It Must Have Been the Ambiance
Coffee, Pie, and Books That Brought Back a Childhood Memory.
Queen Street East in Toronto is one of those streets that I could easily fall in love with and I in fact did when I first set foot upon it about a year ago while my friends and I spent a week with our neighbors to the north. This long street, extending all the way to the west end of the city, was quiet yet not without anything to do. In “The Beaches” area of Toronto, where we were staying for the week, I found the exact sort of “getaway” I was looking for at the time. Quiet enough to make a clean break from the havoc of New York City but happening enough so that there was always something to do. The street is lined with apartment buildings, restaurants, bars, shops, bookstores and coffee shops. In fact, I never seen such a concentration of coffee shops in my life. Nearly one on every block. For those who love to find a little sanctuary in a quiet little coffee shop, you can’t go wrong here; and the great thing about it all was that the population is such that there’s no mad stampede, no rush, no feeling that you are trying to enter a subway car at rush hour.
There is a tram that rides up the middle of this street – taking you all the way into downtown Toronto and beyond, all the way to the end of the street which at that point becomes Queen Street West. Riding the tram you get a good idea of the city as it passes through each neighborhood – each with its own unique character. For a New York City boy like me, this was a nice, slow paced, relaxing way to see a city, and Toronto is a beautiful city. Green, clean, good people, lots to do. I knew immediately that Toronto was a city that I could see myself living in one day.
Along Queen Street East, one particular shop caught our attention. The Pie Shack – a very unassuming place from the outside. Nestled next to what I remember to be a medical center and a row of apartment houses, nothing prepared me for what lie inside behind the old, white screen door. My friends – Linda, Dawn and Mairead – were hankering for some pie and I, of course, was in dyer need of some strong coffee. It was a no brainer. Let’s go check it out.
Once inside, we all knew that this was going to be a place where we were going to frequent a lot during our time in the city. Essentially “country” in its decor – rustic and homey – we took the seats on the couches near the floor to ceiling window which looked out to a very green and lush park and the passing of the trams every few moments. There was no traffic on the road, no honking of horns, no scramble of the Type-A personalities one sees in New York and being that it was a particularly cloudy and relatively cool morning, only added to the ambiance of the place. Not to mention that the proprietor was the most welcoming person I’d ever met, who engaged us in conversation and made us feel as if he had invited us into his own home. He had a dog, a labrador if I remember correctly, equally as friendly and welcoming as the owner and only added to the feeling that we were hanging out in someone’s living room. The coffee was amazing as was the pie, of which a “slice” was a quarter of the pie. Now, I’m not generally a “pie person” or even a “desert person” for that matter. Give me a good cup of coffee – a nice strong cup of coffee – and I’m a very happy guy. I don’t ask for much in this life.
There was one other thing that caught my eye and it amused me quite a bit: the plethora of Hardy Boys books on the tables, which were nothing more than old rustic doors, stripped of paint, and laid atop makeshift legs. Interesting idea. But those Hardy Boys books – that brought me back to when I was a little kid.
As I looked at them, amusing myself at seeing them again after all these years, I turned to my friend Linda and told her that when I was between the ages of 10 and 12, I literally devoured those books. Looking at them again at a forty plus year old man, they seemed incredibly silly and downright laughable but boy did those books bring me an incredible amount of joy and entertainment as a little kid. I loved the “adventure”, the “mystery”, trying to figure out the clues along the way. I was addicted to these books and had nearly half the collection at the time. I suppose if you were a young boy in the 1970s, these books may have been on your shelf as well. Or perhaps I was just a little nerd, who knows? But I had a lot of friends in school at the time who also devoured these mini-mysteries, comparing notes, all trying to figure out the big surprise that usually came at the end of these stories.
It’s funny to think now how the “adventures” of a rich, spoiled, brother private detective team would generate such enthusiasm but I suppose at the age of 10, when you are reading these books, your mind had not yet been poisoned by all the “theory” and other “literary” nonsense you’ll eventually learn, turning your sense of innocence, wonder and simply enjoying reading a story for the story’s sake into the mess of overly intellectualized nonsense that it would eventually become. For a few brief moments, looking at these old books with their standardized design and Norman Rockwell-esque cover paintings, made me remember what it was like to read for the simple joy of reading and not having to bother to see what lurked beneath the surface or even caring what lurked beneath the surface. (As an adult, you don’t even want to know where that thinking had taken me and what amusing things I actually discovered in these books by doing just that!) Okay, so The Hardy Boys series is not the paragon of literary virtue in our culture but man, it entertained the hell out of me when I was a kid. As silly as these books and stories are now in retrospect, it did secure my joy of reading and seeing them only reminded me that there I was, thirty-odd years later, still finding the same joy in picking up a work of fiction and just getting lost in it.
And all because we wanted some coffee and pie…
Since coming back to America, I haven’t been able to stop thinking of this place. I really can’t say why it made such an impression on me. After all, it’s only a coffee shop. But there was something about the atmosphere there, something about the welcoming feeling from the owner, something about the overcast sky, the tram and the lush, green park that made me realize more than ever that New York City is not the center of the universe; how one could simply relax with a cup of coffee and let their mind wander without having some cretin sitting next to you sticking their nose into your business and getting all judgmental with you about what you are reading, wearing or simply doing. It was truly a sanctuary, a place to just “let go” and enjoy the lesser moments in life, free from all the responsibilities one has on a day to day basis. It’s a big world out there and sometimes little places like this can do wonders for your well being, that is, if you’re receptive to it.
All in all, this may sound downright silly to some, and that’s okay, of course. But for a couple of hours I felt that peace, that detachment from the craziness of the world and also brought back some very happy childhood memories. Considering what’s going on in the world today, that’s not much to ask for, is it?
Tags: apartment buildings, apartment houses, beautiful city, bookstores, childhood memory, clean break, coffee shop, coffee shops, concentration, downtown toronto, getaway, havoc, queen street west, rush hour, sanctuary, stampede, subway car, tram, unassuming place, west end