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Judy Sarick at a book signing with author Judy Blume (Sarick is standing with her hand on hip, facing the camera, and Blume is seated).

As an 18-year-old philosophy and English undergraduate at University of Toronto, Judy Graner (later Sarick) inadvertently helped fan the flames of campus feminism after being denied entry to a men-only debate at Hart House in 1957.

She and five other female students asked for special permission to watch U.S. senator (and future president) John F. Kennedy debate the brilliant Stephen Lewis (then a second-year student). When their request was denied, indignant co-eds staged a debate-night protest, brandishing placards that read "Unfair" and "Equal Rights for Women." Their chants were heard through the hall's open windows.

Determined not to miss the debate, Ms. Graner, a reporter for U of T's The Varsity, sneaked in dressed in men's clothing – only to be ejected when someone noticed her red nail polish. The protest made the city newspapers and sparked a campus debate about women's rights.

"We were not knowingly starting a movement," recalls protester Linda Silver Dranoff, a family lawyer, writer and civil rights activist. "We were simply protesting the unfairness of it."

There was nothing accidental about her next cause – children's literature. Judy Sarick, who died unexpectedly on Feb. 15 during surgery for a brain aneurysm, became one of its most vocal advocates and built a lucrative business selling quality kids' books.

After earning a library science degree, Ms. Sarick spent a dozen years as a librarian for the city and the Toronto Board of Education. In 1974, she left her job to join her husband, Hy Sarick, in the launch of The Children's Bookstore, a small shop on Avenue Road, near Bloor Street, a short walk from the city's busy children's library. Their mission was to provide quality books to young readers, and their chief ally was a new generation of Canadian publishers that included Kids Can Press, Owlkids Books and Annick – companies owned mainly by women.

Over the next 26 years, the Saricks' store became the largest and arguably the best children's bookstore in North America. Its final iteration was in the tony neighbourhood of Forest Hill in a former YMCA building, where it boasted 5,000 titles on the main floor of its 9,000-square-foot building. The basement housed a bustling educational book distribution service; the second floor was Canada's largest children's music outlet.

The store became a destination for out-of-towners and a performance venue for some of North America's most famous children's authors and musicians. Maurice Sendak, Robert Munsch, Judy Blume, Dennis Lee and Raffi were among the celebrities who made standing-room-only appearances.

Gordon Korman, a literary phenom whose first novel was published when he was 14, gave one of his first readings at The Children's Bookstore's second location, a block from the razzle dazzle of Honest Ed's discount emporium. Now the author of more than 85 kids' books, he recalls: "Judy had a bit of PT Barnum in her … and all the major children's authors I met in the U.S. wanted to visit her store."

Ms. Sarick's business savvy might have been genetic. Her Jewish grandparents emigrated from Russia at the turn of the 20th century – her maternal grandfather, Harry Kamarner, co-owned Merchant's Clothing, a menswear store on Queen Street West, not far from where Joseph Graner, her paternal grandfather, had a storefront offering banking, real estate, travel and legal services.

Judy Graner was born Sept. 14, 1939, to lawyer Harry Graner and his wife, Anne (née Kamarner).

She first met Hyman Sarick, the son of a wealthy real-estate developer, at a wedding. Sizing him up across a table, she asked if he was a doctor or a lawyer. "An intellectual," he answered. The couple married in December, 1960. She was 20; he was 25.

By 1971, they had two daughters, Tema and Johanna. By 1974, they had opened their first bookstore. In their spare time, they dabbled in folk music – helping expand the Mariposa in the Schools program that brought musicians into local schools.

In 1990, Mr. Sarick turned their musical interest into The Children's Group, a record producer that sold millions of albums (including 1990's platinum Mr. Beethoven Lives Upstairs), but Ms. Sarick's first priority was always reading. She was a fierce judge of quality and her store only stocked books that she considered worthwhile. There were no Disney titles or Goosebumps fiction, although she did have a weakness for Beverly Cleary's popular Ramona novels.

In 1982, Ms. Sarick, a self-confessed book snob, told CBC radio host Peter Gzowski, "There's a very limited time that children have to read and that's why I'm so keen to get good books. … I hate when they waste their time on garbage."

"The store had her personality – both light-hearted and serious minded," Ms. Silver Dranoff recalls. "There was an underlying meaning to what she was trying to accomplish but it was done with a light touch and kids liked it there."

In the early days, there were few Canadian books that measured up to Ms. Sarick's standards, but that situation changed thanks to the new crop of publishers. Having a book on the store shelves was a badge of honour.

Illustrator and author Barbara Reid, famous now for her Plasticine artwork, wandered the shelves in awe early in her career. "It was very educational to go into the store," Ms. Reid recalls. "I'd say, 'Holy Crap, look at what the rest of the world's doing.'"

Former Kids Can Press partner Valerie Hussey remembers that Ms. Sarick knew how to say no, and wouldn't stock a book or host a reading as a favour. "She was a librarian who became a savvy business owner. … Judy was very direct about what worked and what didn't."

When Margaret Laurence, the grande dame of Canadian literature, drew only five guests to a reading of her children's book The Olden Days Coat, she was never invited back. There was no reason to court failure when other authors could fill the aisles.

Publishers didn't always have an easy time with the occasionally cantankerous bookseller. Patsy Aldana, founder of Groundwood Books, whose backlist sells in countries around the world, met Ms. Sarick early on when she was scornful of Canadian books. "Over time, she came to be a big supporter, but that didn't keep her from disliking certain books and authors and making it known to me. She could be grouchy and unreasonable. … She wasn't a saint."

Ms. Sarick had a good eye for retail talent and many of her staff went into publishing.

Social worker Maria Martella visited the store in 1982, fresh from Sault Ste. Marie, burned out and looking for "an easy job." Called in for an interview the next day, she found Ms. Sarick in her office, eating soup.

"It was all very relaxed. … We just talked casually. Finally, Judy said, 'You'll be perfect here. We need a social worker.'" Ms. Martella, now owner of educational book wholesaler Tinlids, spent the next 18 years at The Children's Bookstore, eventually becoming its manager, overseeing 32 employees and annual sales approaching $3-million.

Ms. Sarick's advocacy for children's books got broader exposure when she joined the feisty children's book panel on CBC's Morningside. Producer Hal Wake, now artistic director of Vancouver Writers Fest, says, "I loved her free-ranging approach. I never knew what she would come up with but it was always something that took the breath away."

The panel gave her and fellow panelists (including writer and U of T classmate Michele Landsberg) a national audience. Their recommendations increased demand for selected books across the country and CBC staff mailed out hundreds of "recommended lists" to listeners after each show.

The Saricks closed their iconic bookstore in 2000, selling the educational wholesale operation that had accounted for 80 per cent of sales to Pegasus, a wholesaler controlled by Indigo's Heather Reisman. (Ms. Reisman told The Globe and Mail, "The Children's Bookstore was as good as it gets. All of us currently committed to kids' reading owe her a great debt of gratitude.")

Ms. Sarick remained friends with many in the book industry, but she had other interests in retirement and disappeared from the book-publishing scene. She co-founded a "mature" women's dance troupe, sang in a women's choir, knitted and travelled extensively with her husband.

"She was good at everything except being tactful," elder daughter Tema Sarick says. "She did great things for the world and for herself … but she worked her ass off and she was tired.'"

Her final request was that her casket be carried by six female pallbearers. Ms. Sarick, who was 76, leaves her husband, two daughters and five grandchildren.

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