Doug Miller Books, an interview with the bookmonger himself
When I enter the store, Doug is standing on a stool, sharing a giant picture book with some eager customers. Doug Miller Books is the hidden gem of Korea Town – housing some 27,000 adult fiction books; 10,000 kids’ books; 3000 comics and graphic novels; Bumpkin, the resident rabbit (who had no further comment); and the Lego creations that Doug and his son build together.
SIA: What is the Doug Miller Books story? You’ve been doing this for 29 years. How did this store come to be?
Doug: I opened up the bookshop because I was over-run by books in my apartment. I needed another outlet so that people could see the books in a well-lit situation, and have everything alphabetized and displayed properly on shelves. That’s it. It was very, very simple.
SIA: It was a practical solution.
Doug: Yes, plus, owning a shop allows you to see a lot of different things. It allows you to see a wider range of books coming in and going out. It’s sad to see some things go, but happy moments when things come in.
SIA: They’re like friends, arriving and departing.
SIA: When I walk into this bookstore I feel like it’s so well curated. Can you tell me a little more about your collection and the areas on which you focus?
Doug: Well, the main thing to keep in mind is that my shop is very small, so you really hand-pick everything. If you have a large space, you can just fill it and alphabetize it, but when you have a smaller shop, you really have to be mindful because you don’t have a lot of display space. So, with that in mind, I focus on fiction, which is split into many different genres –literature, general fiction, mysteries and thrillers, children’s books, sci-fi and fantasy. There is a little non-fiction, lots of graphic novels and, with the children’s books, there are also the picture books.
SIA: I love, LOVE, the children’s collection here. What were some of your favourite children’s books growing up, even now?
Doug: A lot of the picture books that Scholastic was putting out because, of course, we had the Scholastic Book Club for Kids, which of course still exists today. Things like Clifford and books on dinosaurs and on monsters, but to be more specific, Where the Wild Things Are, My Father’s Dragon, Harry the Dirty Dog, many of the Dr. Seuss tales, many of the Dr. Seuss Library Series that Random House published. They weren’t written by him or illustrated by him, but they were friends of his. [The books] were brought into the fold and eventually published and printed for the masses and did extremely well. They were things like Are You My Mother, by P.D. Eastman.
SIA: That was my first book!
Doug: There’s another one about the goldfish that’s too big to be put into a goldfish bowl anymore. He has to [move] it from the goldfish bowl to the sink, from the sink to the bathtub, from the bathtub to the swimming pool and it’s still too big. It’s a lovely story.
SIA: What is the greatest gem that’s come into your store that made you think: “Wow, this is wonderful. I’m so happy to have this on my shelf.”
Doug: As a person who sells books, the best books are the ones that you know people have been hunting for, so it’s not necessarily books that I cherish personally. It could be the person who walks in and wants a book from their childhood. They come in and they say: “Oh, I remember this story about a pig and there was there was a spider.” And you look at them and you go: “Well that’s Charlotte’s Web.” And then you give them a paperback and they’re very excited. It’s not necessarily about a first edition or a fine edition. It’s the fact that you’ve provided them with something that they’ve lost track of in their mind. It’s always been there, niggling in the back of their mind but it hasn’t been at the forefront for ages. Then all of a sudden something happens and they think about it. They remember a little bit and the next thing you know. they come in asking questions and hopefully they get the right answer.
SIA: It’s like retrieving a long-lost memory.
Doug: Yeah. Rare books – what really should be called fine books – aren’t as plentiful as they used to be, understandably, because there are so many more people selling books on-line and, let’s face it, with children’s books it’s very difficult because [of the] huge emotional attachment to them. For the most part, they’re the things that people keep. People phone up all the time and say: “I have books to sell” and I say: “Do you have any children’s books?” I have many other books other than children’s books, but I just really want to buy a lot of kids’ books. For the most part, they say: “Well, we’re keeping those.” They’re cherished books. They have a huge history. It’s not that you’re buying a children’s book from someone, you’re buying the book that their mom or dad, grandmother or grandfather, aunt, uncle or some relative [read to them], or some moment in time when they sat in some specific place and [at a] specific time and read that book themselves. You’re not buying that book; you’re buying that moment and that, you can’t put a price on.
SIA: No, I still have almost all of mine. I have my Golden Books and my Dr. Seuss books. They would arrive by the boxful and it was such a special moment unpacking those with my parents. The Keep Toronto Reading Festival [happened] in April. The “one book” this year [was] The Cellist of Sarajevo. If we had a kids’ equivalent for, let’s say, children between the ages of 9 and 12, what book would you recommend? Or, in a more general way, what are some of those mid-grade novels that are exceptional?
Doug: The Giver would be a great book. It’s the first part of a quartet; it’s absolutely brilliant. You know what would be good for age 9? The Magic Finger by Roald Dahl, which is a book that he wrote about the negative effects of hunting, particularly for sport, as opposed to eating. A good age-10 book would be The Penderwicks. For 11, I would look at something by Michael Morpurgo, something like War Horse. And for 12, Holes.
SIA: That’s a fantastic book – I LOVE that book! [A customer enters, who happens to have fraternal twin teens. Doug knows the perfect book – “Blood Red Road,” a story about Saba’s quest to find her twin brother, Lugh.]
SIA: So, 29 years – where do you see the next 29 going? What place do you hope to have in the community?
Doug: It would be great, of course, to have a larger store. This store is too small for my stock. I’m hoping, in the future, to get a larger space but real estate being the way it is in Toronto…It’s never been easy. [Laughs]
SIA: No. [Laughs]
Doug: In the next 29 years, I could see myself still doing this easily. Although I’d like to retire by that time, I think. But most of us don’t retire; most of us just keep doing it till the end. I’ve been doing this for so long, and I’ve never once thought to myself, in a negative way, that I have to go to work. It’s always positive. I’m always excited to go to work, excited about the business, the books and, more importantly, I’m excited about the customers. It’s heart-breaking too because people ask for you for things and you don’t have it. It’s sad that you don’t have the things that they’re looking for, ‘cause you’d like to provide them with the things that they always want. Aside from that, it’s a very joyful experience working in the book trade.
SIA: You’re living your passion.
Doug: Yup. And I’ve been doing it for so many years, I can’t imagine doing anything else