Kalpna Patel’s gorgeous window displays for Type Books are a study in old-fashioned craft.
You might have caught your first glimpse biking down Gore Vale or inching past on the 501 streetcar or shaking out a blanket in Trinity Bellwoods Park: There, across Queen and behind the storefront’s glass, an entire world created out of paper and glue. One month, midway through this summer, it was a cluster of hot-air balloons fashioned from Chinese lanterns with bright scalloped trim, hung from delicate chains and trailing small wicker baskets painted gold. Looking closer, you noticed the books, stacked high among the balloons: Falling Upwards: How We Took to the Air by Richard Holmes, Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love, Alligator Pie by Dennis Lee. (You might have even gone in and bought one.)
For the past year and a half, the exquisite—and highly Instagram-able—window displays at Queen West indie retailer Type Books have been the work of 32-year-old Kalpna Patel, a former philosophy major, part-time employee, and seriously skilled craftician. Her tableaus might be timed to an occasion (pale, paper-mâché bunny heads for Easter), prompted by a book cover (the art-deco edition of The Great Gatsby), or in celebration of a local author or small press (January’s display brought the two together, showcasing Coach House Books and the launch of Some Great Idea by The Grid’s Edward Keenan). “It’s a little seat-of-the-pants,” she says. “I’ll find a few books that I love and see where that goes.”
As the owner of a craft and design business, a vendor at the Junction Flea, and an occasional craft facilitator for the Harbourfront Centre, Patel delivers ample DIY cred to the bookstore. She also happens to be working in a city thoroughly caught up in maker culture. One peek down a grocery-store aisle reveals small-batch pickled beets and hand-pressed organic tofu. Over in cluttered studios, woodworkers salvage abandoned window frames and turn them into kicky end tables. It’s understandable that we want the items surrounding us to have meaning, and this artisan movement helps infuse meaning into the mundane (a spice blend made just for me!).
At Type, Patel brings this homemade impulse not to merchandise but to its marketing. The worlds she creates are not for sale—they’re in the business of selling, of enticing people into the store. “When you see that much care put into presentation, it speaks volumes about how you’re going to be treated when you go in, and how much the staff knows,” she says. “So I don’t ever feel sleazy about the windows.” And although Type’s installations can easily stand beside high-end retail displays from the Bay or Holt Renfrew, they are, in keeping with an indie-bookstore ethos, decidedly lo-fi affairs. “It’s important to me to use things that are recycled—or pretty much garbage, if I can,” Patel says. “I don’t want to add to more stuff.” That also serves the store’s limited budget, since the displays tend to cost in the neighbourhood of $60. Yup, these intricate creations—dinner-party place settings, wooded forests, back-alley landscapes—run as much as a taco night out.
Of course, the smaller the budget, the greater the labour: Patel estimates she spends some 30 hours preparing each display. There are treks across the city to source material from art-supply stores; she’ll fiddle around with a new craft technique. For the Falling Upwards window, Patel constructed a few model hot-air balloons and strung them up in her Junction studio to see how they’d actually hang. Installation can take a good eight hours—she’s still a bookseller, so she frequently climbs out of the window to help a customer or ring through a sale. Then, roughly every four to six weeks, she’ll tear down the entire operation and start all over again.
That process—creating, dismantling, creating, dismantling—is a tidy mirror of the writing and revising that defines every author’s march towards a finished book. They’re crafts, too, and while we might devour a novel over the course of a rainy weekend, what we hold in our hands is the product of years of loving toil. Patel’s beautiful, tactile displays elevate the already meaningful into something ceremonial—they are the altars on which dozens of books rest.
“I remember, growing up in a Hindu household, sitting next to my mom doing puja every day,” Patel says. “And she have all these little beads and bells and copper plates, and she’d be fussing with them, and I’d do the same with my toys beside her. That’s kind of how I feel when I’m putting these displays together—it’s a meditative experience.” At the end of that experience, we’re presented with objects to be revered. Not bad for 60 bucks.
Type Books, 883 Queen St W., 416-366-8973.