12 min

A tale of two bookstores

How Toronto's Glad Day and Vancouver's Little Sister's survive decades of censorship

Do you know any classical history?” asks John Scythes, owner of Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop. “Have you ever heard of general Pyrrhus, a Roman general? This general Pyrrhus, P-Y-R-R-H-U-S, you can look him up on the Internet, he won a battle, a quite important battle, but he basically lost the war. Do you understand?” Scythes is talking about his recent battles with the Ontario Film Review Board but this pedagogical detour is not entirely unexpected. An advocate of alternative theories of AIDS, he’s known for his stern professorial air.

“So it’s a Pyrrhic victory?” I venture.

“Now that’s a smart young man; no use putting that in a journal for young fags because they won’t understand.”
No, probably not. For one thing, Pyrrhus wasn’t a Roman. He was a king of Epirus who fought the Romans. Still, as Scythes says, “it’s a good old phrase for exactly all this crap” he’s been through over the past several years.

Five years ago, Glad Day was charged with selling a gay porn video (Descent) that had not been reviewed by the Ontario Film Review Board (OFRB). The store appealed the ruling and four years later it won. Sort of. The judge whacked the very idea of prior restraint — the idea that any film, book or artwork might be yanked before it’s been judged in the courts of legal or public opinion — and at the time everyone from Xtra to The Globe And Mail proclaimed the end of censorship in Ontario. But the Liberal government basically ignored the spirit of the ruling and introduced new legislation eliminating most formal censorship but insisting films still be classified. The fees charged for classification are minimal but sufficient to deter a small business like Glad Day from stocking marginal product and the penalties for noncompliance are onerous. Anyone caught selling “unstickered” product is subject to huge fines.

What really burns Scythes is the injustice of it all. He spent six figures fighting the censor board and he’s no further ahead financially. Sales are down and it’s partly because he no longer carries much porn on video or DVD. Most if it was pulled during the court case, says former store manager Toshiya Kuwabara, and while it represented less than two percent of store inventory it accounted for almost 20 percent of sales. Now, even if he had more adult product, says Scythes, he couldn’t sell it. There are too many cheap, illegal copies.

* * *

This should be a banner time for gay bookstores. Certainly gay lit has never had a higher profile. Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty won the Man Booker Prize in 2004 and another gay book, Colm Tóibín’s The Master, made the short list. Here in Canada, openly gay authors like Shyam Selvadurai and Wayson Choy are widely reviewed and often acclaimed. Michael Cunningham’s The Hours won the 1999 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and morphed into a big budget Hollywood film starring Ed Harris and Meryl Streep.

So why are gay bookstores in such a bad state, unable to attend even to such basics as freedom of expression?

Glad Day has already thrown in the towel. Last January, Canada’s oldest known gay bookstore announced it was dropping the battle against censorship. It just couldn’t afford it any longer.

“At a political level of course we’re against it [censorship],” said Kuwabara, the store’s longtime manager, shortly before leaving for Japan last year, “but we just don’t have the money anymore. Frankly, we never had the money to start with.” The last court case cost $150,000, says Scythes, and he’s still paying for it.

At the moment, Vancouver’s Little Sister’s is still in the thick of the battle. After winning a mixed victory against Canada Customs (now called the Canada Border Services Agency or CBSA) at the Supreme Court Of Canada in 2000, it’s back in court fighting a case that hinges on Customs’ seizure of materials in 2001 and 2002. Despite the court’s clear injunction to consider artistic merit, Customs seized some books edited by noted leather/SM writer Larry Townsend and a couple of anthologies of gay adult comics illustrated by well-known artists.

But the store has made it perfectly clear that it needs money to continue. No money, no case.

The community has always been very supportive, says co-owner Jim Deva, but it doesn’t have the kind of money needed to back this kind of case. The government is playing hardball, bringing in all kinds of expensive expert witnesses.

The bookstore’s first trip to the Supreme Court took 10 years and cost close to $300,000. The newest one is expected to take another 10 years and cost $1 million.

So the current case hinges on access to government funding. Arguing that their battle against the CBSA is in the interest of all Canadians, the store has asked the courts for money to finance the case. It’s a relatively new idea. A BC native band won advance costs in 2003 but the Little Sister’s case represents the first time the precedent has been applied to a nonaboriginal case. A BC judge awarded the store advance costs in July 2004. A second judge reversed the decision less than a year later. Now it’s up to the Supreme Court Of Canada to decide. The high court will hear the case in April.

The early court date is considered propitious but a win would only put the store back where it started, in the Supreme Court Of British Columbia, where a win would almost certainly mean an appeal and a trip right back up the chain of command to the Supreme Court Of Canada.

Compared to most gay bookstores, both Glad Day and Little Sister’s are in good shape. At least they’re still standing. Many haven’t been as lucky. New York City’s A Different Light closed in 2001 (though it still has outlets in San Francisco and West Hollywood) and Montreal’s L’Androgyne closed, after almost 30 years of service, in 2002. The Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York, which calls itself the world’s oldest queer bookstore, came close to closing last year.

Like all small independents, queer bookstores have been battered by competition from big box stores and the Internet. In Canada, where Indigo Chapters enjoys a near monopoly on the retail book trade, the situation is particularly dire. Faced with a market dominated by one player, the major publishers have scant incentive to serve small retailers.

Even long-established players like Toronto’s This Ain’t The Rosedale Library, which carries a substantial selection of queer books, are having trouble getting reasonable credit and delivery. Co-owner Charlie Huisken says he can’t even get stock from some major publishers. If he doesn’t order enough copies, they won’t send him the title. “It’s not an easy business,” says Huisken. “Kudos to anybody — whether it’s Little Sister’s or Glad Day or [other Toronto independents like] A Different Booklist or Another Story — anybody who can have the courage to open the door in the morning.” After 26 years in business, Huisken and his partner are thinking of selling.

But at least he doesn’t have to deal with the CBSA. (The store did have some problems but those disappeared when the Liberals came to power in 1993 and local MP Bill Graham intervened on the store’s behalf. Huisken doesn’t know why his colleagues at Glad Day and Little Sister’s weren’t so lucky.)

Dedicated queer stores have two strikes against them. Not only are they fighting economic inequities, sometimes it seems as if the political power structure is also rigged against them.

Both Glad Day and Little Sister’s have been fighting censorship for decades and their victories have been several and significant (see chronology on page 23). But for every step forward there’s been one or two steps back. The CBSA allows depictions of anal sex, but keeps out fisting, bondage and watersports. Ontario refrains from formal censorship but charges classification fees that make it prohibitive to sell oddball queer erotica with a marginal market ($4.20 per minute of film or about $500 for a two-hour adult sex film — a drop in the bucket for a major distributor; a huge burden for a small retailer like Glad Day).

In short, both stores have reason to be discouraged. And neither one is getting rich. Little Sister’s hopes to post a profit this year but hasn’t seen one in several years. Scythes says his overall dollar sales are down 40 percent since 1999. “I do the same amount of paperwork for half the business.”

So why then does Deva sound almost ebullient while Scythes sounds more than a trifle discouraged?

* * *

Somehow location tells the tale. Little Sister’s started out as a second-floor walkup. Glad Day still is one. Founded in 1983 in Vancouver’s West End, Little Sister’s is now a glitzy streetfront operation. At 3,000 square feet, Little Sister’s is three times the size of Glad Day (although the latter claims more titles: 14,000 to Little Sister’s 6,000) and is already something of mini department store. It stocks everything from mags and DVDs to lube and sex toys.

Faced with increased competition at home and abroad (the Internet, the big boxes, a new Priape just down the street), Sister’s has simply moved into new markets. For the past three years, they’ve been working diligently on their website and it’s “doing extremely well,” says Deva. Soon, they hope to have almost everything in the store online. They also have their eye on the kink market, both gay and straight. “Most of the kink books that are sold in Canada come through our store now,” says Deva, “and we ship for Amazon and Amazon has a lot of kink books on its site.

“I call it beyond the missionary position,” says Deva. “I think that whole kink thing is the future.”

Little Sister’s is also a part-time publisher. In a joint venture with Arsenal Pulp Press, the store is reissuing a whole series of lost or out-of-print queer classics. Richard Amory’s Song Of The Loon, Jane Rule’s The Young In One Another’s Arms and two other books are already in print. More are expected.

In fact, from the raft of new initiatives, you’d never really know that Little Sister’s was a store under siege.

Glad Day, by contrast, hasn’t changed much in years. Founded in 1970 by the influential activist Jearld Moldenhauer, it still seems stuck in the defensive, us-versus-them mindset of that era. With its high cash counter and the panels of droopy plastic that, until very recently, used to hang in the doorway, it resembles nothing so much as a place with something to hide.

Moldenhauer was a founder of both Canada’s seminal gay lib organization, the University Of Toronto Homophile Association, and one of its most influential gay papers, The Body Politic (Xtra’s forerunner). Scythes, who bought Glad Day from Moldenhauer in the early 1990s, was an early member of the Body Politic collective and has been a controversial figure in the world of HIV/AIDS, arguing that HIV alone is not sufficient to cause AIDS and that untreated syphilis probably plays a key role in the development of the disease. Both men have led important battles against censorship. Both will probably make it into the history books. That said, neither one is exactly a Gap greeter and in the brave new world of slick retail, where shopping is supposed to be fun, that’s a problem. Glad Day is a great bookstore, but it’s not a fun bookstore and, for many readers, that makes it a duty shop.

The store has taken one step in the direction of user- friendliness and installed a bestseller display. Now, at least, you know what your fellow queers are reading. But the store still inhabits a second-floor walkup on Yonge St on the edge of Toronto’s gay ghetto and is reluctant to take the most obvious step in its own self-promotion and move to Church St. Many people wonder why Toronto’s preeminent gay bookstore is not on its most visible gay street. For both Kuwabara and Scythes, it comes down to money.

“If we never went to court,” says Kuwabara, “if we never spent a dollar fighting censorship, if we had complied with Canada Customs, we could have bought the property we stand on more than once. That I’m absolutely positive of.” The censorship battles of the past two decades have cost the store more than $1 million.

Scythes says he has surveyed his customers and many, especially lesbians and closeted gay men, prefer Yonge to Church. Besides, the low rent on Yonge is one of the few things keeping him going. At $1,600 ($2,300 with taxes) it’s far cheaper than the $12,000 to $14,000 he could expect to pay for any “decent space” on Church St (or even the $6,000 to $7,000, including various taxes, that This Ain’t The Rosedale Library pays for its Church St location).

But without a street-level location, Glad Day is out of sight, out of mind and it could clearly use a shot of visibility. As it is, the only time you hear about the store is when it’s in trouble.

* * *

Community support is a hard thing to measure and it won’t pay the bills, but it’s essential when fighting a monolithic antagonist like big government. How else do you keep going year after year? In an article published in Xtra last spring, Kuwabara complained about lack of community support. Compared to the furor that erupted over the seizure of the lesbian magazine Bad Attitude in 1992, he tells me later, there was virtually no outcry over Glad Day’s latest battle with the government. People today seem to take their rights for granted, says Kuwabara, and don’t realize they have to fight to keep them. Scythes says he has no problem with the larger queer community. If anyone should have given the store more support during its most recent court case, it was the people who benefited most — the film and video industry.

Reading between the lines, though, it’s clear Scythes is slightly baffled by his customers, if not his community. Speaking of the store’s atmosphere and problems, he remarks that some people blame him and his AIDS arguments for the store’s decline. But that’s a nonstarter, he says, because prior to Kuwabara’s departure, he (Scythes) was hardly ever on the cash. “I don’t know what people want,” says Scythes. “What do they want, their asses licked and kissed every time they walk into the store?”

Both Glad Day and Little Sister’s think of themselves as community bookstores but the sense of community gets stretched a little further in one place than the other. Glad Day is a bookstore. Little Sister’s is a gathering place.

“People will call here to find out what’s going on and what’s going to be the response,” says Janine Fuller, manager of Little Sister’s. “People who are writing press releases will write them from here or send them to here.” Deva was at the centre of the community’s response to the Aaron Webster murder, and one of the rallies for same-sex marriage started in the parking lot beside the store.

“The support we get is national, even international,” says Fuller, and it ranges from Toronto artists to an American foundation, the MacArthur, which sent them a cheque for $15,000, via the store’s coplaintiff, the BC Civil Liberties Association. That support isn’t accidental.

Whether you call it self-promotion or getting your dues or merely making your point, Little Sister’s and crew have been extraordinarily successful at putting themselves out there. For many in the national audience, they are the Canadian gay bookstore.

The store has been the subject of a widely seen documentary (Aerlyn Weissman’s Little Sister’s Versus Big Brother), a dramatic film (Better Than Chocolate) and a book (Restricted Entry, cowritten by Fuller), and the recipient of an award, in 1998, from the Canadian Library Association for promoting and defending intellectual freedom in Canada.

During the first Little Sister’s case, Fuller travelled the country talking to writers’ groups, literary festivals and bookseller assemblies. She has appeared on the TV show Front Page Challenge, received an honorary doctorate from Simon Fraser University and had her image included in the national portrait collection of the Canadian Lesbian And Gay Archives, the only bookseller to be so included.

And then there’s co-owner Jim Deva. Talking to Deva, it’s not hard to see why the bookstore is a success. He takes a serious delight in books and his optimism is contagious. He’s an evangelist for sexual exploration, an apostle for dialogue and a fierce opponent of injustice. And yet at the same time he hasn’t fallen into the trap of dehumanizing his enemies; he still has great faith in their capacity to listen, learn and change.

Plus, he’s just one heck of a good salesman. After listening to him talk about Song Of The Loon — a book whose title alone was enough to put me off — he had me ready to go out and buy it. And not just it, but every other book in the Little Sister’s series.

Many people think the whole idea of a stand-alone gay bookstore is anachronistic. In a New York Times article published last summer, novelist David Leavitt argued that changing social attitudes had made the very idea of a gay novel and gay bookstores obsolete. For the gay novel, he wrote, acceptance means oblivion. A book that didn’t fixate on the very idea of gayness couldn’t be gay. It’s an odd argument, I think, but the larger conclusion was clear: queer bookstores are anachronistic. Let’s lose the category altogether, he said.

The reaction in the trenches was instructive. “I found it a little insulting,” says Kuwabara. “I feel like, what are you doing, you’re just banging another nail in our coffin.”

Deva, on the other hand, acknowledges the pin prick of truth in Leavitt’s remarks and then goes right past them. It’s true that you can get well-known queer books like Now That You Know off the Internet, he says, but queer stores have advantages the behemoths know nothing of — chief among them, knowledge, specialization, experience and a keen sense of their community, its history and needs.

“There was a guy in today,” he told me last August, “and he was having problems with his sphincter. He was getting it too tight and he was really worried that he couldn’t take anything beyond something the size of a pencil.” Deva brought out the cardinal text on the subject, Jack Morin’s Anal Pleasure And Health, and went through it with the guy. You could find the same information elsewhere, says Deva, but not as easily. “The Chapters and the Amazons, I don’t think they have the knowledge to be doing that kind of thing.”

Anyone who wants to stay in business has to move beyond books and information, says Deva. “You have to keep digging and fighting and pushing and trying and failing and continuing and digitalizing. That will never end, if we’re going to keep our doors open.”