Last week, my step-father passed away. He was seventy-six years old. He had been in my life since I was an adolescent. He left us mere days after his final birthday. It’s rather strange to realize that I am now the exact age he was when he came into my life.
Steven Temple was titan in his field of antiquarian books. His second floor shop on Queen Street (just west of Spadina) was one of the first and last of its kind in Toronto. That shop—up a set of narrow, creaky wooden steps—holds a special place in my heart. Huge spans of books towering well over my head, the rattle of the Queen streetcar coming in through the front bay window, the little sign pinned to the door frame with its NO symbol stamped over a photo or Rudyard Kipling and a caption that stated “THANK YOU FOR NOT KIPLING!” (an insider joke I still don’t get)—these define my earliest memories of him.
I’ve always known that he was esteemed in his profession, but I never really knew him as The Steven Temple. He was my grumpy and harshly opinionated father figure—always supportive, always present, fully there to see that I had stable ground from which to grow and the confidence to seek out a niche for myself in the world.
In the early years, there were rough edges that needed to be ground down. As a teenager—and well into my twenties—I wasted a lot of time trying to impress him. Oh, waste isn’t truly the right word for it. The desire to have your parents be proud of you is pretty standard stuff, but it took me a long time to realize my specific fixation was slightly misguided.
I did a lot of theatre in my youth, even ventured into short films. He would attend all of my creative efforts—and helped finance many of them! His reactions to the work often disappointed me though. He was known to lecture at great length about why a piece of media was mediocre and that’s really not what young, ambitious artistic types want to hear.
Steven was, above all else, unrelentingly honest. He wouldn’t blow smoke up anyone’s ass no matter how much he loved them. And I know he loved me; his attention proved that more than declarations ever could. As I’ve advanced into middle-age, not only did he soften somewhat, but I gained the wisdom to appreciate his honesty and steadfast integrity.
Last summer, after reading a review I had written for a Shaw Festival play we’d seen together, he sent me an email to inform me of a typo he had spotted. I’m not sure I can convey how deeply touched I was by this small, deceptively trivial gesture. Steven never wasted his time on bullshit; a misspelled word in a middling piece of writing wouldn’t have concerned him. For him to mention a typo made it clear to me that he felt the work as a whole was good. In his efficient, professorial way, he was telling me that it—and I—were worth the effort.
Looking back, he was always telling me that, it just took me a long time to properly recognize his respect and devotion. Several decades were spent wanting to wow him in some extravagant way yet ultimately taking for granted his commitment to engaging with me as authentically as possible.
He was a rock in my world. I loved him very much and will miss him greatly.
The above photo of him is my favourite. To me, it’s absolutely iconic—a dignified, somewhat guarded man surrounded by the books that were his life. He was not an easy man to get know. If you were lucky enough to be a part of his private life, to see beyond the gruff exterior—well, he was awe-inspiring. Dedicated, diligent, adventurous and compassionate—he was an ideal portrait of authenticity I couldn’t possibly emulate, but will forever cherish.