The bright yellow neon sign in front of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at King and Simcoe in downtown Toronto drew my attention as I left Roy Thomson Hall after the Vivaldi concert a couple of weeks ago. It cycled through several messages: “A Christmas Carol Read by Tenor Ben Heppner and other GREAT voices,” and then, “An Evening of Readings, Carols & Gingerbread, Sat, Nov 30 at 7 p.m.,” and finally, “FREE Admission, Give generously to our Refugee Program.” I thought that this would be a wonderful way to start the holiday season. And so it was.
I took my new favourite TTC route downtown, using the Bathurst streetcar southbound to the marvellous King streetcar, which runs constantly without any waiting. The dark wooden balconies of the beautiful old church were bedecked with evergreen boughs and bright red bows. A large Christmas tree covered in white lights stood at the front, as white candles lit the floor below the podium. I was greeted by a lovely usher wearing the yellow T-shirt of the Refugee Sponsorship Program (STARS), a long scarf in seasonal colours and a Christmas bow in her hair. A brass quintet and a pianist on the grand piano played Christmas music as we waited for the program to begin. At the conclusion, we all went to the Great Hall for a Gingerbread and Cider Reception.
The Dickens story was divided into five staves, stave being another word for chapter, and also for staff in musical scores. The internet dictionary indicates that Dickens used the term “because each individual stave is a stand-alone story with its own distinctive mood. When taken together, all five staves combine to form a harmonious whole… as if the book is a Christmas carol, and each chapter is part of the song.”
Ben Heppner, who retired from professional opera five years ago and still hosts “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage with Ben Heppner” on CBC Radio, began the readings. He was followed by Patricia Garnett-Smith, a British actress who came to Canada in l954 and has appeared in numerous theatre productions, films and commercials. Then came Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano, Marion Newman, who has sung numerous roles including the lead in the world premiere of the First Nations opera “Giiwedin.” Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth, who was raised in Alberta by parents from Sierra Leone, continued the story. She specializes in contemporary opera and musical theatre, is a Dora Mavor Moore award winner, and is slated to play the title character in Scott Joplin’s reinterpretation of “Treemonisha,” one of the world’s first Black operas. Rick Phillips concluded the readings. He is the producer of SOUND ADVICE, a guide to classical music and recordings heard weekly on CBC Radio One and Radio Two, author of “The Essential Classical Recordings—101 CDs,” and a well-known lecturer, consultant, and musical tour guide. Needless to say, the readings were stellar. Between each stave, the audience joined in singing Christmas carols accompanied by the glorious organ.
The event was a fundraiser for the St. Andrews Refugee Sponsorship program which has brought two Syrian Kurdish families to Canada: Gulistan and Abdulrazzak Abdo and their four children from Aleppo, Syria in 2016 and, in 2019, their relatives Abdulrahman, Amina and Roushin who were then living as refugees in Turkey. The extended family now live on different floors of the same apartment building, and are busy integrating into Canadian life. They have signed up for ESL and other courses, the children are in school and daycare, the older ones have gone to summer camp. The family gives back by helping with the coffee hour after church and volunteering in the Out of the Cold program. The success of this sponsorship has encouraged STARS to raise funds to sponsor another family. Learning the details of what these families and STARS have experienced encouraged me to think again about what I can do to help in the effort. The need remains as desperate as ever.
For me, the Christmas season is well underway.
Leaving TIFF last Friday, I walked east on King Street to the subway. At Simcoe, I noticed that there was a used book sale set up on the grounds of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church. Always a sucker for a bargain, I went in to browse. An hour and a half later, I left with four boxes of books, over 70 books in all.
I was delighted. I discovered a cache of hard-cover Canadian history books. There were memoirs or biographies: of politicians René Lévesque, Preston Manning, Joey Smallwood, Ed Broadbent, Sheila Copps, Tommy Douglas, and John Diefenbaker; of Rabbi Gunther Plaut and of Dr. Bob McClure, one-time moderator of the United Church of Canada; of famous lawyers Eddie Greenspan and Arthur Maloney; and of the generals in World War II written by noted Canadian historian Jack Granatstein. There was Rosemary Speirs’ Out of the Blue: The Fall of the Tory Dynasty in Ontario, and even a History of Canada written by my hero, June Callwood, and a novel written by politician Judy LaMarsh. Having spent time this summer reading the memoirs of popular historian and CBC celebrity, Pierre Berton, I looked for Drifting Home, his story of travelling down the Yukon River with his family, and for his two railroad histories. I found all three. And there was much, much more. Not a bad haul for a little browsing.
The volunteers who packed my boxes had decided among themselves, even before I felt inclined to leave, that, as I was their best customer during the two-day sale, I should have all the books for a mere $20.00. I resisted, held out a $50 and said it was the least I could pay. After all, I wanted to support their outreach projects and, having run my share of yard sales in the past, wanted to reward their efforts with a fair donation. They insisted that, by that point, they would pay someone to take the books away. We settled on $40, I hailed a cab and they put the boxes into the trunk.
“Will you read all those books?” one of the volunteers asked.”No,” I replied, “but I will use them. Some will fill in gaps in my library, some will be models for my writing, others I will give as gifts, if nothing else, as stocking-stuffers.” At a time when we are weeding our house of books, adding more seems dysfunctional, but if I use them, it’s a small investment that will pay off.
It occurred to me, as Peter Sellers of Sellers & Newel and Joyce Blair of Balfour Books insist, that the market for used books remains. Often book lovers just need to be reminded of what it is that they might need or want. Besides, I believe in serendipity. Finding and reading books by chance this summer brought me immense personal and professional satisfaction. As all lovers of used books know, this happens often.
It’s the time of the year for used book sales. Several colleges at the University of Toronto have massive used book sales coming up: Victoria College, September 24-28th; St. Michael’s College, September 27-30th; University College, October 14-18th; and Trinity College, October 20-24th. Check for times and locations on the websites of the individual colleges. For other used book sales across the province, see the list at www.booksalefinder.com. Book lovers interested in new books and magazines have Word on the Street in Toronto this Sunday, September 25th, at Harbourfront starting at 11:00 a.m. Enjoy.