PhD student bucks the trend, opens scholarly bookshop in Toronto

York PhD student Jason Rovito is not good at coming up with short, pithy names. Just take his new Toronto bookshop, Of Swallows, Their Deeds, & the Winter Below, a complicated intertwining of medieval references and swallow symbolism. But then the name has spurred much speculation, thought and ideas, and that is exactly what he wants his shop to inspire.

Although Of Swallows, Their Deeds, & the Winter Below is a used scholarly bookshop catering to a mainly university crowd, it carries a few surprises to ignite curious minds. Among the 2,010 used scholarly works, which Rovito says are in pristine condition, is an eight-volume set from 1929 that deals with occult practices from a scientific viewpoint. “The texts are beautifully illustrated,” says Rovito. This isn’t your average bookstore.

“We’re trying to create a space that people enjoy spending time in,” says Rovito. He wants people to browse, leaf through books – some they might not have otherwise found – and enjoy their surroundings. The shop, located in the Alexandrina block on College Street, which was built in 1887, offers the tactile experience of bookshops of old. There is a rescued red couch and two large arching windows that let in ample natural light.

Above: The inside of Of Swallows, Their Deeds, & the Winter Below bookshop in Toronto. Photo by Jessie Marchessault.

Not every wall is stacked high with shelves and shelves of books. There is no fluorescent lighting, no popular or bestselling paperbacks. Instead, there is Jean-Jacques Rouseau, John Locke, Martin Heidegger and a host of books on the humanities, social sciences, poetics and philosophy, along with a burgeoning metropolis section and in the future an expanded foreign section. “There is a certain kind of fluidity happening,” Rovito says. “We are always open to the possibility of expanding and changing.”

With the closing down of the physical space occupied by Atticus Books, Rovito, a graduate student in the York and Ryerson Joint Graduate Program in Communication & Culture, saw a gap in the scholarly market and decided to act. As someone who has recently studied medieval times, he realized that bookshops were often some of the initial places around which universities emerged. “There has always been this relationship between emerging institutions of scholarship and books,” he says. So although he is blocks away from the already established University of Toronto, Rovito still thought it was important there be a used scholarly bookshop in its midst. “Through the backdoor, I’m trying to explore what is the definition of a 21st-century scholar.”

But this is no longer the Middle Ages and some have wondered how he will survive in this age of e-books, online booksellers and big-box stores when so many independent bookstores have closed their doors. “I realized it wasn’t an all or nothing situation,” he says. There will always be a need to congregate inside a physical bookshop, to bump up physically against books, scholars and ideas, and to transfer knowledge through connections and conversations.

Of Swallows, Their Deeds, & the Winter Below is a “place that fits in the larger context of scholarliness,” he says. In addition to the bookshop itself on the second floor of an old building on College Street, above a convenience store, there is a third floor with a seminar room and an office space which leads to a rooftop patio. The seminar room is available to be rented by writers groups, such as the Toronto New School of Writing, as well as by reading groups or by those interested in holding master classes and seminars. The office is a shared space available for rent on a daily or monthly basis, perfect for publishers, researchers, writers in need of a quiet spot or the York student who is using it to study.

Combining the rental of space with the bookstore is Rovito’s way of integrating the community into the experience of the bookshop as a place to mingle, ruminate, investigate and of course pick up an interesting book.

Rovito is also looking to purchase books. So any York professors with well-stocked libraries looking to do a little spring cleaning may want to contact the bookshop at 416-534-5173 or visit the Of Swallows, Their Deeds, & the Winter Below Web site.

Of Swallows, Their Deeds, & the Winter Below is now open Tuesday through Sunday, from 11:30am to 6:30pm and is located at 283 College St., Upper Floors, Toronto.

By Sandra McLean, YFile writer