Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Textual Excursion Around the Annex

Share |

The Annex area of Toronto has long been a popular locus for writers — both as a place of residence and as a source of inspiration. Although the boundaries are often disputed by realtors, the Annex neighbourhood is generally acknowledged to be enclosed by Bathurst Street, Dupont Street, Avenue Road and Bloor Street and for the past century has attracted numerous writers and artists owing to a number of geographic and sociological factors.

As wealthier Torontonians began moving north and east of the Annex in the early part of the last century, their former single family homes, large Victorian dwellings, became ideal rental property as they were divided into multiple-occupancy rooming houses by the new owners. These rental units attracted young families, recent immigrants, labourers and, perhaps most importantly for the literary culture of the area, students and young faculty from the nearby University of Toronto. The presence of university students living in the area created a need for cafés, diners and bookstores, which soon sprung up, and during the late 1960s dissatisfaction with the U of T led students and faculty to form the alternative educational facility, Rochdale, which was also fed by counter-cultural youth living in Yorkville and American draft-resisters who resided primarily on nearby Baldwin. Activities at Rochdale led to the development of two Toronto small presses — House of Anansi and Coach House Press — which attracted many writers to the area, and various waves of immigrants, including Jewish, and later Chinese, communities along Spadina Avenue, as well as Hungarians who arrived and opened businesses along Bloor during the late 1950s, contributed to a vital, energetic and constantly changing enclave of novelists, socialists, students, poets and other artists within a few densely-populated blocks.

In the summer of 2005, Sharon Harris and I designed a literary walking tour of the Annex as part of the Scream in High Park festival that year and in conjunction with the [murmur] archival project. A considerable amount of the groundwork for a walking tour of this area had been constructed by Greg Gatenby in his invaluable 1999 collection Toronto: A Literary Guide, but what interested Harris and I most were the experimental and avant-garde writers who were often less-noteworthy to Gatenby, as well as younger writers and literary stories that had emerged after the publication of his guide. Although the weather this winter in Toronto hasn’t encouraged pedestrian travel, spring will bring opportunities for more perambulation which might include some of the following Annex literary stops outlined below.

Stop #1: Bloor and Walmer
If you leave Spadina subway station from the Walmer exit, and cross the street to the northwest corner, you’ll find yourself at 362 Bloor, which I like to think of as one of the “power points” of Annex literary culture. This spot has been the site of many restaurants over the years (currently it’s Cluck, Grunt & Low) but has almost always been a café of some sort. A few years ago it was Shakespeare’s Café, where cultural commentator and educator Katherine Parrish ran a unique literary series featuring established writers and unpublished high school students reading together. Most significantly to me, however, the remarkable poet Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987), during her frequent bouts of restlessness, would come to this spot to drink coffee and write until the early hours. Fittingly, just north of here at Lowther Avenue is Gwendolyn MacEwen Park (named in 1996) featuring a bronze bust of the poet by sculptor John McCombe which was unveiled in 2006. But beyond MacEwen, Walmer Avenue has been a very popular street for writers to reside on. According to Gatenby, over 40 authors have lived along Walmer including: Paul Quarrington, M. NourbeSe Philip, Carolyn Smart, Dorothy Livesay, Matt Cohen, Morley and Barry Callaghan, Paul Dutton, bpNichol, Dennis Lee and Barbara Gowdy.

Stop #2: Bloor and Howland
If you now walk west along Bloor and stop at Howland you'll have passed a few more important literary streets. Some notable writers who have lived on Brunswick North include the underground and underrated novelist Juan Butler and, according to Toronto: A Literary Guide, bpNichol, Dennis Lee, Morley Callaghan, Marian Engel, David Young and Sarah Sheard. Walking to Howland, you'll also pass Country Style restaurant at (450 Bloor) which is one of the last of the Hungarian restaurants on this strip. The Hungarian Revolution of 1956 brought many immigrants to Canada fleeing the Soviet invasion which reinstated Communism — including writers like George Jonas — and many of these exiles opened up dozens of restaurants along Bloor during the 1960s and '70s. In the early days, the food they served was renowned for being very cheap and very filling, perfect for the counter-culture youth to dine on, and many writers during this period have written about surviving almost exclusively on goulash and schnitzel. The Blue Cellar Room, which was once on the south side, was also a Hungarian restaurant and a very similarly-named and described restaurant appears in Michael Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion as a place where Caravaggio and the company of gentlemen thieves hang out (although the novel takes place many years before the main Hungarian immigration). Finally, in walking to Howland you'll also pass the James Joyce Pub (386 Bloor) which, although not named after a Canadian literary figure, does feature in Lynn Crosbie's wonderful poem about significant locations in Toronto entitled “Alphabet City.”

Stop #3: Bloor and Bathurst
Continuing west until you reach Bathurst you are now at one of the borders of the Annex. From here you can contemplate some of the literary spots that lie just outside the Annex proper. Turning your mind's eye to the north, to the corner of Dupont and Bathurst, one might recollect the sadly-missed home of Janet Inksetter's Annex Books, well known for its fantastic collection of Canadian poetry and small press items. Considering poetry and book collections, directly across the road from Annex Books lived poets Steve McCaffery and Karen Mac Cormack for nearly ten years — along with their books, surely the most extensive private collection of antiquarian and avant-garde books to be assembled in this country. Two younger writers, the poet John Barlow (ASHINEoVSUN II) and literary impresario Bill Kennedy (Lexiconjury, Scream in High Park) lived for many years on the east side. Just west is the Victory Café, home to many literary events over years including, until just recently, the Art Bar reading series. Two blocks to the south, at Bathurst and Dundas, where the Sanderson branch of the Toronto Public Library is right now, is the first home of Coach House Press, and the pool at Alexandra Park, beside the library, also features prominently in Darren O'Donnell’s novel Your Secrets Sleep with Me. Closer to Bathurst and Bloor is Ulster Avenue which appears in Emily Schultz’s short story collection, Black Coffee Night, as well the Ulster Laundromat, a photo of which adorns the book’s cover.

Stop #4: Borden and Bloor
Cross Bloor and now walk east to Borden Street. On the way there you'll have passed Pauper's Pub where many scenes in David Eddie’s satiric novel Chump Change take place, but now you’ll be standing outside Dooney’s Café. To many in the Toronto literary community, Dooney's is synonymous with the writer Brian Fawcett. Initially a poet, Fawcett has, for the last several decades, shifted to writing novels and social commentary. He runs, and is the major contributor to Dooney’s Café, a web site of news and opinion (particularly on the arts and Canadian culture) and one of his recent books about anti-globalization is entitled Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney’s Café and other non-Globalized Places, People and Ideas. The title essay describes how the Annex community resisted this café being taken over by Starbucks in the late 1990s. Starbucks is now just a little further west and across the street.

Stop #5: Brunswick and Bloor
Walk east until you reach Brunswick and you'll be at Future Bakery, which can serve as an example of a generational shift regarding writers' haunts. Whereas Dooney's is comfortable territory for Boomer authors, in the mid-1990s the Future was the place for young poets to hang out. Michael Holmes was a regular patron at that time, and wrote an extended poem about the café (Satellite Dishes from the Future Bakery). Getting here you'll have also passed 497 Bloor, which is now a Pita Pit, but was once the famous Longhouse Bookstore, which was the first bookstore in Canada to have a completely Canadian stock. It was opened in 1972 by Beth Appeldoorn and Susan Sandler, and there were launches and many literary celebrations at this store until around 1997. Brunswick Avenue is also the former home of many Canadian writers including Katherine Govier, who was so impressed by the place and its people that she wrote a collection of linked short stories called Fables of Brunswick Avenue in 1985. Behind the Future is the popular bar The Greenroom, which is also the title of a collection of short stories by musician and author Moe Berg.

Stop #6: Trinity-St. Paul's
Further east you might stop outside Trinity-St. Paul's United Church at 427 Bloor. The Toronto Small Press Fair — founded in 1987 by Stuart Ross and Nick Power as Meet the Presses — has been held in several locales including Hart House at U of T and the 360 Bar on Queen, but the most popular place has been here at this church. On the way to this stop, you’ll also pass the flagship of the Book City chain. This branch is a particularly great bookstore that has also employed many writers over the years including: Alana Wilcox, André Alexis, Derek McCormack and Catherine Bush.

Stop #7: Spadina and Bloor
If you walk to Spadina and cross the street you'll be standing in Matt Cohen Park. There are several [murmur] recordings at this place, including one of Cohen’s widow Patsy Aldana explaining this space. The much-missed Cohen was a brilliant novelist, children’s author, poet and short story writer who died in 1999. At this park there are several plaques celebrating Cohen’s life and featuring quotations from his writing including the great surrealist story entitled "Spadina Time." Cohen also played a lot of pick up basketball at the Jewish Community Centre across the street, which now occasionally supports a Jewish writers reading series, Bagels and Books. As noted in Toronto: A Literary Guide, the JCC (in its earlier incarnation as a YMCA) was also the space for the Contact Reading Series, run by the Contact Press editor Raymond Souster during the early 1960s. Contact Press was the first artist-run, literary fine press in Canada and a clear predecessor of such small presses as Coach House and Anansi. The reading series brought a lot of important writers to Canada, including Amiri Baraka when he was still known as LeRoi Jones, as well as Cid Corman and Louis Zukofsky. Getting to Matt Cohen Park you'll also have passed another late and lamented business, El Basha’s falafel house. The opening acknowledgements page of Ondaatje's In the Skin of a Lion thanks El Basha's for their food, which he apparently lived on during the composition of that novel (and legend has it, modeled one the characters in the novel on the restaurant's owner). For years a signed hardcover copy of that book sat in a glass case at the back of that restaurant, which really did have the best falafels in town. The restaurant was forced to close in 2001 when a new owner bought the building and terminated the restaurant’s lease. Looking north you'll see Spadina Station, the site of poet Peter McPhee's dramatic monologue "The Automated Walkway's Not Moving (and neither am I)." Just visible to the south at 671 Spadina is the first location of House of Anansi Press, the source of some of the most important writing to emerge from post-Centennial Canada, including that of Margaret Atwood, Matt Cohen, George Bowering, Ray Smith, Roch Carrier, Hubert Aquin, Graeme Gibson, Dennis Lee, David Godfrey, Michael Ondaatje and Erin Mouré.

Stop #8: Huron and Bloor
Continue walking east until you reach the Croll Apartments at 341 Bloor, which is better known as the former home of Rochdale College, the alternative education community founded by several disgruntled academics and students from U of T, including Dennis Lee. As at Matt Cohen Park, there are a number of [murmur] recordings about this dynamic and controversial institution, which lasted between 1968 and 1975. Many writers were associated with Rochdale beyond Lee, including Matt Cohen, science fiction author Judith Merril and poet Victor Coleman. The meeting between Coleman and printer Stan Bevington at Rochdale led to the formation of Coach House Press, which soon moved from Dundas to its current location behind Rochdale on bpNichol Lane.

Stop #9: bpNichol Lane
Walk south on Huron and turn east at the first opportunity; this will lead you to a north-south laneway formally known as Huron (Rear) but which, since 1994, has become bpNichol Lane. Nichol (1944-1988) was one of the most-beloved Toronto poets of the last century, and one of his poems is carved into the concrete outside the press's doors. Nichol was, among his many literary activities, deeply involved with Coach House as one of the main editors of the 1973-1988 collective. He also published many of his most important books with the press and Coach House continues to keep several of his books in print.

At this point you might wander in several directions, back home via St. George subway station, or down south to Robarts Library, or south and west to Ten Editions bookstore — all significant literary points as well, and a few more of the several hundred others that I might have also pointed out in this short stroll of what continues to be a vital and active area for creative writing in Toronto.

Stephen Cain

Stephen Cain is the author of four collections of poetry including Torontology (ECW, 2001) and American Standard/ Canada Dry (Coach House, 2005). He has lived in several neighbourhoods since he moved to Toronto in 1994, but never in the Annex.

References (and Further Reading):

The Art Bar Poetry Series: www.artbar.org

Barlow, John. ASHINEoVSUN II. Toronto: Exile, 2002.

Berg, Moe. The Greenroom. Toronto: Gutter, 2000.

Cohen, Matt. Columbus and the Fat Lady. Toronto: House of Anansi, 1972.

Crosbie, Lynn. “Alphabet City.” Queen Rat. Toronto: Anansi, 1998.

Dooney’s Café News Service: www.dooneyscafe.com

Eddie, David. Chump Change. Toronto: Random House, 1996.

Fawcett, Brian. Local Matters: A Defence of Dooney’s Café and other non-Globalized Places, People and Ideas. Vancouver: New Star, 2003.

Gatenby, Greg. Toronto: A Literary Guide. Toronto: McArthur and Company, 1999.

Govier, Katherine. Fables of Brunswick Avenue. Toronto: Penguin, 1985.

Holmes, Michael. Satellite Dishes From the Future Bakery. Toronto: Coach House, 1998.

Lexiconjury: http://www.commutiny.net/lexiconjury

MacEwen, Gwendolyn. Afterworlds. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

McPhee, Peter. “The Automated Walkway’s Not Moving (And Neither am I).” The Sound of Filling Hollow. Compact Disc. STEGCD01. 1996.

[murmur] sound project: www.murmurtoronto.ca

Nichol, bp. The Alphabet Game: a bpNichol Reader. Toronto: Coach House, 2007.

O’Donnell, Darren. Your Secrets Sleep With Me. Toronto: Coach House, 2004.

Ondaatje, Michael. In the Skin of a Lion. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1987.

Schultz, Emily. Black Coffee Night. Toronto: Insomniac, 2002.

Scream in High Park: www.thescream.ca

Toronto Small Press Book Fair: www.torontosmallpressbookfair.org

The views expressed in the magazine are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.