Throughout their 37 years in business, the owners of this iconic bookshop have witnessed many eras of development in Toronto’s theatre and retail scenes.
Since John Harvey and Leonard McHardy opened TheatreBooks in 1975, they’ve played a central role in Toronto’s performing arts scene, serving not just as retailers, but also as event organizers and employers to those getting their start in the theatre industry. After spending 37 years in Yorkville, the shop moved to King and Spadina this past summer, and its owners couldn’t be happier with the change in scenery.
Getting started: “John and had met working in the theatre,” says McHardy. “A theatre that doesn’t exist in Toronto anymore called Global Village Theatre—it was a very progressive dance and drama theatre—and we hit it off as friends.”
Soon after their meeting, McHardy went abroad to London, England to study directing, and soon found himself inspired by the city’s niche booksellers. When he returned, the pair went about opening TheatreBooks. “The thought was that once we got established, I would go back to working in the theatre as a director and John would run the store.” However, this proved to be wishful thinking. “More or less, to get it launched in the first couple of years we were both here 24/7.”
At first, the hardest task was acquiring stock for the store. “In those days, it was a lot of work convincing publishers that they could sell us books about theatre and we could have a business,” he says. “Many didn’t even know what they had in their catalogue. In the Canadian publishing world, a publisher would represent maybe 10 different international publishers, but not know their backlist. They’d be dealing with bestsellers, so theatre and dramatic literature was small, even though a publisher like Faber or Grove Press had huge authors like Beckett and David Mamet.”
Trading places: “This store is our fourth store,” McHardy says. “TheatreBooks 4.0 we call it.”
The first three iterations of TheatreBooks were all in Yorkville, starting out above a dry cleaner on Yonge Street and eventually settling into an Edwardian house on St. Thomas Street for 20 years. “It was a very different neighbourhood then,” he says. “When we opened there were probably 14 bookstores up there and they all fed off each other. There were dance studios, acting studios, movement studios—it was a lively, artistic, bohemian area. Over the years it certainly gentrified and up-marketed itself.”
As an eventual result of this up-marketing, TheatreBooks found themselves looking for a new home. “We were given notice to leave,” McHardy recalls. “The owner of our building acquired the whole block and was going to turn it into condos. We knew it was coming, but we were a little shocked when it did—we had thought it might be two or three years away.”
Finding a new space proved to be a challenge. “We didn’t know how hard that was going to be,” says McHardy. “The clock was ticking, and it was getting louder and louder. Ultimately, a customer said to look on Craigslist. On the third day, we saw an ad [for a space at] King and Spadina. We came down, and within an hour of looking at this place, more people walked by than [we had at] the other store in a month.”
Who shops there: Having switched locations three times now, the owners of TheatreBooks had braced themselves for what they felt would be an inevitable dip in business. Yet it turned out not to be the case. “It even went up a bit,” says McHardy, who attributes the increase to both pedestrian traffic and the return of old customers. “They come in and say, ‘I’m so glad I don’t have to go up there anymore.’”
McHardy adds that the cyclical nature of Toronto’s film industry also plays a role in their business. “Some years we have a big boom where we see a lot of young people coming in, wanting to get into the film industry. So they get the more expensive books, manuals on how to do lighting, rigging, and that kind of thing. And some years that doesn’t happen—everybody moans about how the film business is all out in B.C.”
What’s next: After running the shop for 37 years, McHardy has had a unique vantage point on Toronto’s changing theatre scene. “We’ve seen the rise of independence—people saying there’s no room to get into Factory or Tarragon, so they’ve got to produce their own thing,” he says. “More small companies are producing one-offs or putting something on at the Fringe or SummerWorks, which have blossomed into extraordinary theatrical events in the city. There’s also a movement to shake up the way we’ve relied on government support to do things. You see the Lower Ossington Theatre being a house for many companies. These are good things that didn’t happen a decade ago.”
Unfortunately, however, a decline in productions with international reach has also reduced the potential audience for these independent outfits. “We saw the growth and demise of a huge company called Livent,” says McHardy. “Tourists used to come into the city to see the shows they created and staged, and would come to our store and say, ‘We’re here to see Showboat, what else should we see while we’re in town?’ We could point them to something at the Tarragon. We don’t see that kind of show business tourism happening now, and it affects the smaller companies.”