By Sabrina Pourghassemi
Walking up to the small storefront, the unconventional window displays filled of bright coloured books with unusual titles are an immediate eye-catcher. A chime rings as you open the door to The Monkey’s Paw, an antique bookshop that sells exactly what you aren’t looking for.
All is quiet, but every once in a while the silence is broken by a loud ring and the clunk of a book falling out of… a vending machine?
The strong earthy smell of antique books hits your nose as soon as you walk into the narrow yet lengthy store. Sitting behind his desk is owner Stephen Fowler, a middle-aged, blue eyed man with a scruffy blond beard, who opened the shop in 2006 with a love for second-hand books driving his success.
Located at 1267 Bloor St. W. near Lansdown station in Toronto’s Dufferin Grove neighbourhood, the unique bookshop specializes in uncommon books and paper artefacts from the age of print.
Fowler says that he tries to find the obscure and forgotten books that you wouldn’t find anywhere else. When asked about the criteria the books in his shop need to meet, he says, “[he tries] to buy books that are beautiful, arcane, macabre or absurd.”
“Ideally every book in the store is one of those things… And ideally it’s all four of those things, but finding books that meet those criteria are not that easy so I look at a lot of books that I don’t buy.”
Although you won’t find a best-seller at this bookshop, you will find volumes dating back to the middle of the 20th century or earlier. No book is too bizarre for Fowler, with titles ranging from Wild-Animal Celebrities to Useful Drugs, The Monkey’s Paw has everything you would never dream of.
“Very generally we sell older books, so I don’t buy anything that’s recent. And in the book business, recent to my mind means published in the last 30 years. That’s generally what we do here, we sell unusual old books that people aren’t likely to recognize,” says Fowler.
The Monkey’s Paw is also home to the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomizing vending machine for old books which Fowler introduced in 2012. In exchange for three dollars, customers will receive a token to insert into the one-of-a-kind contraption that spits out a quirky, old and unexpected paperback or hardcover each time. The Biblio-Mat, a homemade machine built from an old metal locker, was created by Fowler and The Juggernaut co-founder, Craig Small. People come from far and wide to see their creation.
Although the Biblio-Mat is a great attraction for the shop, Fowler hopes his customers take the time to browse through the shelves as well. He hopes that people will value and treasure the books they pick as the pieces of cultural history that he believes they are. “The artifact is precious, I believe. And there are a lot of people who respond to that–books are beautiful and interesting and they contain all this interesting stuff–but they are themselves cultural artefacts.”
He says he also appreciates books as a technology, “No one improved upon [the technology of books] for like 500 years, which you can hardly say about anything. Hardly any technology last for 500 years and they’re all still around and they still work… if you pick up a book from like 1700 you can still read it.”
Back in the present, Julia Koutrouliotis, a Dufferin Grove resident, says she comes in at least once every couple weeks to browse the shop and pick up a new read. “I’ve been going to The Monkey’s Paw since they were at their first location, something about the environment here makes me feel like I’m in an alternate universe. I will definitely be following them to their new location.”
The Monkey’s Paw originally opened in 2006 at 1229 Dundas St. W., until they moved to 1267 Bloor St. W. in 2016. In April, they’re moving once again to 1067 Bloor St. W., just down the street from their current location. Fowler says he is happy about staying within the neighbourhood. “There’s a lot more traffic here, we had more customers and made more money and the shop has thrived here.”
Although business is needed to keep the shop successful, Fowler’s main focus is providing people with the knowledge and value the books in his store bring to his customers. The Monkey’s Paw has been a well-known landmark in Dufferin Grove, and many people including Fowler are happy about the shop staying in its home neighbourhood.
If you get the chance to stop by, you’ll likely see a focused Fowler sitting behind his desk, his silver laptop placed before him, flipping through one of the many books off the shelves, only looking up from his desk when someone walks through the glass door.
Right now, he hands over a token to another in-awe customer ready to test out the turquoise blue book vending machine. He wishes her good luck, as he does with anyone before they make their way to the back of the store, token in hand. The token drops into the slot and the machine rings and a loud cranking noise breaks the silence of the bookstore. An old and unusual book falls out of the Biblio-Mat.
The woman receives her smooth leathery prize, unwraps the paper sleeve around it and flips through the vintage yellow-tinged pages of a generously used mathematics book from the 60’s, the scribbles of students inside to prove its rich history. She thanks Fowler before walking out, the door chime ringing behind her.