2 min

After 53 years, Duthie Books is closing its doors

Vancouver independent bookstore was an ally in Little Sister's legal battle with Canada Customs

Members of Vancouver’s queer arts community and civil liberties groups are lamenting the loss of a long-time ally as Duthie Books announced the closing of its last store at the end of February.

The company announced Jan 19 it would close its Fourth Ave store after 53 years in the book trade.

“We’re very sad,” owner Celia Duthie told Xtra West, Jan 20. “I think the city is sad.”

Duthies was instrumental in the decades-long battle Little Sister’s bookstore fought with Canada Customs (now Canada Border Services Agency), which began detaining their book shipments in the 1980s on the grounds that their gay and lesbian imports were obscene.

After several such seizures, Little Sister’s and the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA) filed a statement of claim in BC Supreme Court challenging Canada Customs’ powers to detain and ban books as unconstitutional under the freedom of expression section of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

On the eve of the trial, in August 1994, Duthies ordered some of the same titles that had been stopped and banned en route to Little Sister’s.

They went through Customs without a hitch.

“The media was quick to point out Celia could bring books in when we couldn’t,” Little Sister’s manager Janine Fuller recalls. Duthie’s testimony in the case was vital and was quoted by the judge in his ruling, Fuller adds.

Duthie says she did it to help prove Little Sister’s was “being sexually profiled and the store was being targeted by Customs.”

Lawyer Joe Arvay represented Little Sister’s in the case.

He calls Duthie’s impact on the case “huge.”

“Celia Duthie helped us play a good trick on Customs,” Arvay says.

He says Duthie made sure the names of the books were on the outsides of the order boxes.

“We wanted to make sure Customs saw what Duthies was ordering,” Arvay says. “It was one of those moments in a court case that had quite an impact on a judge.”

In 1996, the BC Supreme Court ruled that Canada Customs discriminated against Little Sister’s and enforced the law with “arbitrariness, inconsistency and just plain foolishness.” But it upheld the border agency’s power to seize and detain material.

That decision was appealed all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada, which ordered the agency to stop targeting the gay bookstore but did not strike down Customs’ authority to seize materials deemed obscene at the border. However, Customs agents would now have to prove that the materials they seize are obscene.

Fuller says she’s sad to see Duthies, “an important voice in championing voices and independent writers,” on the long list of independent booksellers that are no longer around.

“Only superstores are deciding what is read (now),” Fuller notes, adding that the rise of big-box bookstores is a threat to independent voices that stores such as Duthies nurtured.

Filmmaker Aerlyn Weissman, who made the documentary Little Sister’s vs Big Brother about the gay bookstore’s legal fight with Canada Customs, doubts the big stores would do what Duthies did in that case.

“What a loss,” Weissman says of the store’s impending closure. “What a beacon of integrity.”

“Can you imagine these big stores taking a moral stand on censorship?” Weissman asks.

A Jan 19 release from Duthies says independent booksellers have been under pressure by the big-box bookstores for several years and cannot compete.

“We cannot compete on price anymore,” the company said.

“For 53 years, Duthies has provided a good book service to the city, championed BC and Canadian books, encouraged the public to read local writers and helped to create a knowledgeable reading public,” it further stated.

“The book itself is in the throes of a technological transformation and book readers are undergoing a major demographic shift.”