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Michael Erickson and other community members bought the Glad Day Bookshop to stop it from closing. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
Michael Erickson and other community members bought the Glad Day Bookshop to stop it from closing. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

World’s oldest operating LGBT bookstore revitalized by community Add to ...

At a time when several of Toronto’s independent book stores have shut their doors, Glad Day Bookshop is still here, and still queer.

Kwame Stephens, an author, poet and long-time Glad Day customer, considers climbing the stairs to Canada’s first gay bookstore almost 20 years ago to be one of his first “coming-out” experiences. Things have changed in the queer community since then, he says, and Glad Day is no exception.

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“I think it’s more vibrant and more inclusive of different cultures,” he said of the 43-year-old store. “It’s more than a bookshop; it’s becoming a community centre.”

It’s not just indie bookstores that have been closing around the city – small businesses that were once bastions of the Church and Wellesley Village, the epicentre of Toronto’s queer culture, have also recently shut down. Yet Glad Day has been revitalized in the past year, thanks to a group of community members who pooled their resources to buy the shop and save it from closing its doors. Despite its location just outside the newly erected rainbow Village gates, Glad Day has evolved into “a cherished cultural space,” said Kristyn Wong-Tam, city councillor for the area. Under its new ownership, the store has become a multi-use gathering space with a collection of books that reflects today’s younger and more culturally diverse LGBT community.

Things were very different for Glad Day a year ago.

First opened by activist Jearld Moldenhauer in 1970, Glad Day was one of Toronto’s first gay community hubs and played a seminal role in the national fight against censorship of gay and lesbian materials. But in late 2011, after years of low sales and high rent, then owner John Scythes decided to sell.

“Out of almost a joke, I called to inquire about how much the store would be,” said current Glad Day CEO Michael Erickson. “The figure was reasonable, so I called a bunch of folks and asked if anyone would be interested in pitching in [to buy it].” Mr. Erickson, a high-school teacher and activist, assembled a group of 22 community members to purchase the store in March, 2012. Few of them had experience running a retail business.

Now Glad Day is celebrating its first anniversary under new ownership. The store marked the milestone last weekend with a cabaret performance and reading series by 20 prominent authors, including award-winning novelist Zoe Whitall and journalist Kamal Al-Solaylee. “More than 100 people came out to help us celebrate our anniversary,” said Mr. Erickson. “There was a real sense of solidarity, and a year later, it feels just as important that the store survives and thrives.”

As they move into year two, the Glad Day owners are looking to the future with plans to grow the brand online. Earlier this month, it completed a $15,000 online crowd-funding campaign to create and promote a new website, complete with online bookstore listing more than 2,000 LGBT titles. But expanding is not something that many independent booksellers are doing these days. According to a report released by non-profit industry group BookNet Canada, the value of the Canadian book market, including online, fell almost 11 per cent overall in the final quarter of 2012. A long list of Toronto’s iconic independent bookstores have fallen victim to the grim market – Pages, Toronto Women’s Bookstore, This Ain’t The Rosedale Library and Nicholas Hoare has all recently shut their doors.

Yet in its first year under new ownership, Glad Day saw a 20-per-cent rise in sales. While the store is far from turning a profit, the new owners’ business strategy to create an inclusive space that’s sex positive, promotes free speech, increases diversity and encourages creativity has sparked renewed interest in this Toronto institution, which now holds the title as the world’s oldest operating LGBT bookstore. In the past month, U of T’s Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies, the World Karma Project and novelist Duncan Armstrong have hosted events there.

The changes at Glad Day can be seen as a reflection of the transformation happening outside its doors in the Church and Wellesley neighbourhood. “If we moved to Church Street, and had to pay the rent there, we’d be closed in two months,” Mr. Erickson said. As mega chains, such as Loblaws, move into the area, some of the older, independent queer-owned businesses –including Zelda’s restaurant and Flatiron’s gift shop – are moving out or closing amid fears that the neighbourhood is losing its identity. Glad Day shareholder Michael Went says that doesn’t mean the village is dying, as some suggest, but evolving to include a diverse community of people who identify as LGBT. Glad Day’s new owners recognized the shift and knew that for the store to survive, it had to adapt.

“As a community, we’re changing in terms of age, gender, sexual identity, race, religion and accessibility. Some places in the village have changed along with that to become more inclusive and some have not. Glad Day is choosing to embrace diversity into its new DNA.”

More than five per cent of Canadians now identify as LGBT, according to a 2012 poll conducted by the research firm Forum Research. To reflect that growing diversity, the Glad Day collective have expanded what was once a collection targeted predominantly to gay men. Now the tiny store has also crammed its shelves with a variety of materials targeted toward women, transgendered people, youth and queer people of colour, many of which aren’t available online through mainstream retailers. The change is paying off, Mr. Erickson said. “Our transgender content has the highest rate of sales because you can’t find those books anywhere else.”

While the store’s newly renovated third-floor event space hardly generates enough revenue to fund the business (rentals start at $20 per hour), it has drawn a new generation of LGBT artists, authors and activists to the store. Since the space opened, it has hosted groups such as the Asian Community AIDS Services and Out on Bay Street, as well as readings by LGBT authors such as Sky Gilbert, S. Bear Bergman and Farzana Doctor.

“I didn’t know that [the store] existed until last year and as a queer woman of colour, you think I would have,” said Catharine Hernandez, artistic director of the Sulong Theatre Company, another frequent user of the space. “Now almost every week I’m there performing or involved in some kind of queer cabaret or salon event.”

Though the Glad Day team is now focused on their online campaign, Despite their successful online campaign, the new website won’t render the bricks-and-mortar store irrelevant. “We are providing a space where you don’t have to drink or spend money to build connections with community,” said Mr. Erickson. “I think that’s pretty special.”

Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of the activist who first opened the store. He is Jearld Moldenhauer and not Jerry Moldenhaue as published. This version has been updated.

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