Overwhelmed with Delight at Open Air Books & Maps in Toronto

The first time I visited the radically misnamed Open Air bookstore in Toronto, I was so overwhelmed with delight that I forgot all about it almost immediately.  That was two years ago, and on the occasions when it did pop into my mind, I couldn’t remember where I’d been when I’d encountered the store.  I was almost convinced that the whole thing had been a dream.

But when I returned Ontario last week, and found myself with some time to spare one morning, I had a glimmer that the bookstore had been in Toronto. I resolved to find it once again — if it in fact had a corporeal existence.

I couldn’t remember the store’s name, and my vague Google searches on the BlackBerry came up empty, so I walked around downtown rather aimlessly,  squinting back in my memory. I turned on Toronto Street, which at first seemed utterly unpromising, the sort of place where you’re likely to find little more than stockbroker’s offices and perhaps a sad cafe selling wilted sandwiches for takeaway… but then again,  it was starting to feel familiar.

At the end of the block, just in front of number 25, I spotted a rugged guy, in orange polyester-based wicking fabric and a backpack,  standing in front of a railing, and a staircase leading downward.   I’d found my quarry. I looked down into a window entirely stacked in with cardboard boxes, and saw a small wooden sign that said Open Air Books & Maps.

Just below sidewalk level, I pushed through a heavy metal door and entered into an absolute marvel — a chaos of jam-packed bookshelves, with books stacked front to ceiling in front of and next to those book shelves. Every single book is about travel, or nature, or the environment, and there are also maps. And globes!  Even thought it was a bright blue sky morning, there was almost no natural light in Open Air — the books blocked any sunbeams that could reach the near-subterranean space.

There is a rough order to the stacks — they’re divided by geography, but beyond that, there was no organization scheme that I could discern. In fact there really couldn’t be — if you want a book that is, say, two-thirds down a stack, you must try to delicately pry it out without sending the whole lot tumbling, and should you succeed, you’d have no practical way to get it back in its place again.

Book avalanches are a frequent occurrence, confirmed the young man behind the counter,  with the tolerant weariness of someone who answers the same question several times a day. Mr. Orange Wicking Fabric purchased some maps and asked whether they’d ever thought about expanding, a question that the clerk also answered in the affirmative with the same tone. “If it were up to me…” he said, letting his voice trail off.

Meanwhile I was again in a state of delighted overwhelm. Shall I read about Asia, the Adirondacks, the Adriatic? An anthology, a novel, an atlas? I wandered through slowly, considering all the possibilities, picking up (or rather, prying out) some books, and then returning them to their pile. Too many choices is supposed to make decision-making difficult — the theory is that multiple options create too many pluses and minuses to consider, which makes honing on a perfect choice a frustrating exercise in futility.

In fact, in this way, Open Air strikes me as a perfect analogy to the world we encounter as travelers — packed,  even overstuffed with the interesting and fascinating mixed in with the boring and the banal.

Now, I’m generally not trying to find perfect — either in a book, or a trip that I make, and so I don’t find decision-making that difficult, even when I’m spoiled for choices.  (Although I will confess that when I’m tired and cranky, I can find the world’s variety numbing.)  Without anguish, I made my purchase: The Oxford Book of Travel Stories. And then I left Open Air, glad to be out in actual open air — and also to have a reminder of how limitless our choices are, both on a travel bookshelf, and in the world.

Which, come to think of it, is like a very good dream indeed.

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