When Patti Kirk opened Parentbooks in downtown Toronto in 1986, she didn’t imagine that the bookstore would become a cornerstone of resources and support for special-needs parents. But now, as the store closes after nearly 35 years in operation at the end of January, the final weeks of business have been marked by tears – from both customers and staff.
“We’ve had people at the door picking up their final orders crying, and we’ve had moments where we’ve had feedback online from customers or phone messages, and we’ve been crying,” Kirk says. “It’s a huge life change, but it’s also such a big loss to the community.”
Kirk opened Parentbooks in 1986 after an 11-year stint managing the now-closed Toronto Women’s Bookstore, where she and her business partner identified a need in the parenting book space. “We knew that there was a big lack of parenting resources available in one spot,” Kirk says. “Women’s had some pregnancy books and some parenting books, a good representation, but not fabulous.”
Publishers granted them extended terms from day one – not typical at that time for new businesses, Kirk says. The store’s collection of books about parenting, on subjects such as children with special needs, autism, pregnancy, adoption, family violence, and alcoholism, also helped establish the store in the community, with childbirth educators and toy libraries turning to the booksellers to furnish their libraries and recommending the store to their clients.
They soon became known for their special-needs books. Through a long-time relationship with Toronto’s Geneva Centre for Autism, Parentbooks became known worldwide for their autism books, shipping orders to places such as Brazil, China, Japan, and South Africa.
Alongside titles about issues parents face, Parentbooks stocked books on corresponding topics for children. They also maintained a collection of storybooks and board books, which customers could count on being well curated, without “any crap.”
“We tried really hard to have things that weren’t readily available in other bookstores, and also representing a number of different cultures,” Kirk says. “We just tried to be where others weren’t.”
Conferences made up a big part of the store’s business, and at their busiest Parentbooks was selling books at 45 to 50 conferences a year. Textbooks also used to be big sellers, with the store carrying books for the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto as well as for George Brown’s early childhood education and child and youth worker programs.
Business from conferences and textbooks has dropped off in recent years, Kirk says. Parentbooks was one of only three Canadian outlets that sold books from publisher Social Thinking; their book The Zones of Regulation sold nearly 10,000 copies at Parentbooks alone. The store felt a dip in sales when the publisher decided to sell their books through Amazon.
Kirk made the decision to close the store last year, before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Her two-year lease on the storefront was up at the end of January and she decided in early 2020 not to renew it. The last year has been difficult because of the pandemic, but Parentbooks has had rent and wage support through federal programs, and Kirk says there was never a concern that they’d have to close earlier than planned.
Closing the store has been bittersweet, not least because Parentbooks is run by a small, tight-knit team. Long-time staffers Leslie Chandler and Maureen Phillips have been working at the store for nearly 30 years, and partner Bill Elleker joined the team in 1986 when Kirk’s first business partner moved. Kirk has even had the same landlord since 1984, when she was still at Toronto Women’s Bookstore.
In the store’s last days, Kirk and her team have been busy packing orders for customers, and in what Kirk calls “the law of perversion,” they’ve been busy, the store so full of books that there would be no room for in-person customers even if Ontario’s public-health protocols, which currently ban in-person shopping at non-essential businesses, allowed for it.
But it’s that busy, in-person aspect of Parentbooks that Kirk says she will miss the most. “It’s not like we’re selling vacuum cleaners here,” Kirk says. “We’ll miss the interaction with our customers and the feeling of doing something good and helpful.”