Silent, Upon a Peak in Darien

Bakka Books


Reviewing reviews is a bit meta, but … if I were going to review another reviewer in this series, the reviewer would be Spider Robinson, whose columns I devoured as a teenager. His review in the December 1976 issue of the late, lamented Galaxy Magazine (RIP) had an enormous effect on me, because in it he revealed a previously unknown fact: Toronto, then Canada’s second largest city, had a bookstore specializing in science fiction and fantasy. A bookstore called Bakka Books.

There was just one problem. I didn’t live in Toronto. In fact, I didn’t even live in Kitchener-Waterloo. I lived adjacent to KW, on a farm well away from any intercity bus routes. Then as now, I did not drive. While I am an avid walker, 100 km to Toronto and 100 km back seemed a bit far. What to do?

Misappropriate school resources, of course.

Providentially, I discovered that Bakka existed right about the time that the Treasures of Tutankhamen exhibit came to the Art Gallery of Ontario, located in Toronto. My high school, Waterloo Oxford DSS, organized a trip to go see it. Some people might have seen this as a chance to educate themselves about a grand civilization of the ancient past. I saw it as a means to get to Toronto and back. For reasons that escape me, the teacher who was in charge of the expedition was OK with the idea of me tagging along with them so that I could spend the day book-shopping.

Modern readers may be surprised that a student would be allowed to abandon a school outing to wander around a major city by themself. Well, people were not nearly as overprotective of teenagers as they are now [1]. Also, in my family, kids were supposed to have adventures. Adventures like finding California, playing with explosives, or just wandering around unattended in a Brazilian slum with fewer than ten words of Portuguese with which to communicate. Although that may not have influenced the teacher; it seems unlikely that I tried a “my parents believe in depraved indifference and now you can too!” argument.

With a few side trips to sample the other attractions of Disco-Era Toronto, I made my way to Bakka’s Queen Street location, where I found myself in nerd heaven.

Context: book distribution in Ontario in the 1970s was both better and much worse than it was today. On the plus side, department stores like Sears and Eatons, even convenience stores like the Hub, generally had book departments, departments that sold a wider range of books than one might expect. On the minus side, the major chains had only just reached KW and book distribution was pretty spotty, especially out in the sticks where I lived. Just because a book got an ad in Analog was no guarantee it would show up in KW. Some stores did a better job of stocking F&SF than others (UW Bookstore and Scribes were both good) but none of them focused on SF.

Bakka did. Their square footage compared favourably to Scribes or the UW Bookstore and all of it was filled with science fiction and fantasy books, both new and used. This meant I could stock up, not just on new releases that had not yet reached the hinterlands, but books that would never make it to Kitchener-Waterloo. Or never had made it. As I recall, the staff was quite happy to let me wander around in a daze, piling up stack after stack of mass market paperbacks on their front desk. I suspect I never bothered to make eye contact or to talk to anyone while I was doing this. It was as though they somehow had experience dealing with poorly socialized bibliophiles! The important thing is: they took my money and I walked away with four large bags full of books.

This set a pattern for the next few years, particularly after I moved somewhere with actual buses. Once every few months, I would head off to Toronto and come home with dozens of books. And I was only bitten once [3]! Nirvana.

Reminiscences about beloved old bookstores usually end with “and then they collapsed during the consolidation of book distributors and the ensuing death of the midlist” or “and then they were crushed by the rise of big box stores like Chapters” or “and then the staff was exterminated by Amazon’s hunter-killer drones, the store was burned down, and the empty lot salted with cobalt 60 [2].”

Not so where Bakka is concerned. Bakka prevails. In fact, it turned 45 years old this last May. It has changed owners, having been handed off by founder Charles Mckee to John Rose, who then sold Bakka to current owner Ben Freiman. It has moved several times since it was on Queen West: to Yonge, back to Queen West, and most recently to its current location, 84 Harbord Street, Toronto. Its website can be found here.

I should get back there some day.

A note about the photo above: John Chew’s photo is of the current location. I was unable to find an image of the original Queen Street storefront.

Feel free to comment here.

1: Of course, death rates were higher back then, but only because people died more frequently.

2: Not to forget “I don’t really understand the Thor Powertool decision but I blame everything I don’t approve of on it regardless.”

3: If Tanya Huff says “Don’t pick that cat up because it will bite you,” don’t pick that cat up. It will bite you, after waiting just long enough for you to confidently say “Don’t worry. Cats like me.”

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