In the age of mega bookstores Toronto’s feminist bookshop — a hub of queer women’s culture in the city — is still going strong. The Toronto Women’s Bookstore (TWB), which has made its home on Harbord St since its inception, is gearing up to celebrate its 35th year in business.
“At one point there were 21 feminist bookstores in the country,” says TWB event coordinator Janet Romero, speculating that there are only three left in Canada today. “Since the big chain bookstores it’s a tough climate to survive in.”
In 1973 the nonprofit began with a single shelf of books for sale at the now-defunct Toronto Women’s Centre and a mission to make room for female authors and feminist politics. Although the bookstore still fits that bill its mandate has shifted to promote antioppression politics more broadly.
“The focus has shifted to authors in the indigenous communities and folks of colour,” says Romero. “Initially it was really about selling feminist work or work by women which translated into work primarily by white women. That changed within the last 15 years to reflect the rest of our communities. [Former managers] Anju [Gogia] and May [Lui] were key in making that happen, not only by buying books by people of colour but by hiring staff who were more representative of communities of colour.”
TWB has also made a point of highlighting queer women writers over the years.
“We try as much as we can to highlight and do events with local queer authors [like] Anna Camilleri, Farzana Doctor, Dionne Brand, Shani Mootoo. When we know local queer authors are doing something we’re right on it to try to be the bookstore associated with the launch.”
The store has also become a champion of other marginalized groups, including queer men of colour.
“Men who are working from a feminist standpoint, it’s important for us to make those connections as well,” says Romero, adding that TWB has hosted launches for locals including Rinaldo Walcott and Daniel Heath Justice.
But Romero says it’s the bookstore’s business providing educational texts that keeps it in the black.
“How we survive is that we carry course books, mostly for U of T, but some for York and Ryerson. That’s where the majority of our income comes from.”
Like other alternative bookshops TWB has had troubles getting queer titles across the border, like the 2002 title Cherry, which included a fisting scene. But Romero notes that it hasn’t happened in the four years she’s been with TWB.
In addition to offering the printed word TWB runs workshops and events and acts as a kind of de facto community centre.
“It’s more than a bookstore,” says Romero. “It’s a community space where people come to find out what’s going on in the community.”