At west end bookshop The Monkey’s Paw, owner Stephen Fowler has taken a post-modern approach to the death of print.
At The Monkey’s Paw, a Dundas and Dovercourt shop devoted to the left field and curious end of the used book market, owner Stephen Fowler is in the process of working out a way to make a living selling books in what he feels is becoming an increasingly post-book world.
How it got started: Fowler and his wife moved to Toronto from San Francisco almost exactly 10 years ago. “We were in America in the early 2000s—it was just like, let’s get the hell out of here,” he explains. “We wanted to have a family and we wanted to live in a civilised city and we wanted to get out from underneath the umbrella of paranoia that everyone lives with in America.”
With a background in the book trade, Fowler started selling books online. But he soon figured out the online life just wasn’t for him, and opened The Monkey’s Paw in March 2006. “Right after I moved here I started selling books in a small way on the web, which is just completely dreary—I don’t recommend that for anybody. Maybe it’s better than no book selling at all, but it’s a way, way distant second to selling books in person,” he says. “I leased the space and then almost immediately it just became clear that this is so much better than selling online—I eventually just gave up selling online all together.”
Predicting the end of print: “A lot of booksellers are uncomfortable talking about this, but the fact of it is that print is dead—it’s just over. They’re still making books now, but they won’t be for much longer and certainly they’re not going to be making them the way they used to, which is a gigantic industry churning out culture on paper and selling them at well stocked, busy bookshops,” says Fowler. “Nobody knows what shape it’s going to take and I talk to a lot of people who are more knowledgeable than I am about this stuff and the only thing we agree on is that yes, it’s happening and no, we don’t know where it’s going to go.”
Creating a (reluctantly post-modern) post-book business plan: What’s a bookseller, already chin-deep in the business, to do in this new climate? “So here I am, I’m a bibliophile and particularly I like old books—I have never had much of a taste for current books, I’ve always looked backwards—and it seemed to me that the fact that books are on their way out makes the old ones very poignant,” says Fowler. “And not just poignant, but also deserving of being saved. A lot of books in, say, the past 10 years, have gone to the landfill. They’re being shed like crazy and there’s really no place for them. Libraries don’t want them, a lot of people don’t want them—it’s crazy how many books are just being disposed of. And I think they’re worth, well, some books, are worth preserving.”
While much of Fowler’s strategy is centred around his knack for providing a truly unique selection of books, often overlooked by other, more conventional dealers (black magic, Scottish humour, knot-tying and incredibly out of date sexual health all make appearances as subject matter), it is also the context in which they’re placed that has led to a working model. “I don’t really like to apply the term to the shop, but it might be that this is a post-modern bookstore, in the sense that a lot of the books in here no one would ever buy for their original intended purpose, but for sort of an echo of their purpose down time,” says Fowler. “In the case of What a Young Woman Ought to Know [for example], no one is going to say, ‘I better buy this for my daughter, because I’m concerned about her coming of age and she’s going to have to be equipped.’ In 1917, that’s why they bought that book, but now we have such distance from the thing, looking back at it across nearly a century, and it’s a totally different thing. These are like bulletins from the past that really give you a perspective on the history of culture.”
And so far, this strategy has been working. “Turns out, at least if you create the right environment for it, the right sort of physical environment, and maybe if you also have the right sort of personality and sales philosophy to work it, it turns out it is saleable. It’s actually, weirdly, kind of really saleable,” he says. “The further that we get away from the 20th century—and for that matter the 17th century—of book selling and we get more into a completely digital, post-modern, self-referential world, these things, these printed artifacts take on more and more layers of mystery and allure, and people totally cherish them. So far, I think I have succeeded at that. I have a lot of customers. I’ve found a lot of books that otherwise would just have gone down the drain and I’ve put them back into the culture and put them back into the hands of people.”
His three main kinds of customers: Unsurprisingly, a bookstore like The Monkey’s Paw attracts a broad range of patrons. “There are old-fashioned customers—especially older people, but there are even younger people who are what I consider old-fashioned book buyers—and that would be like, ‘Hello, I’m looking for a text. I’m looking for Hegel.’ And I may or may not have something for them. Even if I had a shop 10 times this size, really, 80 or 90 per cent of the time I would just disappoint them: ‘Oh, I’ve got some Hegel, but not the title you’re looking for.’ And then they just leave and go buy it on Amazon,” says Fowler. “I do get those customers, for sure. A lot of people aren’t 21st century, post-modern, information-damaged, digital age freaks yet—they all will be in a couple of years, but there’s still some of the old style people left.”
“Then there are some people—and I guess this is just an occupational hazard with a store like this—who are kind of sarcastic about it all, people who think, ‘Oh, this stuff is so campy.’ Some of it’s campy, but I like to think that my appreciation of it and that most of of my customers’ appreciation of it is deeper than that,” says Fowler. “When people come in here with that kind of attitude it disappoints me a little bit, but people have lives, they’re not as into this shit as I am. I can’t expect every customer to say, ‘I’ve got an artist’s appreciation of this beautiful object.’ Some people are just going to have a laugh and buy it as a joke.”
But it’s the third group who make up The Monkey’s Paw core. “A lot of people actually do appreciate it in a really deep way. They are the customers I love and they’re the people for whom the store resonates. Some people come here and they say ‘Oh, interesting, curious.’ There are people who come here and have a really deep experience with the material, and I love those people,” says Fowler. “When that person finds a book and just says, ‘Oh my god, I had no idea I was going to buy that book, but I just have to own it,’ that person makes my incredibly crappy paycheque worthwhile.”
On the road: As a relatively new member of the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of Canada, Fowler will be a first time participant in their annual book fair this October. “I do have some books with real Monkey’s Paw flavour, but which are, in some cases, a little more precious than my daily on-the-display-tables kind of book, so I’m quite excited about the stuff I’m going to be exhibiting,” he says. “And the way I’m going to be exhibiting it. I have some ideas about merchandising that aren’t exactly the traditional way of presenting books. I think it’s going to be very visual and very alluring. I hope it will be!”
Aside from his own booth, Fowler would encourage you to do a little exploring while you’re there. “You actually do get to see a lot of the big guns of rare book dealing in Canada and to some extent internationally. And they don’t bring just the crap out of their back room. They bring the good books. It’s like a museum, you get to see stuff you would otherwise never come across.”