Books, books, books

By Karli Vezina


If you grew up in Toronto, you remember the World's Biggest Bookstore, even though it wasn't. You may have been crashing through to grab some Coles Notes for your upcoming English test or you may have been quietly searching for your favourite author. Here's a brief history of the legendary store in all its incarnations.


In 1889 the Robert Barron Building was built as a three storey brick store at 720 Yonge Street on the southwest corner of Charles Street West, now known as Czar Street. The building was owned and used by Mr. Barron, a local grocer.


In 1935 Carl E. Cole and his brother Jack opened a used bookstore near Bloor Street called Cole Books.

If you grew up in Toronto, you remember the World's Biggest Bookstore, even though it wasn't. You may have been crashing through to grab some Coles Notes for your upcoming English test or you may have been quietly searching for your favourite author. Here's a brief history of the legendary store in all its incarnations.


Source: Instagram/@Retrontario

In 1889 the Robert Barron Building was built as a three storey brick store at 720 Yonge Street on the southwest corner of Charles Street West, now known as Czar Street. The building was owned and used by Mr. Barron, a local grocer.

In 1935 Carl E. Cole and his brother Jack opened a used bookstore near Bloor Street called Cole Books. In 1947 they bought the Robert Barron Building at 720 Yonge Street and expanded the store.


In 1948 the brothers began publishing their study guides, Coles Notes, that gave detailed chapter notes and analysis on many books within the high school curriculum. Together they would summarize around 120 titles including William Shakespeare's many works and George Orwell's 1984 to name a few.


By 1952, sales were booming so the brothers expanded into the shop next door. In 1974 the former Barron Building was declared a Heritage site. In 1980 Coles launched a 67,000 square foot bookstore at 20 Edward Street, just west of Yonge. This became The World's Biggest Bookstore, one of Canada's first book superstores. 20 Edward Street had formerly been the Olympic Bowling Alley.


There, The World's Biggest Bookstore became a part of the Yonge Street nightlife as wanderers would scan the shelves after visiting A & A Records and/or Sam the Record Man nearby. The layout of the former bowling alley allowed for small reading areas where buyers could peruse a book before purchasing, long before Chapters had chairs.


In 1995 Coles Books and W.H. Smith Books joined literary forces to make Chapters. In 1996 Chapters merged with Indigo, making the hybrid Chapters/Indigo we know today.


With the rise of public internet in 1993 and the e-books that would soon follow, the World's Biggest Bookstore was suddenly too big and too expensive to maintain.


In 2013 the building was sold to developers and the doors closed to the public at the end of March. A row of restaurants now live there but the history remains rich for those who were there, way back when.