D & E Lake, A Toronto Institution

By Lynn Ogryzlo

Don Lake is a tall man, I’m guessing 6-foot, 5-inches, impeccable posture, distinguished grey hair tied back into a ponytail and in his little disheveled shop on King Street East where jeans and a sweatshirt would not be out of place, Don wears suits. Like an English history professor, Don wears his past on his sleeve, a man of mystery, a man of intrigue.

It’s easy enough to miss Don’s shop. The façade of D & E Lake Ltd., is wooden, a rarity in Toronto these days. The centre door is flanked with large windows of small, rippled glass panes with century old, faded signs over each. Inside are books, thousands and thousands of books along with rare prints, limited historical artifacts and displays of hard to find picture-framing materials.

Like walking through the wardrobe in Narnia, D & E Lake is a magical experience. Enter the front door and I promise you’ll not be able to walk more than a few feet. Partly because of the massive piles of books crowded all around you but mostly because of a sense of overwhelming disorientation. It’s a good thing really, even fun.

The stock of books Don has amassed is enormous. “When an opportunity comes up, I buy. I buy what others don’t want because they’re no longer popular,” says Don. I’m still at the front door and above me are the sensational works of Proust, Shakespeare and Hemingway. In fact, just last week Don sold me Hemingway’s, A Moveable Feast. It was so amazing to read it. “Classic works like that never go out of style,” says Don.

I look around me and I see Two Lives, by Janet Malcolm, “I had an opportunity to buy 300 of her books and I jumped at it,” say Don admiring the book. There’s a book halfway down a tall stack of hard covers that catches my attention. I ask about it. It’s The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace and Don leaps into a story about the most expensive bottle of wine in the world and how it was a hoax. Ok, now that I know the ending, I don’t have to read that one!

I step back carefully; navigating your way through the store is an exercise in fragility. Towering stacks of books everywhere! There are a number of narrow walkways for browsing but really, a major catastrophe is waiting for the first shoulder purse to swing the wrong way. In any event, there really is no need for browsing, for Don knows everything he has in his store, where it is, what it’s about and why you should read it.

“Canadians should read more books,” says Don who believes that everyone deserves to get lost in the pages of a good mystery, or be inspired by an extraordinary human achievement story. “When was the last time you were swept away by true love – it really can happen more than once in your lifetime you know? Do you really know what it feels like to grow through the knowledge of something beautiful or to make sense of your world through the chapters of a good book? Books change people, an avid reader looks at the world through a more balanced, educated lens. Reading is a fundamental right for all Canadians.”

Don doesn’t think of books in quite the same way as most people do. For Don, books are not static, material possessions with words to gobble up in the hopes of entertainment, then tossed aside for the next. To Don, books are living cultural portals meant to inspire action, stimulate conversation and mold minds.

“In Paris, they believe the basis of civilization begins with books,” says Don. He goes on to explain that in France and Germany, Amazon cannot discount books because the French and German believe that literature and books are the basis of civilized acts, of inspiring knowledge and of economic growth in small business. While I can’t find proof of his Amazon claim, Don finds books being undermined by big business one of life’s most intolerable and ignorant acts. Ignorant because Don says, “you cannot open a book without learning something that will change you”.

Don is a man with a destiny in the books he surrounds himself with. “There are no real booksellers left in Canada so I have a duty to sell them. Books are how we transmit knowledge from generation to generation. It’s the basis of culture. Books, knowledge and culture are the quintessential trilogy to a civilized society. Protecting the small bookseller against the giants is essential to the culture of our society, it has nothing to do with free enterprise.”

There is no other Canadian supplier of early books besides Don. “You can find some late 19th Century books around, they’re about the oldest, but I have lots of books before that.” In fact, Don runs an on-line (delake.com), rare book business with customers from all over the world. Some of his rare books sell for $40 to $50,000 each. “They don’t sell to Canadian customers,” says Don sadly.

I can see some interesting titles a little further away and I ask about them. “I call that mind candy,” says Don of the collection of detective and mystery books. While Don considers the mystery trilogy, The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson one of the greatest books he’s ever read, he’s quick to dismiss the movie. Similarly, the nine volume science fiction series Berlin Noir written in the early 1990s by Philip Kerr gets an enthusiastically high rating as best ever written and The Man from Beijing by Henning Mankell is “a stunner of a book. It will grip you. It starts with a tremendous act of retribution for what was done to a Chinese family and it just gets better.”

Don looks around and guestimates there are millions of titles in this little space alone and there’s more. On the east side of the room is a long narrow staircase, each rung is used to display more books with a narrow walkway through the centre that ascends to an entire second floor crowded with more books and a shorter staircase in the south corner that goes into a back room full of vintage and archived prints.

Don also stocks books in foreign languages. He just sold a beautiful book on Torino, Italy to a couple that bought it as a gift for their Italian-speaking friend. The beautiful picture book was written in Italian. “Everyone gets involved in purchases like that,” says Don “it becomes special”.

Besides modern, popular books of the day, at D & E Lake you’ll also find fine arts books from Canadian artists, books on French antiques, on ceramics, the history of costumes, architecture, cooking, fashion design, engineering, interior design and beautiful books on the performing arts. Like a library, I’m astounded that I’ve never seen most of these titles anywhere else. “I love all of my books,” says the man who buries himself in literature. “From the five dollar book to the fifty thousand dollar one, I love them all.”

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