Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

Windows within Windows

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Our daily routine begins between 6:30 and 7:00 a.m. and lasts about half an hour. We take a familiar route through empty neighbourhood streets, the comforting silence part of the early-morning rhythm. Despite the incessant tugging at his leash — there is precious little in our dog’s life that doesn’t warrant a sniff — there is something meditative about walking a dog, even when the walk includes a boulevard as busy as Danforth Avenue. Our stretch of the Danforth includes two bookstores, and to gaze into a bookstore window is to remove oneself, however fleetingly, from the here-and-now, to ponder an alternative world, time or place.

The best window displays have a sense of theatricality to them, orchestrated in much the same way a designer creates a set for a stage play. The passersby are the audience, the window a stage. A window display is meant to be more than eye-catching. It’s the bait retailers use to lure you in. It dangles the prospect of possibilities: imagine yourself wearing these jeans, sitting on this couch, striding in these shoes. It’s not so much sleight-of-hand, for what you see is what you’ll get. It’s more a case of sleight-of-mind: what we have to sell will transform you, or your kitchen, or your feet. Don’t just stand there. Step inside.

A bookstore window is all together different. Yes, a bookstore owner sells wares and is in the business of doing business. Whether it is a blank-eyed fish on a bed of ice down the street at Ocean’s Treasures or the row of books on display at Book City where I stand (and Toby sits) most mornings, retailers all proclaim ‘We have what you want. Or should want.’ Stare at a fish and you won’t get much farther than what it will look like on a plate garnished with lemon. Look into a bookstore window and the horizon is boundless. It’s what you can’t see in a bookstore window that makes them so alluring.

Book City has two separate window displays, as part of the store fronts onto a common akin to a public square. This window showcases children’s literature and like all bookstore window displays, it is, in effect, a collection of windows within a window. For what is a book cover but a window. Currently on display in Book City’s children’s window — wide enough to entice, narrow enough to feel cozy — is Raymond Briggs’s The Snowman, featuring a cover that looks like the six-pane window on a door and a snowman just beyond wearing the hopeful smile of an earnest salesman. Brigg’s book promises not only a story but a “Magical Pop-up Snow Globe.”

Hope seems to be in short supply for the squirrel perched on a bare branch, looking skyward, in Waiting for Winter. My thoughts exactly as I stand in a January landscape that has yet to include so much as a dusting of snow. Book titles and covers offer us a hint of what is to come, and until and unless we buy the book (which I’ve done in the past, thanks to a sidewalk stroll), we are left to fill in the blanks. It is those blanks that fill bookstore windows.

Toby and I make our way around the corner, to Book City’s larger window display. In stark contrast to Barbara Reid’s Perfect Snow (her wonderful illustrations are all crafted from plasticine) stands Boualem Sansal’s The German Mujahid. It features a cover of a barbed-wire fence that is clearly meant to evoke the barbarism of Auschwitz and is sub-titled The first Arab novel to confront the Holocaust. Mujahid is Arabic for "struggler" or "justice-fighter". The verb ‘confront’ is an interesting and, undoubtedly, conscious choice a marketing department pulled apart like a piece of clay. Is it meant to suggest the very existence of the Holocaust is challenged, a cataclysmic event shorn of its impact? Or, presumably, is this the first Arab novel to tear away the shroud of lies that too many are too quick to drape onto the Holocaust?

Elsewhere in Book City’s window is the illustrated edition of Lawrence Hill’s masterful novel,The Book of Negroes. I can only imagine what illustrations complement Hill’s narrative. Long after I read this first-person account of slavery the images Hill conjured through words continue to haunt me, like the transatlantic journeys where African slaves were packed like animals in the ship’s hull in conditions that underscore the inadequacy of words like 'cruel' and 'inhumane'. Before continuing our walk I glance at another cover that intrigues: the stately, self-assured look of the dog that graces Temple Grandin’s Animals Make us Human. I’m reminded what makes us inhuman when I consider the photograph of a soldier in a trench, carrying a comrade – is he near-death? exhausted? wounded? – on the cover of World War I in Color.

Down the street we find ourselves in front of Re:Play, a store that sells used books and throws DVDs and CDs into the mix. An inviting couch sits at the front of the store, so it’s fitting that many of the books on display in the window sit on the kind of bookshelves one might find in the very same living room where you would find the couch. Despite the cold January air – or perhaps because of it – the urge to spend time in the worlds that lay beyond the covers intensifies. The moored boats in Monet, the girl on the steps in Ian McEwen’s Atonement, the captivating stone face framed by leaves in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel.

We move on. We head back home, along residential streets that are slowly starting to stir. The sky softens. A new day beckons, as does the prospect of a street without bookstores. How long before digital books make bookstore windows a thing of the past? Streetscapes would be forever altered. We would adapt, of course. But like the merchandise displayed in a store window, everything comes at a price.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Emil Sher

Emil Sher’s works include stage plays, screenplays and radio dramas. His published works include Making Waves, Mourning Dove and Hana’s Suitcase on Stage.

Go to Emil Sher’s Author Page