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Indie bookseller Sheila Koffman helped people see themselves reflected on her shelves

Sheila Koffman.

Sheila Koffman: Bookseller. Social activist. Traveller. Friend. Born March 25, 1945; in Ottawa; died Sept. 15, 2017, in Toronto, of cancer; aged 72.

“Let your passion define your legacy” would have been a fitting motto for bookseller Sheila Koffman, founder of the independent Another Story Bookshop in Toronto.

Born and raised in Ottawa, Sheila’s family lived in a small apartment above her maternal grandparents’ grocery store and was surrounded by many relatives. At 11, her family moved to the suburbs but she always looked back on her early childhood with a sense of longing at the loss of proximity to her extended family.

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Sheila excelled at languages and studied Russian in high school. She graduated from Carleton University (Sociology), then travelled in Europe for a year. She was in Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring (1968) and spoke of the impact this political event had on her. In the 1970s, she travelled to China when it was opening up and spent time on a farming commune.

Eventually, she adopted Toronto as her home, where she worked as a federal civil servant monitoring community-based small businesses in northern Ontario.

While Sheila loved books, she never wanted to own a business. As it turned out, she was good at it. Scholastic sales representative Janet Murie recalls, “Sheila could hand pick a book no one else in the country was selling and, before you knew it, she would sell 200 copies.”

She first worked out of a tiny basement space in Toronto’s east end and, over the next 30 years, Another Story Bookshop moved three times, settling in Toronto’s west end neighbourhood of Roncesvalles.

The bookstore became an activist hub, hosting hundreds of readings and launches, but her priority was to get books to teachers and librarians so that children could see themselves represented. For her efforts, she received the Janice Handford Award from the Ontario Book Publishers Organization for advancing independent Canadian publishing. “Who else would have a window display of books about children with two dads or two moms way before LGBTQ made it into our lexicon?” remembers friend and former staffer, Sherri Manko.

Sheila was an anti-poverty advocate and co-chaired the board at Parkdale Activity-Recreation Centre for nine years. Sheila always said PARC was her favourite place away from home and work.

You were always welcome at Sheila’s home, the running joke was that she kept the hardware store in business making keys for guests. “Sheila’s house was a hub for strategy sessions and community meetings,” said former Toronto MP Peggy Nash. “She never hesitated to speak with people from all economic stripes.“

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Sheila was diagnosed with aggressive ovarian cancer in December, 2015. After surgery and during treatment, she continued to run her bookstore with lots of loving help from staff, family and friends. She accepted her prognosis and became noted for her signature blue and pink wigs.

At the celebration of her life, over 200 people paraded behind a New Orleans-style brass band from Another Story to PARC for an evening of music and stories. Sheila’s voice may be silenced, but her bookstore lives on.

Arlene Stinchcombe is Sheila’s friend. Joel Koffman is her brother.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide.

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