It’s 1980 and, for sailors in Toronto, the 4-year-old CN tower is a relatively new andextremely visible landmark. But there’s no SkyDome (er, Rogers Centre) in sight, let alone an Air Canada Centre gathering or expelling hordes of fans—only industrial buildings and railway yards. The America’s Cup is being raced in 12-metres, and noone has defeated the New York Yacht Club for the Auld Mug in more than 130 years.Canada’s hopes for a good showing in Olympic yachting, following our first-ever medalwin in 1972 have just been dashed by the international boycott of the USSR Games.Canada’s stellar showing by McLaughlin & Bastet, Neilson & Fogh, and Calder & Kerr(three medals in Flying Dutchman, Finn, and Soling) are still four years away.
Some people sense, however, that Toronto’s long and complex relationship withits waterfront is changing yet again, and “yachting” is about to take an explosive jump inpopularity. One of the believers is Irv Besen, an engineer and dyed-in-the-wool sailor,who feels that a specialty bookstore could become a kind of Mecca for those who wantto know more about all things nautical. He decides to follow his heart, opening TheNautical Mind bookshop in an unrenovated Pier 4 warehouse.
Now jump ahead 30 years to a much-changed world. Specialty bookshops arenow as rare as working tall ships and Toronto’s waterfront has changed immensely. But Irv Besen’s brainchild, The Nautical Mind, is still thriving, and it serves sailors andboaters across the country and around the world. It’s been a long and happy story—andrelatively smooth sailing—for the little waterfront mainstay.
Besen first assembled the treasure trove of nautical titles in his own unique style:his Pier 4 bookstore was cramped and disorderly but packed with a fascinating,idiosyncratic, and definitely salty collection of books. Visits to the early Nautical Mindwere often as much about shooting the breeze as they were about sales—at least for aslong as customers could stand the cigar smoke. Under Besen’s direction, too, the shopshared a tiny book-selling booth with Steve Manley, who was flogging the first LakeOntario PORTS guide at the 1984 Toronto International Boat Show; it was a mutuallybeneficial partnership that continued for many years.
In 1985, Dorothy LeBaron and Ross Wilson bought Besen’s business, and Irvretired to Nova Scotia. The new owners, then married, brought a little more order to thenautical books, charts, and other learning-related paraphernalia on offer. In 1987 theyalso added sunlight to the scene, moving the shop next door to its current location in theAdmiral (now Radisson) Hotel arcade, with its window wall overlooking the Western Gapand the Toronto Marine Police detachment.
LeBaron’s background was in the book industry; Wilson had grown up aroundwater and worked on tugs in the Beaufort Sea. They applied her book marketing andbuying expertise to the business, and their shared interest in the sea, waterborneactivity, and the related lore. Gradually the Nautical Mind team, which over the years hasalso included several water-savvy staff members, created an ever more comprehensivecollection of nautical titles. They continue to operate efficiently in close quarters today—The Nautical Mind has only 500 square feet of shop space but, in shipshape fashion, hasa place for everything and everything in its place.
From the beginning, LeBaron and Wilson wanted to make sure they could get booksto far-away customers quickly—whether they wanted a chartbook for the Caribbean, agripping sailing thriller, an international sailing magazine, or a book that would help themtroubleshoot the engine, move to the top of the fleet, swoon over classic yachts, find agood harbour, dream of escape, abandon ship, remember the rules of the road, buy aboat … you get the idea. In other words, offering depth of product was also critical: if itwas a book about boats, the Nautical Mind wanted to know about it and be able to offerit to their customers.
So not only did they become adept at tracking down obscure titles, they becameexperts at shipping, sending parcels across the city and the country, as well as to peopleoverseas and in jail. Wilson has also been known to chase moving buses with forgottenparcels, and personally deliver charts to frantic and soon-to-cast-off skippers. Amongthe most interesting customers he recalls shipping to were a boatbuilder in the MojaveDesert and an oil exploration company in Turkmenistan (that package was sent viaDubai; the courier would not deliver directly to Turkmenistan, deeming it an “unstablepolitical zone”).
Happily, local sailors also recognized the store for the treasure it is from day one—and they still do. LeBaron says their regular customers include dinghy sailors whoskim around the harbour and Island, cruisers heading down the ICW or St. Lawrence,professional mariners or students aiming to earn a ticket, snowbirds chartering downsouth or in the Med in the winter, or in the Great Lakes (or farther afield) in the summer,and even the Canadian Navy. The shop has customers who came in for their first chartsor books years ago, and who are now seasoned sailors with years of cruising or racingbehind them.
The passage of time has changed the balance of the shop’s sales, though. In theearly days, 15 percent of the bookstore’s business was long-distance, generated by theshop’s first catalogue and small ads. Today, thanks to its website, mail-out sales make up more than half of the business. Partlythis pattern can be explained by the shop’s early adoption of “technology”—it was one ofthe first bookstores in Canada to computerize. One of Besen’s great contributions—though no-one foresaw its critical importance at the time—was digitizing his inventory.That database allowed the shop to produce, fairly easily, a series of print catalogues (thefirst one appeared in 1988, the last ten years later). And in 1998 it enabled the staff tocreate the store’s first web site.
Some local sailors may also remember that in the late 1980s and early ’90s, TheNautical Mind hosted a number of speakers and called their events “International Sailorsat Harbourfront.” The authors gave readings or slide shows, and signed books. Theimpressive alumnae include Tristan Jones, Tania Aebi, Hal Roth, John Rousmaniere, Linand Larry Pardey, Brian Hancock, Jimmy Cornell, Miles Clark, Paul and Sheryl Shard,Liza and Andy Copeland, Dawn Riley, Tom Neale, Silver Donald Cameron, MichaelGreenwald, Will Millar, Dr. Joe MacInnis, Alvah and Diana Simon, Beth Leonard, andDebra Cantrell.
As anyone who loves books knows, the challenges of successfully owning andrunning an independent bookshop have increased in recent years. Many have closed,unable to compete with price-cutting at the big box stores. The arrival of e-books and e-charts has also changed the lay of the land. Yet The Nautical Mind continues to thrive. LeBaron and Wilson feel that their staffgives them an edge: not only are they loyal and friendly, they’re knowledgeable aboutthe water as well as about the books. Many part-timers have been (or are) sailors fromToronto Brigantine, next door—such as Peter Wills, who has worked at the bookstorefor seven years and whose expertise with web development and data management,says LeBaron, has helped the Nautical Mind keep current and continue to have a strongonline presence. Sari Bercovitch, the “Chief Book Detective,” has been with the storefor 16 years. A long-distance cruiser and librarian by training, she reports that she’ssometimes greeted in foreign ports as “that woman from The Nautical Mind”! SandyNewton, who managed the store in the early 1990s, still edits the shop’s fall flyer eachyear, now from her office by the sea in Newfoundland.
So—thanks to dedication and elbow grease, long-time staff, and hundreds of loyallocal and long-distance customers, LeBaron and Wilson are thrilled that The NauticalMind can celebrate 30 years in Toronto’s waterfront community. “We had no idea,in the beginning, that the shop would be having a big birthday like this one,” saysLeBaron, “but it certainly feels good!”