For 30 years, a cat named Mabel has held court at 662 Mount Pleasant Road in Toronto. “We all love it when someone calls and asks to speak with Mabel,” says Eleanor LeFave, who founded the store with her sister Susan McCulloch. “You may as well have a lion in the window, for all the attention she gets.”
There’s more than the allure of a cuddly shop cat at play in the three-decades-long success story that is Mabel’s Fables, though. The shop marks its 30th anniversary on September 22, with special guests, sales, scavenger hunts and more. LeFave was a new parent and McCulloch was a teacher-librarian when they decided to open a children’s bookstore, now the oldest one in Toronto. McCulloch advocated for arranging the books alphabetically by author. LeFave thought it would be more useful to arrange them by age of intended reader.
“Long story short,” LeFave says, “I won.” Her method makes it easy for both staff and customers to lay their hands on a book that’s going to be a hit with its intended reader. “It gives you a starting point,” she says. “You’re getting a book that’s going to work and be enjoyed now instead of in 10 years, a book kids can connect with right away.”
Additionally, LeFave notes that though the shop is spread over two storeys, “we don’t have room for anything that isn’t excellent.” And though there are about 8,000 books for children published each year, “we really try to make sure that the stuff you shouldn’t miss is on our shelves.”
Like other independent bookstores that have survived big-box competitors and the dominance of online shopping, Mabel’s Fables has become more than a place to buy a book. The shop hosts classes and workshops, storytime circles, events with children’s authors, and more. They put together book baskets for newborn babies. At Christmas, the shop’s Angel Program pairs disadvantaged kids with books chosen and purchased by Mabel’s Fables customers.
That community-building is an important part of what Mabel’s Fables does, LeFave says. “We’ve always hired people who are big readers and are articulate about their excitement about books.” A few years ago, LeFave took a very unscientific poll of the shop’s staff, who revealed that “probably only about 10 per cent” of the customers who walk through the door choose to browse on their own. “So there’s a wonderful dialogue that goes on between our customers and our staff. At Christmas people will stand and just wait, or listen in on us talking about books. That’s something that a lot of people really value. That’s why they keep coming back.”
Indeed, LeFave says, her original customers still visit the store, now to buy books for their grandchildren. And customers in their twenties who grew up with the store stop in too. “They’ll tell me openly that this was an important place to them when they were children. That feels incredible, that Mabel’s is valued. It’s not just a curiosity, it’s really a part of the community, and I’m so thankful for that, that people just keep coming back.”
LeFave looks forward to 12:30 on Saturday when, surrounded by customers and staff, and Mabel herself (now the shop’s third Mabel, each a rescue cat), she’ll cut into the store’s birthday cake.
“As a bookseller you may not die rich, but you’ll die happy,” she says. “We help make sure that books get into the hands of kids. I think that’s something that all booksellers want to do and we’re just lucky to have been able to do it for so long.”