How a Love of Bookstores Helped a Father Bond With His Autistic Son


On April 27, celebrate Independent Bookstore Day by visiting one of your local dealers. (Photo: Sven Hagolani/Getty Images)

Today, I’m taking a break from writing about the world of politics and sports and turning my attention to my first love — spending hours browsing through small bookstores and bonding with my autistic son, Malcolm.

I salute all the small dealers (at least those which haven’t yet been crushed by the big-box retailers) who provide my son Malcolm and me with a venue in which we can share time together and indulge in our love of books.

Like many other people on what’s now called the autism spectrum, Malcolm has one extraordinary talent. Some people with autism can perform absurdly complicated mathematical equations, others have a perpetual calendar in their head and many can identify the tiniest details that often escape our attention.

Besides being an unapologetic aficionado of Where’s Waldo, my son’s hyper-fixated specialty is his encyclopaedic knowledge of war history. Off the top of his head, Malcolm can rhyme off all the big battles, the key players and the types of armaments used from the beginning of recorded history — from the Ancient Egyptian conquests in 1,500 BC, to the Peloponnesian War right on through to VE Day in World War II. If you want to know the calibre of guns used on Russian tanks during the Battle of Stalingrad, he’s your man.

He’s read (and retained every detail of) all the books in the library system several times over, watched every war documentary he can find and loves to share this knowledge with his history-challenged parents.

Malcolm’s ever-widening search for historical knowledge has taken him to small book dealers in our Toronto neighbourhood, many which offer well-stocked sections on his particular subject area.

I always accompany him on these excursions, which often begins at our favourite store – Sellers & Newel Second-Hand Books, located in Little Italy.

This little gem of a store provides Malcolm with a refuge from a world that doesn’t always understand him and won’t take the time to listen to his peculiarly insightful observations on his area of expertise. Here, he can spend hours of uninterrupted bliss, browsing the shelves, always finding one or two long out-of-print books that satisfy his voracious appetite.

Because it’s an independent store, the cheerful owner (Peter Sellers) is almost always there and seems unfailingly willing to chat with Malcolm, recommending randomly purchased new arrivals or offering to bring in books from his own basement for his perusal.

Like many other book dealers I’ve come across, Sellers’ shop is charmingly chaotic. He carries his store’s inventory in his head (he has an uncanny knowledge as to which of the thousands of titles are in stock), never forces a sale and is always quick to suggest we try the competition.

With cool jazz playing in the background, that musty yet curiously pleasing aroma of old books emanating from the shelves, surrounded by walls of titles covering every topic under the sun, Malcolm would happily spend his whole day here. (And I’m sure the owner wouldn’t mind.)

For my part, I’ve grown to cherish these misspent afternoons in a local bookstore. Because not only do I get to enjoy quality time with my son doing something he loves, but I can lose myself in a world that has passed us by, rediscovering the works of long-forgotten authors (the “angry young men” authors from the ‘50s are my current favourites) and catching up on titles from my university English courses that I’d never gotten round to reading.

Perusing the shelves at these bookstores transports one back through time, a nostalgic journey to the good ol’ days when printed books still mattered and the Internet, social media and digital readers hadn’t yet killed literature. And if it’s a rainy Saturday, all the better — together we duck out of the household chores and fritter away an entire afternoon, without feeling an ounce of guilt.

Judging by the other customers I bump into at these small establishments, young and old book-lovers like Malcolm and me, there still seems to be a craving for this inimitable experience and all that it entails. I’m always intrigued to see what titles they’re looking at, and wonder what has drawn them to this eccentric little store, or the many like it that struggle for survival against all odds in big and small towns across Canada.

Sadly, I don’t know what the future holds for these stores. To the modern mindset, book dealers must stick out like quaint relics, hopelessly out-of-sync with the digital zeitgeist. I worry that the continued attrition of readers and crippling overheads will slowly strangle their already anarchic business models, and that these book havens will eventually be replaced on the urban scene by hipster cafes or upscale barbershops.

But thankfully, there are some quixotic dealers who buck the trend and stolidly remain in business, holding on to the belief that there are enough people out there who will continue to provide a market for their wares.

Today, we salute these heroic independent bookstore dealers. And, in doing so, I urge everyone to turn off their televisions and power down their smart phones and digital readers and take a walk back in time to your local bookstore — I guarantee you’ll find something worth reading.

And, while browsing the shelves, if you happen to notice a good-looking young man with his middle-aged father in the war history section, it’s probably Malcolm and me, happily whiling away another afternoon in one of our favourite places on earth.