A Visit to Toronto's Famous Monkey's Paw Bookshop

Credit: V.R. Ferose

The Monkey's Paw is a funky, antiquarian bookshop located in Toronto, Canada.

The Monkey’s Paw is a Toronto bookshop specializing in “uncommon books and paper artifacts from the age of print.” It is also the home of the Biblio-Mat, the world’s first randomized vending machine for old books.

I am a bibliophile, author, columnist, and software executive based in the Silicon Valley (Readers may recall my ‘How I Got Started’ profile from the summer 2016 issue of Fine Books.) During one of my visits to Toronto to study the Artificial Intelligence ecosystem, I did what I always do — sneak in a few hours to visit a local bookstore. The Monkey’s Paw inspired me to not only buy some rare books (The Niagara Peninsula by Charles P. deVolph; The Pictorial Encyclopedia of Railways by Hamilton Ellis) but to have a long conversation with the bookstore owner, Stephen Fowler.

Having been to hundreds of bookstores around the world, I consider The Monkey’s Paw to be one of the most unique ones, and this Q & A with Fowler will give you the reasons why!   

V.R. Ferose (VRF): Why did you name your bookstore The Monkey’s Paw? (I am aware of W.W. Jacobs connection.)

Stephen Fowler (SF): If you are familiar with the W.W. Jacobs piece, you know that the message of that story is "be careful what you wish for." Several years before I opened the shop, I already knew that I'd like to create a bookstore where people would be surprised by unexpected books (not the book you're looking for, but the one you didn't even know existed). So the "careful what you wish for" sentiment seemed to apply... plus, "The Monkey's Paw" is a memorable and somewhat creepy title, which also seemed fitting!

VRF: Why haven’t you considered having a digital presence (other than the lack of cheap media mail in Canada)?

SF: First of all, we do have a pretty active presence on social media (Facebook & Instagram). So, it would be inaccurate to suggest that we shy away entirely from the digital world. But it is true that we don't sell online. I'm no stranger to online bookselling — indeed the Monkey's Paw began in 2004 as an online-only shop. But once I opened in a Toronto storefront in 2006, I recognized the obvious advantages of in-person bookselling. Although it's easy to search for and purchase a specific title online, the web is a terrible way to browse for books. Browsing for old books is really only possible in person, hands-on. And with many of the older, longer-established shops either closing or migrating to the web, the general public was really missing the in-person browsing experience, and the pleasure of discovery it permits. The Monkey's Paw filled that gap. I abandoned online bookselling entirely after I'd had the open shop for just a few months. Basically, the books we sell (many of them unlikely and forgotten titles) are so obscure that few shoppers on Abebooks or Amazon would ever even know to search for them. Also, when I sell a book in the shop, I make a customer; the person who buys a book here will forever associate the book with the shop, and very likely return. People who buy books online don't really have any sense for where the books come from, so building customer loyalty is irrelevant and impossible.

Courtesy of V.R. Ferose

V.R. Ferose with the famous Biblio-Mat.

VRF: Please tell us in detail about the genesis of the idea of Biblio-Mat? Why haven’t anyone else replicated the idea?

SF: To be honest, I don't really know where the germ of the idea came from. I know that I had a lot of kinda cool older books in the basement — stuff too odd or interesting to throw away, but which for one reason or another wasn't likely to sell off the shelves; and I wanted to find a way to get these books into people's hands. I had the sense that if I selected the books for people, rather than giving them any choice in the matter — in other words, providing them with a surprise book — they'd be more likely to actually consider the book on its merits, and perhaps appreciate it. Having a machine (apparently) make the decision added a sensational carnivalesque twist. When I described the idea to my friend Craig Small, he became very excited, and offered to build the machine for me. I guess Craig had an instinct that the finished product would really resonate with people; but to be honest, I was flabbergasted by its popularity.

After we'd had the machine for a while, I came to understand that the reason it suited the shop so well was because it basically provided the Monkey's Paw experience in miniature: for people who didn't have the time, patience, or money to browse the shelves, it was an instantaneous way to get the thrill of bibliographic discovery. Some of my acquaintances in the book trade dismiss the Biblio-Mat as a cheap gimmick, and accuse its users of not being "serious" book people (and indeed our more experienced customers do prefer to spend their time browsing the shelves, rather than feeding tokens into the machine). But having seen literally tens of thousands of budding bibliophiles receive books from the Biblio-Mat, I can attest that its users are mostly curious, open-minded, and prepared to find interest and amusement in whatever the machine selects for them. And through it, we've been able to find homes for countless orphaned old books.

As to why no one has replicated the Biblio-Mat: first of all, I can't say for sure that they haven't... although I've never seen another one anywhere else. But if no one has built another, I suppose the reasons would be as follows: engineering a machine to serve up random books of various dimensions is actually a pretty complicated undertaking; selling hard-to-find books for $3 each is not a lucrative business proposition; and locating sufficient interesting old books to stock the thing is a never-ending challenge. Only a crazy person would ever do it! [Editor’s Note: “New book” vending machines have been around since the 40s.]

Courtesy of V.R. Ferose

The Monkey's Paw storefront.

VRF: What are your biggest challenges today in running The Monkey’s Paw?

SF: However difficult it may be to sell old books, it's definitely MORE difficult for me to find them (buy them). Although millions of books were printed in the 20th century, the interesting and valuable ones are becoming rather scarce at this point; and to keep up with the demand, I'm constantly scrambling to find more. If I keep the business going for another decade or two, I'll eventually run into a situation where I simply can't find the sorts of books I like to sell, in the quantities necessary. To steal a phrase from the oil industry: I feel like we may have reached "peak book."

VRF: What is the book that you sold, that you wish you did not (rather have kept it for yourself)?

SF: There's not really an answer to this question. If I weren't able to let go of the books — every book — I wouldn't be able to run the business at all. I used to be a book owner/collector/hoarder in my own right; but at some point I discovered that my real joy was in finding and buying books, then in putting them into the hands of new owners — making that "love connection" between people and books. So even if there are books that I miss, and which I may never see again, I still take great comfort in knowing they have found new and loving homes.

VRF: What is the most expensive book you ever sold? Or the rarest book that came you way?

SF: Unlike many of my colleagues in the rare book trade, I don't really care so much about terrifically valuable books. I'd rather sell 20 interesting old books for $50 each (or 50 books for $20 each!) than a single elite rarity for $1,000. That said, I do occasionally come across something quite remarkable, and of course I'm happy to sell it for good money. A particularly scarce item I once turned up was an enormous trilingual lexicon printed in German, Latin, and ancient Greek, published in Alsace in 1587. I happened to find a customer for it on a bitterly cold winter day, when the furnace at my house had broken down; I sold the book for the exact price of a very expensive furnace repair!

VRF: Is there a rare book that you wish you would find?  

SF: Always: the book I would most like to find is the one I've never seen or heard of. It happens more often than you might suppose.

VRF: Your favorite bookstore (other than your own)?

SF: I visit bookshops everywhere I travel, and (at risk of sounding like a snob) am often disappointed by their character and quality. A few exceptions:

— Brattle Book Shop, Boston... the definition of a stately, old-fashioned antiquarian shop, with a delightful bargain/clearance section in the vacant lot next door.

— Un Regard Moderne, Paris... mad source for visual culture, crammed with pictorial books of all sorts.

— Kayo Books, San Francisco... phenomenally entertaining collection of vintage paperbacks (obscure genres and sub-genres, pop culture, and sleaze).