As I made my way over to The Scribe one autumnal morning, I was struck by the serenity of the scene before me. Even in November, I could still wear my favorite wool coat and sneakers—a rarity for all Torontonians. A few struggling leaves still clung to their branches, while the Danforth was littered with specks of orange and red. A morning without class worked its usual cure on my psyche, leaving me feeling uncharacteristically smug, smiling to myself on the street—like someone who has never heard the word “midterm” or “exam” in their life.
Although this was a weekday, The Scribe was bustling with absorbed, enchanted faces. You might think it was my own good mood that projected beatific expressions onto these strangers’ faces, but I know the look of gentle curiosity when I see it, and it was never more clearly writ upon any face than those of the visitors to The Scribe that day.
Despite my own craving for an hours-long search among the shelves, I had business to do that day. I was to interview Justin Daniel Wood: Shakespeare enthusiast, bookstore owner, and long-time friend. Fearing a protracted search that would surely deter me from my journalistic duties, I had one of Justin’s volunteers summon him from the basement, where he organizes and prices books. He emerged, a stack of books in hand, and warmly greeted me before escorting me to the store’s rare section, where the following interview took place.
Una: So, Justin, you and I have known each other for a while now.
Justin: Yeah, that’s right, honestly!
Una: I mean, I’ve been coming in since the store opened!
Justin: Exactly. And that’s why—like the first time I met you—I said to myself, “You’re someone I’m going to remember.”
Justin: Like sincerely, too. It’s like I knew you’d be—
Una: Coming back to the store! This store is my happy place.
Justin: Yes, but also that you’d be a great friend.
Justin’s kind words call to mind the first time I passed what was to soon become my favourite place in the city. I had been on one of my usual solo, dismal walks—a universal characteristic of last year’s lockdown. Where a “FOR LEASE” poster had stubbornly clung to a storefront for dear life was now replaced by a far more cheerful prospect: a poster that promised the arrival of a new bookstore to the Danforth. I felt my steps grew lighter at once; here was something to look forward to.
Una: Awe, thank you! Well, you know how much I love The Scribe. The vibe here is just so welcoming. It’s almost like a little secret gem on the Danforth. It’s so busy and bustling everywhere else—but I swear, when you walk by the store, you just have to stop and look in, which I see people do all the time. The door is always open metaphorically, and literally!
Justin: Like it’s November, and we still can keep the door open! I hate closing it, because it doesn’t show the welcoming atmosphere.
Una: Exactly. But I guess you’re having to do that at some point.
Justin: We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it!
Una: Yes, we will! Alright. So, because a lot of our readers are university students, I wanted to ask you a little bit about your university experience. What was 20-year-old Justin like?
Justin: That’s a great opening question… I never liked school. I didn’t fit in because I was one of those oddball guys that just always had my head in the clouds. And maybe that’s how you have to be to become a bookseller; you’ve got to be kind of thinking outside the box, right?
Una: For sure.
Justin: So basically, after high school, I was one of the only people that took English literature. So that didn’t help my situation. All my friends went into science, right? And so I was kind of left on an island, on my own. And as you know, with university, like your lecture could be at 11 o’clock in the morning, but your tutorial isn’t until five.
Justin: I would be wandering around York University, doing absolutely nothing. Honestly, I would hang out with some of my friends, but in terms of having friends that were in English Literature… At the beginning, I was in Professional Writing. So that was even more kind of closed off, right? And so I didn’t really have any people to hang out with, and that was very challenging.
Una: It is very challenging. I know that a lot of University of Toronto students have these experiences as well, because it’s so large. It’s hard to, you know, single a few people out, even within your own program! English is such a big program wherever you go. So, I definitely relate to that.
Justin: I feel like it’s universal. You’re just trying to find people that you like, and that you can jive with. But if you’re introverted and write every day? It’s hard.
Una: Exactly. I know. It’s a journey for sure. Is there any advice you’d give to current university students stressing about their futures?
Justin: One hundred percent! This is what I tell everybody. I don’t know if I told you… I just always tell people to start something that’s totally their own. And something that doesn’t necessarily have to make money. But something that you love to do.
Justin: And even if you don’t know what that is, just think about it and take your time, don’t put extra pressure on yourself thinking that you’re old, because I remember, first year, it’s like, “Look at me, I’m like 20 years old, I’ve gotta get my act together, right?” And I think that really was a negative thing for me. Because you’ve got to understand how much time you have to figure that stuff out.
Una: That’s true. I think we all do that, for sure.
Justin: I think the key is that when you’re young, you just want to find things you love to do because you don’t also want to get out of school and then just work for the sake of working.
Una: Exactly, yeah.
Justin: I think that’s the reason why I created this [The Scribe]. I mean, there’s a lot of reasons why.
Justin tells me again of the place where his bookselling journey began: in an antique map store,of all places, where he worked for an eccentric old gentleman cataloguing maps and rifling through folios of all shapes and sizes. It sounds like something out of a Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel, only its setting is not a Gothic Barcelona, but a hidden Toronto. Our conversation takes a turn towards today’s antique book demographic…
Una: You have so many young people interested in your store. Which I think is so cool, because we have this stereotype that young people don’t care about literature anymore. Like, “They just want to scroll on social media. Nobody reads!” But I know you haven’t found that to be the case at all.
Justin: One of the common misconceptions about selling books—especially rare books—is that books are kind of an antiquated thing now. As though everyone’s just either buying it on Amazon, or they’re doing the Kindle or whatever. But I think the physical book will never die.
Una: I agree.
Justin: I think it’s just too there’s too much artistry in it all. It’s impossible to take that out of the human psyche. Everyone loves the imagination and the creativity of books.
Justin explains that he intends to dedicate the store’s backroom, where he and I sit perched on stools, solely to displaying $5 vintage books. My bookshelf at home already boasts such finds. Different textures and patterns mark the spines of the unique treasures I regularly uncover at The Scribe. These books are more than eye-candy or mere self-indulgence; they are heirlooms, to be cherished and shared. My mind wanders along the shelves, and it is with deliberate effort that I return my focus to my journalistic duties.
Una: Okay. Now, if you don’t mind, I would like to transition into the rapid-fire-question portion of this interview. It’s gonna turn into a bit of an interrogation. Are you ready?
Justin: I feel ready. I love interrogations.
Una: Amazing. Okay, what is your favorite part of the day? It doesn’t have to be work related.
Justin: My favorite part of the day is when I close the lights in the shop but the music is still running. It’s a very magical feeling because it’s just like, “Wow, this is working!”
Una: That seems magical.
Justin: I’m very sentimental with this stuff. I listen to music I used to listen to when I was young. And I’m like, “What is going on here?” I’m listening to this music I used to listen to fifteen years ago, the store lights are off, and then I’m like “Wow, this is working.” It’s wonderful.
Una: That is wonderful! You should be proud of what you’ve built here because in such a short time it has become a neighborhood institution.
Una: Coffee or tea?
Justin: I don’t respond well to caffeine.
Una: Now, that’s relatable!
Justin: I think I’m perpetually anxious., right? In the book business, I’m never sitting down. I think my heart beats fast enough. I love it.
Una: Do you have a favorite film adaptation of a book?
Justin: Ooh, that’s a good question. Um, I’ll say the one that came out the minute you said that. I actually really enjoyed Clueless.
Una: I LOVE CLUELESS!!!
Justin: [Laughs.] Yes! It’s one of those movies that made me laugh so hard. And my sister obviously watched it. She and I think Clueless is such fun!
Una: I’m definitely with you on that! It’s one of my favorites… Alright, now this one’s a bit controversial. What are your thoughts on audiobooks?
Justin: I don’t mind them. I was having trouble sleeping the other night—this is kind of funny. I put on Crime and Punishment while working. I looked at it and it was like a 15-hour audiobook on Youtube. I’m like, “Okay, well I’m gonna start somewhere with this, right?” I think it’s great if you want to work out, or if you like if you’re painting or just doing something. I mean, why not?
Una: I’ve also come around to the audiobook lifestyle. I’ve been listening to Vanity Fair before bed. It’s nice!
Justin: They have really beautiful voices, these people who read audiobooks. They dramatize it so well. I think they should get paid so much more money.
Una: Maybe I should interview an audiobook reader…
Justin: You should find one online!
Una: Okay, unfortunately, we’re running out of time on my free interview recording app. [Both laugh]. So let me thank you so much for meeting with me today. I can’t wait for our readers to learn about your store and to learn a bit more about you, because I genuinely think that The Scribe is a place anybody in Toronto should check out.
Justin: Amazing. Thanks so much.
I shut my laptop, and Justin kindly congratulates me on my first-ever interview. He walks me to the front door, past eager customers and shelves holding wonders which I sadly hadn’t the time to explore that day. Before we part, I promise to stop by the next week with a friend. The thought of this visit consoles me during midterms; I dream of faded inscriptions, cracked spines, and otherworldly engravings.
“I’m very sentimental with this stuff. I listen to music I used to listen to when I was young. And I’m like, ‘What is going on here?’ I’m listening to this music I used to listen to fifteen years ago, the store lights are off, and then I’m like ‘Wow, this is working.’ It’s wonderful.”