Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

A Magnet for All People: Martin Ahvenus's Village Bookstore

Share |
Martin Ahvenus in his bookstore

Martin Ahvenus’s first big sale was an 18th century French heraldry book, its pages adorned with hand-coloured coats-of-arms. It was the early 1960s and Ahvenus had worked as a farm hand, an office clerk, a bouncer and a photocopier salesman before he decided to become a bookseller. As he rode the elevator up to the potential buyer’s office, his legs were shaking.

The customer, a small man, sat behind an enormous desk in an enormous room. He took the book, looked at it and, almost without speaking, handed Ahvenus a cheque for $300. “This was my first encounter with intimidation and I must say I was impressed,” Ahvenus said later. The sale was worth two months’ rent.

It was just the beginning. Ahvenus — just Marty to his friends — would spend more than four decades selling old books to people who loved them. He died on August 23, 2011, at age 82.

I met Ahvenus in 2008, after noticing a historical brief about “the village” in a Toronto alt weekly. I’d never heard of the so-described artists’ mecca on Gerrard Street East between Elizabeth and Bay Streets, a slice of bohemia in the 1960s. Now it’s home to parking lots, apartment buildings and the Delta Chelsea hotel. As a reporter at the Toronto Star at the time, I had the chance to follow up with some of the village’s former inhabitants.

I found Ahvenus, then 80, in a retirement home in the city’s east end. We sat at a table across from each other; he talked and I listened. He was a big, almost hulking man, his size somehow diminished by the sad sparkle in his eyes as he talked about his years as owner of The Village Bookstore on Gerrard Street.

“It was fantastic,” he said. “I never had a happier time in my life.”

Earlier that year, while finishing my master’s degree at Carleton University, I’d taken an elective course on 1970s Canadian long poetry taught by the poet Rob Winger. While Winger introduced the class to bill bissett, Al Purdy and bpNichol, I sat enraptured in the back row, a journalism student generally deprived of such poetic frivolities.

Ahvenus knew bpNichol. Let him use the bookstore as his mailing address. He was good friends with Purdy, a loud, clumsy guy. He knew Margaret Atwood. Gwendolyn MacEwen. Milton Acorn. He sold the poets’ self-published books, hosted their readings and let them scribble on his walls.

Ahvenus told me he’d donated his files to the Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library at the University of Toronto and said I should take a look if I ever had the time or interest. I did, and I intended to write more about Ahvenus and his poets one day. But by the time I’d left the Star and found a free weekday to visit the library, I learned that Martin Ahvenus had died.

***

Ahvenus was interested in a great many things, including art, poetry, sports, jazz, food and of course, books. He was never particularly interested in writing. His friend Craig McNaught recalls an argument he had with Ahvenus on the subject, about four years back: McNaught tried to encourage Ahvenus to write his stories down, maybe publish them as a series of articles, but Ahvenus wasn’t interested. In his later years, as he drove across North America visiting friends, still buying and selling books, Ahvenus kept a travel diary. The entries document his book sales and purchases, names of hotels and restaurants and what he ate for breakfast.

But Ahvenus’s stories didn’t die with him. They are in the library, in folder after folder, by the boxful.

***

Ahvenus kept everything. Christmas cards, invitations to gallery openings, photographs, letters, appraisals, drafts of speeches. Every envelope carefully sliced open along a fold, to be preserved. History was among the great many things that Ahvenus appreciated, and it seems he saved everything knowing it would be part of history one day, too.

In an undated speech to the Ottawa Book Fair, Ahvenus tells the story of how he got into the book business in the first place. As a young man he worked various jobs but was often bored and “at odds” with his superiors. Jazz was his first love: he’d studied singing and lived in a musicians’ residence called the Melody Mill. But because opening a jazz club would be too expensive, he opted for a second-hand bookstore.

The files document Ahvenus’s years on Gerrard Street, where he rented a three-floor building for only $150 a month, living above his shop, The Village Bookstore.

The late Richard Landon, director of the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, met Ahvenus after moving into an apartment near the village in 1967.

In an interview after Ahvenus’s death and just weeks before his own, Landon recalled how welcoming his old friend had been on Gerrard Street, always offering discounts and drinks, even in the middle of the afternoon. On Thursday nights he stayed open late, the bookstore filled with gossip, scotch and chatter.

The village was torn down piece by piece in the late ’60s and early ’70s, the villagers kicked out in the name of progress despite their attempts to mobilize (they had at least one meeting; Ahvenus kept the invite). Ahvenus moved The Village Bookstore to then-bohemian Yorkville and later relocated to Queen Street West, where he stayed until the early 1990s when he sold the store to two of his employees.

***

As readers go digital and bookstores close, it’s easy to see Ahvenus as representative of a bygone era, a time when independent booksellers were the primary intermediaries between books and readers. Before Kobo and Kindle, Amazon and Indigo, Goodreads and #fridayreads, books were exclusively physical objects to be passed along, discovered in a box or recommended not by an algorithm but by a friend, acquaintance or bookseller.

Letters from customers and friends illuminate Ahvenus’s role in the literary community.

Take this note from the poet David Donnell, in 1976:

“Don’t sell the Melville study I tucked under the counter with some other stuff, I need it for a poem about the whale.”

Or this one from Al Purdy, written Dec 12 sometime between 1966 and 1971:

“Getting more books together for you — the damn place is crowded with them. And wanted to ask you to hold that Aldington bio of D.H. Lawrence for me, which I forgot when I was there.

“Also had the random thought that if you should ever want me to do another reading at your place I’d be available any time. This only if you wanted it and thought people would come. Remembering the last one makes this dubious.”

And from long-time friend Martha Fleming, in 2003:

“[I]n my view, the second hand bookseller is among the greatest of interpretive artists: you have to have an encyclopedic knowledge of the repertory of human thought and history of ideas. Not only that, but you need a sense of where great minds are going now, before they even go there. I always say that I owe my education to Toronto booksellers, you among them.”

Ahvenus was generous, a “great chooser of gifts,” as one friend calls him in a thank-you note, and eager to offer support and advice to anyone else interested in collecting, scouting or selling books, even if it would make them his competition.

After Ahvenus sold his store in the early ’90s, he kept selling books, working as a book scout with Doug Miller as his protégée. Together they bought used books in estate sales and sold them to bookstores, spending their days on the road.

From Ahvenus, Miller says he learned to only buy books he could make money on. “We buy books so we can sell them to buy more books,” Miller says, as if reciting a motto. In other words, he learned not let his love for certain books cloud his business sense.

Miller, of Doug Miller Books on Bloor Street West, refers to his time bookscouting with Ahvenus as B.I: Before the Internet. These days, things are different. Books that were considered good finds then aren’t now, because once word gets out that a book is worth money, the market gets flooded. People don’t browse in bookstores like they used to, and only a small number of books will sell at any given time. But Miller says business is still good for booksellers willing to adapt.

In his later years, Ahvenus started selling books online. When asked how he felt about doing so, Miller pauses. “He thought it was very important,” he says. “That selling online was another opportunity for people to get the books that they wanted. It was an extension of what he was already doing.”

While living in the retirement home, Ahvenus continued to help Miller in his shop on Mount Pleasant Road once a week.

Although he never married, living his life as a bachelor, Ahvenus had no shortage of friends who loved books, most of whom loved books like he did. He said so himself, in his speech to the Ottawa Book Fair:

“It’s books that have been the key. I probably would not have met any of the people who impressed me greatly nor would I have met the famous and also the down and out for the used bookshop is a magnet for all people — no one is intimidated by a used bookshop so people from every conceivable segment of society find themselves welcome within.”

Nicole Baute is a writer and bookworm in Toronto. Her journalism has appeared in the Toronto Star and Toronto Life magazine, and she’s currently enrolled in the Humber School for Writers fiction program. When not reading, writing or rummaging through the fridge, Baute edits EAT IT: A literary cookbook of food, sex and feminism, scheduled for release fall 2012. She also blogs about writing here.

Related item from our archives