No, not that Peter Sellers

Sellers in front of his store. Photo Cal O'Shaughnessy.
Sellers in front of his store. Photo Cal O'Shaughnessy.

What does it take to run a successful second-hand book business in Toronto? And where?

According to Leasider Peter Sellers, College Street in Little Italy has the same feel as Bayview did when he was growing up in Leaside in the 1960s. Lots of foot traffic, independent stores and family homes just around the corners – in other words, the perfect location for Sellers & Newel Second Hand Books at 672 College Ave.

The name honours both his father’s and mother’s family, the Sellers and the Newels, whose family home was on Donegall. His mother’s brother, Walter Newel, is one of those honoured on the memorial plaque outside Leaside Memorial Community Gardens as one of the sons of Leaside who died in WWII. 

Peter took possession of his 600-sq. ft. property on Oct. 15, 2011 and opened on Nov. 12. The first book he sold (he still remembers) was The League: The Rise and Decline of the NFL, by David Harris. Working with him for the first few years was his cousin, David Newel, who suggested that poetry books would sell. Much to Peter’s amazement, they did – and they still do. He’s expanded the section four times since opening. Another big seller is books on philosophy.

Unlike other bookstores, with electronic inventory lists, Peter keeps a list in his head of what’s in the store or in two storage lockers. 

The Sellers of Leaside

Peter’s family home was on Southlea, but when he was 11, the Sellers moved to Bessborough at the foot of St. Cuthbert’s Road. This was handy, as the family spent a lot of time at St. Cuthbert’s Church over the years. Peter attended Rolph, Bessborough and the University of Toronto Schools, while his hangouts included Leaside Gardens, for swimming and doing a bit of hockey coaching. It was worthwhile to go through the rubbish bins behind E. S. & A. Robinson on Laird to see if there was Sellotape or hockey tape that had been discarded but was still usable. 

Peter and his brother Tim would take their dog with them to deliver papers around Mallory Crescent. The dog could run around while they were delivering, and then they’d all head down the ravine to the valley afterwards until it was time to head home for a meal.

After graduation in 1978 with an Honours English degree from Glendon College – “the easiest course I could think to take” – he worked for IBM, delivered pizzas and worked at W.H. Smith Books on Yonge Street north of St. Clair. He wanted to be a writer, “but it’s very difficult to make a living, and I lacked the focus and dedication, but maybe I can do something in the ad business.” And he did, for the next 30 or so years, “always working in small places, with fewer rules, that suited me down to the ground.”

The call of the book business

But with his love of books, and those two storage lockers, and the thought “how hard can it be to run a bookstore,” Peter decided the time had come in 2011 to try his hand at actually running a bookstore.

He also became an author. The short story, “Closing Doors,” in his book Kickback and Other Stories won the 2020 Arthur Ellis Award for Best Short Story. He has written two other collections of short stories, and has edited, among others, a series of Canadian anthologies, Cold Blood 1 through 5, all published by Mosaic Press. In the early 1980s, he and Rob Milling got the idea for a book that would include descriptions of people with hangovers. “It got rejected all over the place, so we sat on it.” Again, and again, but this year Howard Aster of Mosaic Press agreed that the time was right. Be on the lookout for The Last Martini: A Hangover Bedside Companion,” available soon from the publisher, or at Sellers & Newel. Peter also thanks his wife at the time, Rochelle Khan, for her great assistance.

What would a bookstore be without a literary society associated with it? But this one is a surprise. When you check what’s on offer, it turns out to be musical performances. On select evenings, the limited space is rearranged for performances by musical artists from around the world. There is a minimum donation, 100 per cent of which goes to the performers. Initially, from 2015, he was aiming for one performance a month. But now performers come to him asking to appear in this special space. It even has the Sellers family piano on site, regularly tuned. This past May alone there were 20 performances. “It’s really fun and great publicity for the store. The performers can play what they want, and everyone shuts up and listens.”

About Lorna Krawchuk 178 Articles
Lorna Krawchuk is publisher of Leaside Life. She is actively involved in St. Cuthbert’s Church. Her volunteer activities with the Leaside Property Owners’ Association led to her being elected a Councillor in the Borough of East York for 9 years before amalgamation in 1998. She also held a variety of volunteer leadership positions with the Girl Guides of Canada for over 30 years. Lorna has been a Leasider since 1968.