The Biblio-Mat brought to you by The Monkey’s Paw
The Monkey’s Paw is an antiquarian book shop specializing in rare and unusual print artifacts in Toronto. The store also houses the Biblio-Mat, a randomized book vending machine that runs on an Arduino microprocessor and the occasional thump.
André Forget: How did you become involved in antiquarian book sales? What was the genesis of The Monkey’s Paw?
Stephen Fowler: Since childhood, I’ve been fascinated by old books, and working in the antiquarian trade was the simplest way to get to spend all my time around them.
As a young man, I worked in a number of secondhand bookshops in California, and of course visited and hung around many others. When I decided to open my own shop in Toronto, I tried to imitate all the features I had most appreciated in those other shops. I stole one idea here, one idea there, with the hope of creating the ideal bookshop.
André Forget: Even a cursory glance in your storefront window reveals that you aren’t the kind of place that stocks five used copies of The English Patient. What kind of a clientele do you attract?
Stephen Fowler: All sorts of people visit The Monkey’s Paw: young people and older people, tourists and locals, some wealthy, some penniless. I think it’s a healthy mix. The one thing that unites them (at least those who return a second time) is that they are bibliophiles: they crave the company of old books. Bibliophilia is an eccentric passion, like bird-watching; it’s inexplicable to the uninitiated, but it seems obvious and normal to those who suffer from it.
André Forget: Where do you find your stock? Do you actively hunt down certain copies or editions?
Stephen Fowler: I buy most of our books from the estates of dead people, from charity and library sales, and over the counter in the shop. Occasionally I make wholesale purchases from other, larger booksellers. Though I always keep an eye out for certain sorts of books (particular publishers, genres, styles, etc.), the process is mostly serendipitous: I only buy (and by extension, sell) the books I happen to encounter in my travels.
André Forget: Selling old books seems to be a rather Quixotic business in the 21st century. Are you optimistic about the future of stores such as yours?
Stephen Fowler: I can’t speak for other booksellers, but the evidence definitely suggests that The Monkey’s Paw formula appeals to 21st century customers. Our stock is mostly unusual older books with high artifact value, and this seems to be exactly what nostalgic info-addicts in the digital age want to own: a soulful technology that predates the digital era, and something they can actually hold in their hands.
André Forget: What is the strangest volume you’ve come across or sold?
Stephen Fowler: Since I sell thousands of “strange” books every year, it would be impossible to name one that stands out head and shoulders above the others. There have been way, way too many! It would be easier to ask, what’s the most curious book I’ve handled today, and the answer to that is on my desk right now. My Desire by W.R. Watson: a 1930s memoir, illustrated with photos, of an armless man who taught himself to write with his mouth, and even to shave and play cards with his toes. The really fascinating thing about this particular copy is that it’s signed by the author!
André Forget: Do you think there is something—for lack of a better word—special about old books? Do they accrue a kind of Benjaminian aura with time?
Stephen Fowler: I consider old books to be time machines. They offer intimate access to a remote cultural moment. Not just the text and images, but the typography, the design, the paper, the binding, all these features form a synthesis of experience that allows a 21st century reader first-hand knowledge of how people in the past absorbed their information. You, too, can lay open this 80-year-old book and read it!
Stephen Fowler moved to Toronto from San Francisco in 2002. Since 2006, he has owned and operated The Monkey’s Paw on Dundas West near Dovercourt.