Tuesday, 13 September 2016

In praise of independent bookstores, authors, artists, community builders, advocates and activists

By Neil Armstrong

It’s Friday, Sept. 2 and I’m sitting just inside the roll-up window of what used to be Byzantium, a martini bar and supper club, now ‘Bar 499’ – the new space of Glad Day Bookshop, 499 Church St.

Glad Day, dubbed the “world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore,” is moving from its location at 598A Yonge St. to the new site soon.

The opened window allows anyone passing by to stop and check out what’s going, ask a question if they want to, and conversations are punctuated by the sounds of buses and cars driving on Church St.

On Friday, the bookstore, established in 1970, hosted an activity with David Soomarie, a Trinidadian LGBTI and HIV activist visiting Toronto from Aug. 29 to Sept. 5, to talk about the fight for LGBTI rights in that country.

Organized by Maurice Tomlinson, senior policy analyst at Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, the event brings together staff of the network, board members and staff of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP), community members and allies.

Soomarie is the coordinator of Community Action Resource (CARe), an organization which he said was founded by gay men in a time of crisis in Trinidad.

“The world can be cruel if you’re gay and HIV positive,” he said, noting that when he was diagnosed as being HIV positive, he reconciled that he was “cursed by God for his sin – for being who he was.”

He didn’t do anything about his health situation for many years until he suffered a seizure and ended up in hospital.

Six years ago he made the decision to become the public face of HIV in his homeland.

Soomarie said when he came out there was a gay community, a culture, a Pride Week in Trinidad, and he could find out about who he was.

He lamented that Pride Week has disappeared into a Pride Month of parties.

“It was about us and it was us telling our stories. There is no roadmap that tells you how to negotiate your gayness.”

He said he is mainly concerned about community and community building, “the work that happens in the trenches, not for those who have the gift of words and the gift of language.” He also believes in building support networks in that community work.

Soomarie noted that there has been no leadership on HIV in Trinidad and that this is 2016 and a clinic that sees over 8000 people has a two-hour wait time to get a blood test done. This situation requires a drastic change.

He said HIV is not on the national agenda as it should be since 2010 when the National AIDS Coordinating Committee (NACC) was dismantled.

This is his first visit to Toronto and he spoke of the importance of self-care, to be away from his work for a while “in a space that allows him to be who he is.”

In August, the bookstore in its new space hosted “Drinks and Discussion” with Kenita Placide, a human rights, HIV and LGBT activist from St. Lucia, who is also the executive director of United and Strong, the managing director of the Eastern Caribbean Alliance for Diversity and Equality (ECADE) and Caribbean advisor for OutRight Action International.

Doug Kerr, who organized that event, is having another. This time on Sept. 14, 6-9 p.m. with Ugandan filmmaker, Kamoga Hassan, and Montreal-based filmmaker, Karin Hazé, both in Toronto for the Toronto International Film Festival.

Hassan is a human rights activist and founder of the new Queer Kampala International Film Festival.

In 2014, he produced "Outed: The Painful Reality", a feature about the dangers of homophobic media reporting on LGBTQ issues in Uganda.

The film won the Barbra Gittings International Human Rights Award 2015 and the Best International Feature Film Award at the Baltimore International Black Film Festival. He is currently in pre-production for his latest documentary, "Where is Home" on Ugandan gay asylum.

Hazé is an award-winning French-Jamaican filmmaker who has been producing, directing and programming for over 20 years.

She serves as the creative director of Cinema Feast, a boutique production company, which specializes in international collaborations advancing humanitarian causes.

She is currently working on her latest project, "75 Shots," a mentorship/film project addressing the issue of homophobia and finding solutions in countries where homosexuality is a criminal offense and punishable by law.

Being in 499 Church Street on Sept. 2 had me reflecting on the fact that a few doors down from there once stood This Ain’t The Rosedale Library, another independent bookstore that was there for many years.

Charles Huisken opened the store in 1979 and Daniel Bazuin became a co-owner in 1981.

It moved to Kensington Market in 2008 and subsequently closed in 2010.
Independent bookstores are not just places for commerce; they are spaces for enlightening discussion, the cut and thrust of debates, and community building.

I thought of Burke’s Books and Picture Framing, owned by Rita and Sam Burke, that used to be at 873 St. Clair Ave. W., and which also closed. [Hadn’t seen them in while until recently, I think, at author Austin Clarke’s funeral.]

Toronto Women’s Bookstore, which was founded in the 1970s and was the largest nonprofit feminist bookstore in Canada, closed in November 2012.

It was run and staffed primarily by women of colour, Wikipedia notes, and sold books written by women to promote feminist and anti-oppression politics.

I remember attending many events there where I met some dynamic Canadian and international authors.

Nile Valley Books, founded by Nohsakhre Ibrahim in 1999, has a location at 1921 Gerrard Street East in the Upper Beach area, and Accents Bookstore, which was founded by York University professors, Michelle Johnson and Abubacar Fofana Leon in 2012, has a studio space in Artscape Wychwood Barns.

Accents describes itself as a cultural space and notes that the studio space is “not a retail store, books are for display only.” Purchases have to be done online or by telephone.

Itah Sadu, co-owner of A Different Booklist, at a Jamaican Patty Day celebration at the bookstore.

Local authors showcasing their books at Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton, Ontario.

A panel of writers at Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton.

Miguel San Vincente, co-owner of A Different Booklist, in foreground at a reception held at the store for a documentary which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) in 2015.
Most of my interactions have been with A Different Booklist at 746 Bathurst Street in Toronto, and Knowledge Bookstore at 177 Queen Street W. in Brampton.
David Soomarie speaking at an event at Bar 499 which will become the new home of Glad Day Bookshop.

The whole block has been sold by David Mirvish so everyone, including A Different Booklist, has until December in the present location.

The bookstore, once owned by academic Wesley Crichlow, has been around for just over twenty years.

Owners, Itah Sadu and Miguel San Vicente (who took it over from Crichlow about 17 years ago), have plans for the cultural centre to continue to have a presence in that area, even as condos are built and the look of the area – which has a long Black History – changes.

Knowledge Bookstore, an Afrocentric hub in Brampton, is owned by Sean and Carolette Liburd and has been in existence for 19 years.

I have attended many book launches, cultural events and celebrations at these bookstores, and even went on trips with the owners.

A few of us accompanied Itah to the Harlem Book Fair in New York several years ago, and I flew with Sean and Carolette to Jamaica for the Calabash International Literary Festival in Treasure Beach, St. Elizabeth many years ago.

These bookstores can be seen out and about in the community at various events – Afrofest, The Word on the Street [The 27th festival is on Sunday, Sept. 25, 11am-6pm.], some festivals at the Harbourfont Centre, and sometimes at conferences and seminars.

I met many authors, artists, activists, advocates and community builders at independent bookstores.

A day after being at 499 Church Street for the event with David Soomarie, I was chatting with Itah about a project that A Different Booklist is working on, and on that same day I visited Knowledge Bookstore to talk with Carolette about some authors and books.

While sitting at the new space of Glad Day Bookshop on Friday, I also thought of Gwen and Lenny Johnston who founded Third World Books and Crafts in November 1968 on Walton St. in Toronto.

The bookstore moved a few times before settling on Bathurst Street where it stood for many years as an important and critical cultural hub/landmark in the development of Toronto’s black community.

I didn’t have the pleasure of meeting Gwen or Lenny but I’ve heard a lot about them through people like Itah, Norman Otis Richmond, and Althea Prince, who dedicated one of her books to them.

It’s therefore a must for me to attend “Revolutionary Love” at CaribbeanTales International Film Festival on Sept. 16, 6 p.m. at the Royal Cinema to see “50 Years of Black Activism” – presented by the Akua Benjamin Legacy Project and Ryerson University – which features Gwen and Lenny.

The project’s website has a wonderful write-up on these pioneers.

The five short films also feature activists: Charles Roach, Dudley Laws, Marlene Green and Rosie Douglas.

This is my little way of acknowledging the work of these independent bookstores, authors, artists, activists, advocates and community builders.

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