The Monkey’s Paw: Bookstore interview

the monkey's paw front

Stephen Fowler’s The Monkey’s Paw is in Little Portugal in Toronto, the store “where you’ll find the book you didn’t know you were looking for.” Fowler described his Biblio-Mat, the world’s first vending machine as such in a magazine,  but it seems to be a fitting description for the store as well.

I am intrigued so much by a store that has a book like Tools of Pain and Pleasure next to an Alice in Wonderland Cookbook, not to mention the abovementioned Biblio-Mat. A book vending machine. Can we have more of those instead of Coke vending machines or Havaianas?

But the store — take a look at the remote window display to see a selection of the titles it carries. I can’t imagine any would have been commercial successes — would they have been when they were published? — but goodness, looking at the books all I want to do is go to the store and get lost in the shelves and the store. I might resurface for some supplies at some point and dive in again.

Print might be on its way out, but Stephen points out that will make us just value books more.

Can you tell my readers the history and the inspiration behind your store?

Between 1988 and 2002, I worked for various secondhand and antiquarian booksellers in San Francisco; and when I moved to Toronto, I found it was the only work I was really qualified for. I decided I would take the lessons I’d learned from all the shops I’d visited and worked in, and create a shop that met all my ideals.

Monkey's Paw 6
How would you describe the books your store carries?

There’s a postcard I hand out to customers that reads, Diverse 20th-century printed matter, with special emphasis on visual culture; obsolete opinions and technologies; lesser-known works on highly specific topics; books as artifacts; and pop detritus. I don’t know how to describe it any more concisely than that.

Where do you find your books?

I buy dead people’s book collections, or the collections of people who are moving or liquidating their homes. Sometimes people familiar with the shop’s orientation bring me books, which I buy over the counter. Also, I travel to various library and charity sales around Ontario and the nearby US states. And if I hear about another secondhand shop that’s going out of business or having a big sale, I’ll travel a great distance to check out their holdings.

Tell us about your store — I read that the interior of your store is designed specifically to look like the WW Jacobs short story after which it’s named – I wondered if that was true or not?

The shop is designed to look like it’s from the 20th century: institutional green walls, dark wood bookcases, old office furniture. We did take the name from the story by WW Jacobs… but only because the message, or moral, of that story is Careful what you wish for — and that seemed appropriate for a shop where you won’t find what you’re looking for (but you WILL definitely find something you didn’t expect).

Do you believe books, the printed word is/are dead? Or on their way out? What monkey's paw 5solidified this belief for you?

Anyone who lives in the age of the iPhone and the iPad has to acknowledge that printed paper no longer occupies the central place in our culture that it once did. It’s obvious. In many parts of N. America, there are no longer any bookstores at all; the only way to get a book is via And if you’re going to order your book through Amazon, you might as well just download it, rather than wait for the parcel to arrive. So yes, clearly print (at least on its former industrial scale) is on its way out.

I’m not a luddite; I often read books on my iPhone! But I’m also an utter bibliophile. What I love is OLD books; the very fact that they continue to exist causes me huge excitement and satisfaction. (And I also harbor the secret belief that they’ll continue to exist long after all the hard drives are swept clean.)

My feelings on this subject were elegantly articulated by a Toronto writer named Kyo Maclear, who wrote a very smart article about the death of print for a webzine called The Millions.

What does it mean to you to hold a book in your hand? Or maybe, what do you think people are missing out on if they don’t understand/realise the importance of holding a book in their hands?

I’m a geek for the book as a medium… just as some people are geeks for music on vinyl records. Books are a very humane and comfortable format, very natural and intuitive. Also — unlike any other data format that I’m aware of — they require no hardware for playback. They work even during a power outage.

The-Monkeys-Paw2 BibliomatTell us about the Biblio-mat? What prompted you to add it to the store? (It is your design/invention?)

As a sort of idle fantasy, I had the initial idea for a randomizing vending machine; it seemed like it would be a promising way to recirculate interesting, but essentially unsaleable, old books. But it never would have taken shape without the intervention of my friend Craig Small (who owns a commercial animation studio in Toronto). Craig loved the concept, and single-handedly designed and built the machine.

We both sensed it was a fun idea that would be likely to resonate with Monkey’s Paw customers; but we had no inkling of just how phenomenally popular it would become. Since the very first month we installed it, I’ve had to scramble to keep the thing stocked. “Careful what you wish for” indeed!

What has the response been to the Biblio-Mat?

Beginning in Nov. 2012, the machine garnered global attention in the media, and has attracted customers from around the world. Every day there are still people who try the Biblio-Mat for the first time, and they almost always laugh or exclaim in surprise when a book thunks out.

The-Monkeys-Paw3What is the greatest misconception about the store you find?

The most unfortunate misconception we encounter is the idea that the Monkey’s Paw is a regular bookshop. Visitors who expect a traditional bookshop catering to popular tastes are usually disappointed.

Another misconception that bothers me personally is that the Monkey’s Paw is somehow threatened by the Death of Print, and suffers (in the way that new bookstores do) by the advent of digital reading. I really hate it when people approach me apologetically and say, “It’s such a pity about all the bookshops dying, it must be real a struggle for you.” Because exactly the opposite is true. The fewer new books are made, and the further we travel into the digital 21st century, the more people value the old books that we sell. Bibliophilia is a niche interest; always has been, always will be. But paradoxically, the ongoing death of print actually strengthens my business, rather than weakens it.

To get a better idea of this fabulous store and the books it offers, check out its blog or its Facebook.


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