The University of Toronto Bookstore began as the Students' Books Department in 1897. A staff member of the University library, Miss McMicking, had been given permission to sell books to students when she was not on duty and to store her stock in the basement of the library. The volume of sales grew rapidly and eventually her health required that she give up the enterprise. In 1904 the Students' Book Department was taken over by Mr. R.J. Hamilton as a private business under an agreement made with the Library Committee of the University.
As sales of the Book Department continued to grow, complications began to arise. In 1905 retail booksellers in Toronto filed a protest with the Ontario government regarding the Book Department. Hamilton was able to prove that no off-campus sales were sought, and a sign was posted in the department indicating that customers who were not students or faculty members should take their business elsewhere. This is no longer the case and the Bookstore is now open to the public.
During this period the University of Toronto Press also inhabited the library basement and was managed by Hamilton. In 1907 it was suggested that the press and the Book department amalgamate. The idea was rejected based on an argument that Hamilton could negotiate better discounts with publishers as an independent bookseller.
The Students' Book Department continued to prosper under Hamilton. Book Department letterhead in 1910 carried the statement, "Importers of college text books and books of reference - Shipments received regularly from United States, England, France, Germany and Italy." Hamilton made arrangement for books to be sent on approval for inspection by faculty members, an innovation made 50 years prior to an approval plan established by the University.
In 1920 the University requested that the space occupied by the Students' Book Department and the Press (which was also managed by Hamilton) be returned. Both the Press and the Book Department had greatly expanded, so the Press financed the construction of a new building in the southwest area of the campus, where the Galbraith Building is now located. The Students' Book Department occupied a large area of the ground floor of the building, as tenant.
The idea of the Students' Book Department amalgamating with the University of Toronto Press resurfaced in 1932. By 1934 the Press had purchased Hamilton's financial interest in the Book Department and gave it the name "University of Toronto Press Book Department". At that time, records show that entire staff of the Book Department consisted of four persons, with the addition of student help at busy seasons.
By 1946 the lack of physical space had once again become a problem. Every fall, the students were lined up along King's College Road and stretched down the sidewalk towards College Street. Inside, the space between the entrance and the counter was a "mass of struggling humanity". In 1948 a one-storey building was erected south of Hart House and east of University College to "temporarily" house the Book Department. It remained in this "temporary" location for 10 years.
In 1954 concern was expressed that the current Book Department needed to expand its services in order "to operate a Bookstore in the interests in the University Community". These services included a "special order department that procures books from the four corners of the world", the retention of trained key staff year-round and the carrying of an inventory of some 15,000 individual titles reflecting the varied courses at the University of Toronto. Of course, the creation of these services required the acquisition of physical space. In 1958 a new Press building was constructed on King's College Circle, facing southeast toward the front campus. The ground floor of this building was designed specifically for the Book Department, complete with fixtures and showcases that could be re-arranged to provide adequate counter space in the rush period and attractive displays throughout the rest of the year. At this time, the name of the store was changed to the University of Toronto Bookroom.
The Bookroom continued to thrive in this location but, as the population of the University continued to grow, so did the need for a larger space. In 1966 a new location (formally a dairy truck garage) at 280 Huron Street was acquired for the Bookroom. Students were required to purchase texts (and computer products as of 1984) from the Huron Street location, and trade books, medical books and stationery from the King's College Circle location. Again, this was supposed to be a temporary location, but the two stores remained in these locations for almost 20 years.
In the 60s and 70s, the University was expanding at an incredible rate. During this time, two new colleges were developed - one in Scarborough and one in Mississauga. It seemed logical that the Press operate the bookstores at each of these locations, and accordingly the Scarborough College Bookstore (now The UTSC Bookstore) was opened in 1966 and the Erindale College Bookstore (Now the UTM Bookstore) in 1973.
In 1981 the Bookroom began to expand its role in the literary community with the establishment of a reading series. Book readings and signings were organized in on- and off-campus locations, small cafés, and theatre spaces. The University of Toronto Reading Series has hosted such notable authors as Margaret Atwood, John Updike, Robertson Davies, and Salman Rushdie.
In 1985 both downtown locations were again combined in what had originally been the Toronto Reference Library. Built in 1909 as a Carnegie library and purchased by the University in 1980, the building had been declared a historical site, boasting 30-foot ceilings, marble staircases and 1.5 miles of oak shelving. Shortly after the move to this building, the name was changed again to the University of Toronto Bookstore. The downtown campus Bookstore still resides in this heritage building, known as the Koffler Student Centre.
In the early 80s the Bookstore began to experiment with periodicals designed to draw the public's attention to new books of interest. The rise of desktop publishing finally made such a venture feasible, and in the fall of 1987 the first issue of the U of T Bookstore Review appeared.
Since 1998 the U of T Bookstore has been named Campus Bookseller of the Year five times by the Canadian Booksellers Association.