“You know what?” Justin Daniel Wood remembers thinking during a tough time in his career, “I have five pounds. Just let me put them on eBay. The sale of these novels, including an autographed copy of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” – which he bought from BMV on Bloor for $20 and sold for $150 – and first editions of Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion” and of “Watership Down,” allowed him to acquire more.
Now Wood is living the bibliophile’s dream, residing atop his Danforth shop, The Scribe, sharing the three-story space with thousands of rare books.
While many companies have used the pandemic shutdowns as an opportunity to grow their online presence, Wood, who has had a successful gig selling rare books primarily online, has done the exact opposite, signing a five-year lease and opening a window.
After earning a degree in literature from York University, Wood learned the trade working at Alexandre Antique Prints, Maps & Books and Contact Editions. He built his independent business as a regular seller at the now defunct Sunday Antiques Market in St. Lawrence Market and selling via eBay to private collectors and international and local educational institutions, including including the Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto.
His inventory now numbers around 20,000 books, a quarter of which take up the ground floor of his shop, where they cost less than $100, some as low as $5. The rare room upstairs houses another thousand more, like a 1950 first edition of Graham Greene’s “The Third Man and The Fallen Idol”; a special edition of Stephen King’s short story “Blockade Billy” with a baseball card signed by the author; a first edition of “A Game of Thrones”; and the one that Wood is particularly passionate about, a limited, signed edition of Charles Bukowski’s “Ham on Rye,” featuring an original finger painting by the author. About 15,000 other books are stored in the basement, awaiting processing.
“The top of the mountain for me has always been having a bookstore,” says Wood, who learned of the vacancy at 375 Danforth Ave. from another bookstore. After locating it on Google Maps, Wood immediately noted the large glass display cases – perfect for showcasing his wares – and the proximity to Chester station.
Due to the pandemic, the rent was “digestible,” Wood says, and he took possession of the space in November 2020, just in time for Toronto’s second lockdown. This hiatus was, he says, “actually beneficial because it allowed me to price everything and put everything in place because I was waiting for (out of stock) shelves.”
It officially opened in March 2021, and while the city is still in a modified lockdown, the Greektown community, which is already home to three other bookstores (Book City, specializing in new and leftover books; Re:Reading, selling popular second-hand books; and Circus Books & Music, offering an eclectic range) warmly welcomed The Scribe.
At 36, Wood is one of the youngest members of the Association of Antiquarian Booksellers of Canada, and despite the image of tweed jackets and pipes the designation conjures up, his bright shop, with its white walls and shelves modern and gallery-style track lighting, is unpretentious, and he and his small, young staff pride themselves on being highly approachable.
“I love meeting people who are interested in books, who appreciate history and who want to know more,” says Wood. “What I’m trying to build here is the mixture of history and art.” He even encourages buyers to judge certain books by their covers: he’s labeled a section of The Scribe “Dust Jackets” while another famously “Beautiful Victorian Binding.”
Several times a month, Wood shares highlights from his collection on his Instagram account, @thescribebookstore. The posts frequently inspire comments of appreciation and requests to purchase books and other paper rarities, such as a James Bond “Live and Let Die” tarot deck, Gregorian chant sheets on vellum (probably years 1500), original medical charts dating back to the 1700s, and period Toronto newspapers (reporting notable events like the moon landing).
In the store, he also aims to offer multiple versions of popular books, such as “Méditations” by Marc-Aurèle (“I’m always asked for this book”) and “The Count of Monte-Cristo” by Alexandre Dumas. “You never stop learning in a business like this: what’s important, what influenced a generation, how to determine value,” Wood says. “You can get obsessed with it and go down the rabbit hole because you’re pretty much dealing with the whole story.”
His oldest item is a sheaf of 13th-century illuminated manuscript pages, handwritten on vellum by scribes, archivists before the invention of printing, and the namesake of his shop. “The scribes were the first copiers of things,” says Wood. “How important is this, to spread literacy, truth and knowledge?”
In addition to its existing services, which include book repair, appraisals, and mylar protection, Wood has big plans to continue to evolve its offerings, including book previews, author talks, and book readings. poetry.
For now, he’s busy organizing his large inventory, a task made easier since he moved into the apartment upstairs. “It had to happen,” he laughs. “My life is here – it’s a job that takes everything.”
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