Joyce Blair of Balfour Books has been in the bookselling business since the mid-1970s. When she graduated from U of T in literature, she was offered a government job that would have set her up for life. The night before she was supposed to start, a friend phoned to say that the bookstore where she had worked as a student, at the corner of College and Spadina in downtown Toronto, was faltering. If Joyce would take it over, it could be hers. Joyce had no clue about running a book store but decided that she was too much a free spirit for the government job, so she took the plunge. And she has been at it ever since.
She ran that store for a year or two, and then opened another on Queen Street with a partner. After 15 years there, she opened her own store, this time on College, west of Clinton. After another 15 years at that location, she bought the building where she is now located, closer to Bathurst, with an original ceiling, and tenants upstairs.
Her inventory is rich in art, photography, classics, cultural studies, philosophy, theology, literature, history, biography, literary travel, and children’s books. Murder mysteries and cheap paperbacks at bargain prices are always popular. Close to the University of Toronto, she stocks the books required for course reading lists.
When other specialized bookstores have closed, she has stepped in to fill the gap. The demise of TheatreBooks prompted her to build up her inventory of plays. The closing of The Cookbook Store stimulated her preoccupation with cookbooks. Now, chefs come to Balfour looking for interesting cookbooks. Joyce, and her colleague who specializes in academic books, keep a watchful eye for particular book titles customers seek by special request. A lot of her traffic comes from the street, some people browsing before and after dinner in the local restaurants, others attracted by her bin of books on sale for $1.00.
Talking with Joyce about the business of buying and selling books is fascinating. She says that bookstores selling new books and remainders have been hit harder by internet retail sales than have the used bookstores. Customers who haunt used bookstores do so for the hunt, a pleasure not replicated on the internet. Rare antiquarian books, however, are best found on the internet where the international market is readily accessible and prices are most competitive.
The problem today is that there are too many books out there. Booksellers like her are inundated with requests that she buy books. She seldom does. Instead, she relies on professional book scouts who assess libraries, go to yard sales, mine the recycling shops and the university book sales, looking for the specific types of books and the quality that she wants.
Balfour Books, at 468 College Street, is open Monday to Saturday 11:00-8:00 p.m., Sunday 12:00-7:00 p.m. The phone number is 416-531-9911.