Opinion
3 min

A day at the lakeshore

How three businesses are putting a little pink in 'New Toronto'

Big Guy's Little Coffee Shop is a great place for fair-trade coffee. Its owner also uses the shop as a performance space, hosting local poets, musicians and authors. Credit: Adam Coish

On a rather drab stretch of shops on Lake Shore Boulevard near Islington Avenue, Community Roots  [#1 on the map] (2858 Lake Shore Blvd W) is hard to miss: books and memorabilia clutter the small store, stacked from floor to ceiling and pouring out onto the sidewalk on stands and in crates. The day I was there an elderly woman wandered through the narrow shop, followed by a train of school kids. Its customers are as diverse as the store’s book selection.

 
For many, Community Roots is a cherished meeting place in the west-end neighbourhood of Lakeshore Villages. Its owners are proud that it has remained afloat as south Etobicoke’s only independent used bookstore in an era when bookshops are increasingly endangered.
 
But for most customers, the draw is the store’s welcoming atmosphere in a neighbourhood in which homophobia remains a problem. New residents in the area dubbed “New Toronto” are still battling against conservative values, which are prominent in the area. 
 
Just last August, some committee members of the Lake Shore Business Improvement Area (BIA) — which includes Long Branch Village, Lakeshore Village, Mimico Village and Mimico by the Lake — rallied against a sticker campaign to improve queer awareness and equality at shops on Lake Shore Boulevard.
 
So for some progressive business owners, supporting a growing queer population in the area has been a challenge. For Community Roots owners Natalie Lochwin and Michael Laxer, it’s a necessary fight.
 
“We believe in human rights of all sorts,” Lochwin says. “And that’s why we promote them here.
 
“We’re against any kind of violations against anyone.”
 
Community Roots has been in business for more than a decade, selling used books, games and movies. In that time, Lochwin and Laxer have been staunch equal-rights activists. At the store, they post stickers on the windows to show all are welcome, a move they say is necessary for the changing demographic in the area.
 
“The neighbourhood is becoming more diverse, both ethnically and culturally,” Laxer says. “It’s certainly not the ‘white picket fence’ neighbourhood you’d expect from 10 years ago.”
 
Though currently under renovation, the shop offers a small social-studies library, including women’s-rights and queer-themed books. Many of the offerings, some dating back as far as 1859, are now out of print; others are one of a kind. 
 
Just down the street at Painty McGee’s [#2] (2914 Lake Shore Blvd W), things are a little more modern — and just as progressive.
 
Owner Jahnine Farquharson, who identifies as queer, opened the high-end art supply store last summer after struggling to find quality products in the neighbourhood. An independent alternative to big-box art stores, Painty McGee’s offers top-of-the-line art supplies and holds workshops for both kids and adults. The shop also functions as a gallery, supporting local artists.
 
It’s a space where queer customers can feel safe, Farquharson says, because “there’s a lot of homophobia just from other business owners” in the area. 
 
Over at Fifth and Lake Shore, Big Guy’s Little Coffee Shop [#3] (2861 Lake Shore Blvd W) owner Steven Turner also supports the arts. When Turner isn’t serving coffee and snacks, he’s transforming Big Guy’s into a performance space, hosting poets, musicians and authors. In August, independent musician Bram Zeidenberg, one of the founders of the Lakeshore Villages’ LGBT Community, played a set outside the shop to promote queer-friendly initiatives among local business owners.
 
Turner says the simplicity of the cozy shop always draws a crowd. Big Guy’s sells fair-trade, organic coffees and sweets at cheap prices (just $2 for an Americano) without the “snobby attitude.” Rather, Big Guy’s wooden countertops and mismatched furniture make the shop feel a bit like home away from home. 
 
It’s just one way people in the Villages are fostering a new sense of community.
 
Big Guy’s, along with 21 other area businesses, joined together last year to create safe spaces along the Lake Shore strip; the businesses are indicated by rainbow stickers, courtesy of the Lakeshore Villages’ LGBT Community. 
 
It’s a sign that the area is slowly but surely transforming into an accepting neighbourhood, with businesses like Community Roots, Big Guy’s and Painty McGee’s working as frontrunners to create a much-needed positive change.
 
“This could be a lot more positive [shopping] experience,” Lochwin says. “We’re getting there.”