PHOTO BY John Nicolas Jerney

PHOTO BY John Nicolas Jerney

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

ILLUSTRATION BY Frank Fiorentino

Ben McNally likes to swear, but never to his customers (okay, maybe once). I first heard him say “fuckin’” Yankees—which, in that context, shouldn’t be considered a profanity, anyway—during a prolonged baseball discussion after a prolonged literary event staged in his closing-soon store, Ben McNally Books on Bay street. Because Toronto doesn’t, generally, and won’t, anymore, have bookstores like this—elegant, oaky and tall-shelved, in the deep downtown core—McNally always made me feel like I was in another city, or another realm, where one’s unshaken faith in literature was honoured. Ben wears a long-silver pony-tail and dark-rimmed glasses—as much dog as owl—and a young writer once described him as someone “who looks like a good guy to smoke a joint with.” In many ways, Ben was the people’s bookseller. “Fuckin’ Red Sox.”

WEP’s John Nicolas Jerney called Ben after news broke that McNally Books would be leaving its location. Here is part of their conversation.

John: Can we talk a little bit about why this place has to close?

Ben: (The developers) have a sort of big vision for this block. What they want to do is make an open air walkway from Bay street to the laneway at the back.

John: So the building has to come down.

Ben: No, the building is going to stay. They’re just going to drive something through here. They’re maintaining the building, which is kind of frustrating from our point of view because you kind of steel yourself for demolition, but it’s not going to be (that).

John: So you’re planning on moving the bookstore somewhere else?

Ben: We’re gonna try, and we’re gonna try to stay downtown, too.

John: Well, I think every community could use a good...

Ben: It seems like that. All kinds of people have written us saying, you know, sorry to hear that you have to close. Why don’t you move to... you know: name your neighbourhood.

John: A lot of people like it here then.

Ben: It goes to show you how under bookstore’d the whole city is right now. But what do you want in the centre of the city? Do you want it all to be restaurants and coffee shops and pizza places and fast food places, or do you actually want to have some kind of, you know, cultural retail outlet one way or the other? It seems to be less and less of that all the time. That’s one of the things people are concerned about: what are you going to come downtown for? I think the building owners really under estimated our importance in the cultural fabric of the city. You can’t force that on people, but we’re hoping we can find a landlord for whom we are a valuable asset. Maybe not in terms of how much rent we can pay, but what kind of profile we bring to their portfolio.