Over six years ago, I stood in the children’s bookstore at Mt. Pleasant Road and Hillsdale Avenue deciding whether to purchase David Wiesner’s Flotsam or Mr. Wuffles.
It was to be a gift for my first inbound offspring, set to be born in the next few months. I settled on Mr. Wuffles and I also bought the complete collection of Beatrix Potter’s critter tales.
You see, Mabel’s Fables has provided my family with the foundation for a lifelong love of reading. My daughter knows where I bought some of her books. She’s always hugging the lovebot that sits like a sentry in the front. She also knows there’s a feline proprietor inside. We’ll spy her in the window as we make our way to June Rowlands Park.
So, imagine my irritation when I discovered Eleanor LeFave, owner of Mabel’s Fables, is being forced out by a villain from an Ernest P. Worrell film right here in Toronto.
A building speculator, Maple Venture House Investments, purchased the property and has decided to bump the rent up 70 per cent. Duly noted, they own six more properties from Hillsdale to Starbucks. Add on top of that an increase in property taxes at the municipal level, and the ongoing LRT construction, with its completion delayed until 2022, and LeFave admits she’s getting it from all levels of government.
“We small retailers have no protection in these situations,” she told me in a March phone call. “My situation — as well as a bookseller, we’re a combination of business and culture and there are no protections that we carry on.”
LeFave has been doing her homework, adding that studies from New York City, where they are dealing with empty storefronts, have turned up the same issues: rising property costs, empty storefronts and a loss of character to the city.
Josh Matlow, before he, unfortunately, disappeared into his midtown home due to self-quarantine, was adamant that the store will be going nowhere. The public meeting fashioned in the spirit of “an Amish barn raising” was unfortunately postponed. But it was an effort to bring the community together and rally around Eleanor.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a writer who hasn’t been touched by Mabel’s Fables or who hasn’t done a book launch there,” he told me over the phone in early March.
My favourite part of the store is the small room on the top floor where many a writer and illustrator has come to read from their books. Margaret Atwood’s name is among them.
Sally Jaeger, who ran Lullabies and LapRhymes out of Mabel’s Fables, pointed it out to me while I was visiting the store. Her daughter Erika, and grandson Timo Jaeger Gude were also visiting from Squamish, British Columbia.
“There’s such sadness, disappointment and shock. It’s a terrible loss,” Erika Jaeger said. “I think the response is tremendous. I think the amount of people getting behind the shop staying open is absolutely incredible. I’d like to stay optimistic and rally behind everybody else.”
The sense of community and all of the visitors are reasons why Matlow is going to push for possible heritage status for the location.
“I see an argument for cultural heritage status given the stories that have gone through that building,” he said, adding his daughter’s interest in advocacy was piqued.
“When I told her about what was going on, she went into stories about Mabel’s Fables and she wants to go to the meeting. That’s the same daughter who rolls her eyes when I talk about the meetings I go to.”
Even St. Paul’s MPP Jill Andrew has addressed the issue in her milieu at Queen’s Park. During the question period on March 11, she let the current Progressive Conservative government and the previous Liberal government know.
“Mabel’s Fables owner Eleanor LeFave is a woman entrepreneur and the keeper of 32 years of beloved memories created in her small business, which doubles as a community second home for everyone who has visited,” the Hansard transcript read. “Indie bookstores are the vibrant cultural DNA of our communities. They are a lifeline for local authors.”
She added that the Municipal Property Assessment Corp. needs reformation and that the $3 million spent on marketing to help the shops affected by the LRT construction is “misguided”.
When I spoke to Andrew, one of the co-owners of Glad Day Bookshop, she took a personal interest.
“As a child and youth worker, being a teacher and an equity advisor in the school board, I’m also familiar with Mabel’s Fables commitment to our children,” she said. “This is not just a store. This is a place for family. It’s a place where people congregate and it’s where dreams are discussed.”
I’ve lived in the area for more than 10 years and I’ve slowly seen the retail character melt away into a boring concrete and glass pastiche. Part of it is because of the constant construction in the area. Not just the LRT, but the obvious cash grab of developers looking to raze any and all character in favour of creating a glorified anthill out of ugly modern architecture.
I encourage every reader to visit Matlow’s website and sign the petition, get involved, shop the store for any child in your life.