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Vancouver’s iconic gay bookstore sold

‘It’s emotional,’ says Little Sister's owner Bruce Smyth

Vancouver’s iconic gay bookstore Little Sister’s has been sold.

Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth opened the store in 1983, when they had trouble finding gay books for sale anywhere else.

Within two years, Canada Customs agents were seizing their shipments, leaving the store’s shelves increasingly bare and jeopardizing its very ability to survive as a business. Undeterred, the couple fought back and very publicly took Canada Customs to court.

The court battles that ensued spanned nearly two decades, as Little Sister’s championed gay voices, challenged censorship, fought for our stories and sexual freedom and became a key community gathering space in Vancouver.

But now it’s time to sell, Smyth tells Daily Xtra.

With Deva’s unexpected death in 2014 (he accidentally fell from some stairs while gardening), and Smyth’s own health struggles, the time has come to sell the couple’s condo, Little Sister’s, and the store’s loose spinoff, Sweet Adult Boutique, which they opened at Broadway and Hemlock in 2011, geared primarily towards a straight clientele.

“It’s emotional,” Smyth says.

But with his weak eyesight, it doesn’t make sense for him to hang onto Little Sister’s, he says.

“I’ve always maintained that if you own a bookstore, you should know how to run it inside and out, backwards and forwards,” Smyth says. “It’s not right that I run it. I can’t see.”

Smyth says he has sold Little Sister’s to its current manager, Don Wilson, effective Sept 1, 2016.

Bruce Smyth spoke July 28, 2016, at the opening of the new Jim Deva Plaza, named for his late partner and located just half a block from Little Sister’s. (Angelina Cantada/Daily Xtra)

“It will change, of course,” Smyth says. “It’s retail. It has to change.”

Wilson, who is gay and has been managing Little Sister’s for two years, says he wants to keep the store’s community-centre feel.

“It’s been an established business for 33 years,” he tells Daily Xtra.

His sister and her husband will also be involved, he says.

“We want to still keep it community-oriented,” Wilson says. “It’s not going to change a lot.”

He echoes Smyth in saying books won’t be the store’s main focus. Other merchandise has been doing better in recent years, he says.

“As far competing with Chapters and Indigo, it’s impossible,” he adds.

Wilson says it will be strange running the store without Deva or Smyth.

This isn’t the first time the store, named after the couple’s cat, Little Sister, has been up for sale.

Smyth and Deva first tried to sell Little Sister’s in 2008, on the store’s 25th anniversary, but good offers weren’t forthcoming, Smyth says.

So the couple held onto the bookstore and five years ago opened Sweet, which, Smyth says, has now been sold to the owners of Male & Female Harmony Store, which has several outlets in the Lower Mainland and more than 100 in China.

Bruce Smyth (left to right), Little Sister’s manager Janine Fuller, and Jim Deva pose in the store in 1996. (Julie Stines/Little Sister’s)

 

Mark Macdonald, who worked at Little Sister’s for years as the store’s book buyer, calls news of the store’s sale emotional.

“It’s a really significant place in much the same way that Stonewall and The Castro were in queer culture,” he tells Daily Xtra.

Smyth remembers opening the bookstore at its first location on Thurlow Street, with little more than a concept of what they hoped to create.

“We had no idea,” he says. “God, we were naïve.”

“We never made money,” he adds. “That wasn’t our goal.”

When Canada Customs started seizing their shipments, other retailers warned the couple not to run afoul of Customs and to just to let it go.

But Deva and Smyth couldn’t just let it go.

They couldn’t afford to run a business without stock, and, more profoundly, they couldn’t stomach the state’s censorship of gay and lesbian books.

 

Empty shelves were a common sight in Little Sister’s in the mid-to-late 1980s. (Little Sister’s archives)

They had a decision to make.

On Dec 10, 1986, after Customs seized the bulk of the store’s critical Christmas inventory, Deva and Smyth publicly fought back. Smyth put out a press release: “Canada Customs Declares War on Little Sister’s.”

Smyth now says the press release was a birthday present for Deva.

More than a decade after Little Sister’s first filed suit against Canada Customs, the Supreme Court of Canada handed down a partial victory in 2000. The court upheld the government’s power to censor ideas it deemed obscene but told border officials to stop unduly targeting gay and lesbian books.

“I feel incredibly lucky to have been part of that particular cultural interchange,” Macdonald says. “People talked about books, they talked about the court case in reverential tones.”

He says the store became a gathering place for a diverse group of customers to meet with authors and exchange ideas.

“It was a really great cultural time,” he says.

“It’s so surreal to say I worked in a place where people threw bombs,” Macdonald adds, referring to the three bombs that targeted the bookstore after it challenged Canada Customs.

“I was there for the crest of a wave of gay and lesbian literature and gay studies, which was really wonderful,” Macdonald adds.

But, he says, with Deva’s passing, it was inevitable the store enter a new phase.

 

For more on the legacy of Jim Deva read Daily Xtra’s feature “We’re Not Going to Live in Shame.”  (David Ellingsen/Daily Xtra)

 

Aerlyn Weissman, who documented Little Sister’s struggle versus Canada Customs in a 2002 film, says Little Sister’s has gone the way of many of the world’s queer bookstores, as LGBT stories are now available from more mainstream sources.

“We don’t seem to need these kinds of spaces anymore,” she says.

“I mourn the classic Little Sister’s bookstore, which was a shining star for us,” Weissman says. “Wherever you came from, you went there first.”

“The bookstore we know is gone,” she says. “For so many of us, it is a time . . . in our lives in which we were engaged politically.

“The literature of our community is remarkable and we had a place where connoisseurs of it could talk.”

“I’m sure some people are emotional about it,” Weissman says. “It hits a place in your heart, and your memories, that’s very poignant.”

Smyth says part of the sale proceeds will go to establishing a Jim Deva Scholarship Fund with help from the Vancouver Foundation. “Our money was made in the gay community. It will stay in the gay community,” he says.

Smyth says the new scholarship will be in addition to the Jim Deva Memorial Scholarship Fund already run through the LOUD Foundation.

He says the fund will be the focus of his work after moving on from the store. “That, and Mexico, of course,” he says with a laugh.