Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth for 25 years of courage, persistence, defiance and sheer determination to make sure our stories are told, shared and valued – and not labelled obscene.
“It kind of feels like my life is over,” Bruce quips, somewhat seriously, when asked how he feels about winning the community’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
He has settled his long frame onto a couch; his partner Jim sits next to him, quietly listening to Bruce’s answer. Though bright, funny and warm in private, Bruce has rarely spoken publicly since Little Sister’s opened its doors in April 1983, and especially since Canada Customs started seizing the gay bookstore’s shipments shortly thereafter.
“I sort of kept to the background,” he acknowledges, explaining that he always felt it best to have one person speak for the store and its battles against censorship; for consistency, he says.
The last 25 years have been “a blink,” he offers now. “And yet, it’s a long time.”
A long time made longer by years of Canada Customs seizures and the long, costly, draining legal battles to get a series of courts first to acknowledge that Customs targeted gay shipments, and then to reconsider the need to screen books at the border at all.
Sixteen years after border guards first started seizing Little Sister’s shipments, the Supreme Court of Canada finally ordered Customs to stop discriminating against the gay bookstore, but stopped short of striking down the guards’ authority to seize materials they consider obscene at the border.
And so the fight continues. Little Sister’s, led by its co-owners Jim and Bruce, has been at the forefront for two and a half decades.
In January, as preparations for the store’s silver anniversary gathered momentum, Jim announced, to the shock and dismay of many community members, that it was time to sell.
“I think it’s the right time for myself and my partner to step back and find somebody else to continue,” he told Xtra West. “It just feels from a very personal level that I’m ready for something completely different.”
The best part of the last 25 years, he says now from his spot on the couch, has been connecting with the community.
“It really is about the community,” Bruce agrees. “I’ve never thought of it as my store. It’s always been the community’s store.”
Back when Little Sister’s first opened, there were few resources readily available to gays and lesbians in Vancouver, Bruce points out. “People came to us for help and we were more than pleased to direct them to help. It was about empowering people.”
It’s always been about trying to be “a resource centre for the community,” Jim says. “So when you get the community saying, ‘thank you,’ it’s humbling. It’s truly humbling.”