learning of a death in the family because family is what John and Leonard have become to me over these 40 years. They and their store have contributed to the well-being and joy of my life. The last day is Friday, July 18.

Good by TheatreBooks. I’m heartsick you are going but grateful to have known you.

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