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Could sex toys save Glad Day?

Are butt plugs to gay bookstores what candles are to Chapters?

Glad Day, the Toronto bookshop that fought historic censorship battles on behalf of queer sexual expression, is facing serious trouble.

In late May, manager Sholem Krishtalka put out a call for help to the community, saying in a Facebook message, “We’ve been fighting the good fight for 40 years. And right now, it doesn’t look like we’ll make it to 41. We desperately need your help to stay alive.”

The bookstore has seen its sales tank in recent months. In some ways, it’s a perfect storm: the economic downturn drives discount shoppers to discount online megabookstores. Meanwhile, several queer specialty film distributors have disappeared, the porn industry has flatlined, and even mainstream gay and lesbian magazines are turning to the web.

“There’s all of those things and a steady decline in customer traffic, which is basically the most important thing,” Krishtalka says.

Krishtalka mentions that Glad Day has sent out community appeals in the past. “But every other time it’s been related to very specific contexts, such as our legal battles and raising funds to cover our legal costs. This is different, in that it’s simply a question of the store’s actual income, and the feasibility of keeping it open given the state of our sales.”

Glad Day is not alone in its struggles. Queer bookstores have been closing up shop in record numbers in recent years — from Montreal’s L’Androgyne, which died in 2002, to the Oscar Wilde Bookshop in New York City, which ceded its position as North America’s oldest to Glad Day when it shut down in 2009.

Stores do seem to stay in business, however, if they sell lube and butt plugs in addition to books.

Janine Fuller, manager of Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium in Vancouver, says, “We’ve had clothing, cards, Pride stuff — really the store is quite large. We’ve tried to evolve. And from the day the store opened its doors, it has sold sex toys.”

Maggie Haywood, owner of Venus Envy in Halifax, is in the same camp. “I really doubt we would be able to stay in business if we relied solely on book sales. We often say that selling vibrators lets us carry the books we want.”

Carlyle Jansen, owner of Toronto’s Good For Her, agrees. In addition to stock diversity, online stores and the economy, Jansen speculates that Glad Day’s somewhat hidden second-floor Yonge St location is part of their problem, but she also calls for greater community support.

“You know, you gotta give kudos to Glad Day for fighting censorship. They really championed our cause and what we stand for,” she says. “I think the community rallied around those issues, but memory is short. When we lose these places, people will be sad, but when’s the last time you bought a book there?”

After Stonewall Books in Ottawa is one of the few book-only shops still around.

“It’s certainly an extremely marginal business,” says owner David Rimmer. “I do in a week what I used to do in a day. It’s been a steady decline for eight or nine years now. I’m not drawing a salary or anything. It’s month to month in terms of survival.”

He says he’d love to sell sex toys, but he can’t. “I’m surrounded,” he says, with several sex-toy stores close to his shop.

So is the solution for Glad Day to start pimping Pride flags and fuzzy handcuffs?

Krishtalka has certainly thought about it. “Every time we see a dip in our sales curve we wonder that same question. Is it something in our stock? We used to sell lube and music CDs and all this other stuff, and for us as a store, we’ve found that that kind of thing doesn’t really help.”

Much like After Stonewall, he says that carrying sex toys would put them in direct competition with nearby Priape, which he feels has a name and established reputation as a sex gear specialist. “So our mission has been to try and have people see the same thing about us with literature.”

Their current strategy is to work to a short-term business plan — “We’re only ordering material we can sell in two months” — and to tout the store’s impressive literary diversity.

“We have stuff for pretty much everyone. The West End art fags, the queer theory-heads, the Village queens who want to put things on their coffee table, and what have you. We’ve always prided ourselves on that. We really try to get the best of all of those worlds, knowing that those worlds are the worlds we do best.”

Glad Day is encouraging customers to buy gift certificates for friends, make financial donations, and donate vintage porn and other books. But really, as Krishtalka simply says, “Buying books is always the best.”

Find Glad Day online at gladdaybookshop.com or in person at 598 Yonge St.