Peter Sellers, Ed and I became friends during the early days of Crime Writers of Canada. And we share a love for Toronto's demi-monde of burlesque, adult clowning and alternative music. Not only that, our kids went to school together and grew up to work in media. In 1992, Peter won the CWC Derrick Murdoch Award for his work in revitalizing the crime fiction short story. His off-beat, often chilling and highly engaging tales have appeared in every major mystery magazine and numerous crime anthologies. He is a four-time finalist for the Crime Writers of Canada’s Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story. On November 12, 2011, Peter opened Sellers & Newel Second-Hand Bookstore in Toronto's Little Italy. His passion is hunting down rare and collectible volumes for his clients. Visit Sellers & Newel at 672 College St., Toronto. Tuesday to Saturday, 11 am to 7 pm; Sunday 12 to 5 pm. Mondays, by chance. And be sure to visit the bookstore's website at www.sellersandnewel.com and on Facebook and Twitter (@sellersandnewel). BTW click on any of the images you'd like to explore more closely.
What books will we find at Sellers & Newel?
We carry second-hand only. Mostly 20th Century literature, crime fiction, poetry, lots of weird fiction. Some are antiquarian, but we have lots of affordable reading copies. Our books range in price from $1 to several thousand dollars.
What led you, a writer, to open a bookstore?
I love books. I like the fact of them as much as anything and I’ve always bought many more than I could ever hope to read. Now I buy many more than my customers can ever hope to read. I also like working for myself and working without a net. It’s all up to me. I love going out and finding books, making house calls, visiting other dealers, especially when I’m out of town. Buying books is almost as much fun as selling them.
What do you find fascinating about crime fiction?
To be honest, I don’t read nearly as much crime fiction as I used to. But my initial interest was most likely fuelled by black and white crime films of the 1930s through the 1950s. They used to be on TV a lot, and I grew up on Bogart, Cagney, John Garfield, Mitchum, and other actors like them and the films they made. When I started reading books seriously, the first novel I can recall buying was a stunning 1971 Ballantine edition of The Big Sleep that I still have. I was 15 or 16 and bought it from a bookstore across the road from my high school. From then on it was mostly mysteries and thrillers for years.
I love the pulp books you have collected, especially the lurid book covers. What attracts you to the pulp era?
A lot of that stuff is crap, really. But there are some occasional gems. John D. MacDonald, for example, in his non-Magee stuff, is great. He is better than anyone else at giving you this awful feeling that something is going to go really bad really soon. Mickey Spillane I used to love, not because he was good but because he wrote like he was insane, all kinds of repressed sexuality spilling out in this remarkable violence (in tone as much as action) that nobody’d done like that before.
I hate happy endings. I like books that end badly. Nasty people treating each other shabbily has a certain appeal to me. (And a twisted sort of justice, which is why I love noir – M. H. Callway)
Tell us something about your customers.
There is no typical customer, though I was surprised to realize, soon after I opened, that most of them are under 35. That was not what I had expected.
My customers seem to like the coffin, which gets photographed a lot. Some people find it creepy but most love it. They like the crooked walls, the metal ceiling, the mismatched floor tile and the big leather chair. They seem to like my selection and the fact that the books are all in really good shape, and that I have lots of unusual stuff.
Which of your books have proved to be the most popular?
First editions are popular and I have a lot of collectors who come in for the Weird Fiction, which includes some very scarce titles. They also like the fact that I will track down books for people, even if they cost as little as five bucks. And I never give up. A few months ago, I found a book that a customer had asked for three years before. She was surprised that I had kept at it for that long, especially an inexpensive paperback, but her reaction when I called her was priceless.
But my unscientific survey says Hemingway, Steinbeck, H.P. Lovecraft and an obscure British author named Simon Raven because I love the guy and plug the hell out of him.
You’ve embarked on two cool innovations at your store: music and film nights. Tell us about the music events.
The concerts are working out really well. I do two a month from September through May. None in the summer because of the heat. I started because I wanted to do something that no other bookstore is doing, and I find readings and signings to be pretty darn boring most of the time. Live music has always been important to me, and I still go out and listen to as much of it as I can. This also seemed a good way to promote the store and to bring new people in.
Performers are usually local people I like and who are all really good. Styles of music so far have ranged from Medieval to modern performance art. Past performers include outstanding singer/songwriter Kevin Quain (3 times), the wild, 300-plus-pound Corpusse (twice), country singer Zachary Lucky, singer/songwriter Ryan Cook from Nova Scotia, and remarkable guitarist Andrew Mah from Ottawa.
In the fall we have some jazz shows booked for the first time.
How do we find out about concert dates and times?
The shows are usually on Thursday nights at 8:00 pm. Cost ranges from $10 to $20 depending on who’s playing. Capacity is up to 35 depending on how much space the act takes up.
If you get on our mailing list, or check us out on Facebook, you can get all the details for future shows.
You’ve also tried film nights. How did they work out?
I did two film nights as part of Canadian National Film Day, screening classic Canadian horror films, like Terror Train, but neither evening was a big hit. I have one more thing I’d like to try so I may or may not continue the film nights.
Before we sign off, Peter, what is the strangest customer experience you have had?
There’s been no shortage of those. One of the most charming was a very enthusiastic teenage girl who came in and, with a big smile and shining eyes, asked me if I had a copy of “How to Kill a Mockingbird”.
Thanks, Peter! Your store offers a truly magnificent feast for booklovers. So readers, get yourselves over to Sellers & Newel, soak in the entertainment and eat those books!!