Backpackers Tokyo

In the back of Stephen Fowler’s shop, a Biblio-Mat dispenses antiquarian books.

From Hobbit houses to WW1-era tin can toys, you can find a book on just about anything at Bloor West’s Monkey’s Paw.

By Celeste Percy-Beauregard Special to the Star

Sun., March 6, 2022 timer 3 min. read

In the market for a scrapbook of 1940s newspaper circus ads, but can’t find one at Indigo?

The Monkey’s Paw has been delighting locals with its selection of curious books since 2006, but in 2012, with the introduction of the Biblio-Mat – a vending machine that dispenses random, antiquarian books for a $4 token – and a subsequent write-up in the New York Times’ T Magazine, the Bloor West (formerly Dundas West) shop became something of a tourist destination.

“That was when the store went from ‘Oh, I guess it’s perking along OK’ to ‘Oh, my God, I wasn’t expecting to succeed like this,’” proprietor Stephen Fowler says. “Every morning, there’d be people waiting in front to come in when I opened, and they would come all day long.”

Visitors have likened the Monkey’s Paw – named after the W.W. Jacobs short horror story about a mummified, wish-granting appendage – to a record shop, and Fowler can see their point. “People don’t necessarily come here to buy the text. They come here to buy the artifact,” he says. “You could download ‘Ziggy Stardust’ – you don’t have to own the album. But if you’re a vinyl guy, you’ve got to own the album.”

After pandemic lockdowns, Fowler’s cozy shop provided the browsing experience many Zoom-fatigued folks craved. “[Secondhand books] just take on this meaning, where you say: ‘This book was loved, read, appreciated, valued and thought about by people from the past. It becomes bigger than just the book,” says Fowler, who began working in antiquarian bookshops in his early 20s. “That almost mystical value of old things is really how I got into this. That’s really what’s meaningful for me.”

On any given day, treasures abound, like “Making Tin Can Toys,” a 1919 book about repurposing peach cans into playthings; “Ship’s Cook 3c and 2c,” a US Navy training manual from 1945; “Earth Sheltered Housing Design,” a book Fowler describes as “a serious study about how to build what are basically Hobbit houses”; and “The Biotic Associations of Cockroaches,” which details the parasites that cockroaches host. “It’s horrific,” Fowler says with a laugh.“But how cool is that? You’re not going to find that anywhere else.”

While it’s these oddities that fascinate Fowler the most, they aren’t the sole focus of the shop. “Sometimes people think we only sell the freakiest stuff,” he says. “But the truth is, we have regular books too.”

In fact, the shop has three concentrations. The first are classic works of literature by the likes of Jane Austen, Lewis Carroll, Dostoyevsky and Hemingway, and writings of great thinkers such as Aristotle, Darwin and Marx. “We try to find nice, attractive, old copies of those books for the people who want them,” Fowler says.

The second is what he calls “the stuff you would expect to find in a really good, smart, urban bookshop”: 20th-century books on art, photography and design, and challenging literary fiction and poetry.

And then there are the weird ones – “odd, unexpected, ultra-specific subjects,” Fowler says. “Absurd or obsessive pursuits. The kind of books you can’t believe were ever published.”

He curates the perfect balance of all three by combing through the collections of late academics and scouring garage sales, flea markets and the like. “Anytime I travel I bring back books,” Fowler says. “When I’m dead, and (my children are) talking about me, it’s going to be: ‘Remember that time we went that place and dad went to the damn bookstore all day?’ Because that’s just part of the deal. I have to do that. It’s a compulsion.”

The payoff is a discovery like “Four Centuries of Cat Books,” which he describes as “a bibliography written by a cat-lady librarian. It’s literally every book about cats that she could find in her whole career as a librarian. Every time I find one of those, it’s like, ‘Oh, that was a great day.’”

It’s this balance of humour and reverence for these written works that makes the Monkey’s Paw unique. “I like the idea that you could be both entertained and amused,” Fowler says, “marvel at their strangeness and still say, ‘This is a serious piece of cultural history, this is a beautiful artifact that people went to great trouble to make, this is a rare survivor from the past.’

“But,” he adds, “it’s also just cracking me up.”

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