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5 min

Little Sister’s bookstore for sale

Staff fought Canada Customs in court

Mere months away from celebrating its 25th anniversary, Little Sister’s Book and Art Emporium, described by many as “more than just a bookstore,” is up for sale.

“I really have never seriously contemplated it before but I think the timing is right for us,” reveals Jim Deva, who opened the bookstore with partner Bruce Smyth in its original Thurlow St location on Apr 15, 1983. The idea of selling Little Sister’s gradually came to Deva and Smyth as they were planning the program for the store’s silver jubilee celebrations in May.

“That involves going back and going through a lot of photos and going through a lot of stuff, and in the process of talking about this 25-year journey we’ve been on, I think it’s the right time for myself and my partner to step back and find somebody else to continue,” explains Deva, who says he “slept on it for 30 days” before making a final decision. “It just feels from a very personal level that I’m ready for something different.”

Smyth’s health has also been a major factor in the couple’s decision to look for new ownership.

“I really liked the partnership concept of it and that hasn’t really been working due to [Bruce’s] health,” says Deva. “I’m doing it more on my own and I really don’t care for it. I’m finding myself stressing over non-stressing things like payroll, rent, taxes — all of those things.”

The challenge now, says Deva, is finding someone who’s going to “proceed and continue with what we’re doing.” There’s no one on a short list just yet, he notes.

“I just want somebody that will carry on, not with everything that we’re doing, but certainly [who can] appeal to a broad section of our community.

“In other words, I don’t want any business that just focuses on men. I don’t want somebody that just wants to focus on women. I still believe that it should be universal to our community and try to meet the needs of, not all of them, but the majority of people,” Deva elaborates.

Apart from that, he says, the only other condition of sale is keeping Janine Fuller on as manager — a position she’s held for 12 of the 18 years she’s been at the store.

“Janine wants to continue with what she’s doing. The staff wants to continue, and I think that’s fabulous. It’s an asset to anybody who wants to sort of pick up the reins and continue,” he asserts. “We’re going to have to be able to just give it up and pass it over and say, ‘Do the best you can,'” he adds.

“I wouldn’t micromanage it,” Deva assures. “It would be just helping as much as I can in the transition, and then getting the hell out of the way.”

News that Deva and Smyth are relinquishing ownership of Little Sister’s is being met with shock and sadness, but also with a sense of profound gratitude for the leadership role they’ve assumed on issues that resonate with the queer community. Issues like spearheading the response to Aaron Webster’s murder in 2001; community policing; housing issues in the West End; and a community resource and gathering space.

But the store and its owners and manager are probably best known for their decades-long battle with Canada Customs (now Canada Border Services Agency) which began seizing their shipments in 1984 on the grounds that their gay and lesbian imports were obscene.

With its shelves sitting half-empty and shipments arriving in a tattered state, Little Sister’s took Customs to court for the first time in 1987 for unfairly targeting the community’s material.

Thirteen years later, the Supreme Court of Canada, in what was seen as a partial victory for the bookstore, ordered Customs to stop discriminating against Little Sister’s.

There was a catch, however.

The court maintained that Customs still had overall power to screen for obscene materials at the border as long as border guards evaluated everything equally.

Little Sister’s took Customs back to court in 2001, after border guards again seized material destined for the store. The offending books included several volumes of a gay comic called the Meatmen, which sometimes features SM imagery.

That case hit a wall last Jan after the Supreme Court of Canada denied the bookstore’s bid for advance government funding to challenge Customs’ continuing seizures.

“Only Little Sister’s had the guts and the tenacity and the staying power to take on Canada Customs, and indeed, they made history, I think, by taking them all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada twice,” says Little Sister’s attorney Joe Arvay. “Although they weren’t successful the very last time, they still fought the good fight, not only for freedom of expression in this country, but for access to justice in the country.”

Arvay says he’s both saddened and shocked by the news that Little Sister’s is going to change hands but respects Deva’s and Smyth’s decision.

“I consider Little Sister’s to be much more than bookstore. As everybody knows, it’s the nerve centre of the gay and lesbian community in this city,” says Arvay.

“Little Sister’s can probably take a great deal of credit for the increased awareness and sensitivity and tolerance and respect that the gay and lesbian community has in the city,” he contends, adding that he hopes whoever the new owners are will “carry on with the store.”

“A point I always like to make, whether in court or out, [is that] the fight wasn’t just about sexual freedom for gay people. The fight was about sexual sanity, and sanity about the sexual imaginations and lives of all people,” says John Dixon of the BC Civil Liberties Association (BCCLA), which supported Little Sister’s in its book-seizure struggles with Customs.

“The kind of personal, emotional investment it requires is incredible,” Dixon emphasizes. “They put up with an enormous amount of crap from government agencies, and specifically from Revenue Canada and Customs, and a lot of people would have thought better of the whole thing and found another way to make a living.

“Jim and Bruce and Janine and the store have been on point with the struggle for years and years and years, and we all owe them — straight as well as gay — an enormous debt,” says Dixon.

Murray Bilida, who was front and centre in organizing a gay march to protest Aaron Webster’s murder in 2001, says even before he moved to BC, he knew about Little Sister’s and its importance to the queer community.

“What they managed to [do] was fill in the gaps where programs didn’t exist — basically, doing the role of government,” Bilida suggests. He remembers the “many, many years” when Little Sister’s phone number was also a crisis line.

“Young people from across western Canada, when they were sitting in their isolation on a farm in Alberta or in the north, that was the number that people very often turned to when they had nowhere else to turn,” Bilida recalls. “One cannot underestimate the importance of the store, of the team to the progression of the gay and lesbian community in western Canada.”

“It’s really about having a love and a passion for all the diversity of what this store is all about, and all of the people that it brings in,” says Fuller. “To be in a place where people come and gather and focus and regain strength and go out and take on the struggles that are the daily realities of our world.”

Time will tell, says Fuller when asked about the potential ramifications of Deva’s and Smyth’s impending departure.

For his part, Deva dismisses any notion that leaving Little Sister’s “means a whole lot.”

“It’s never been just Bruce and I,” Deva asserts. “It’s been this team of people. It’s been Janine, it’s been the staff, it’s been great lawyers, it’s been all of these people.

“You need someone with a good business mind, able to analyze details, and all of those business things you need to do so you have an idea where you’re going. Leadership that is concise and respectful. But that’s not unique to Bruce and myself. If we make the right decision, hand it over to the right people, it should be a positive move. It really should.”