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Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium in Vancouver changing hands

Bruce Smyth, one of the original co-owners of the Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium, stands for a photograph at the store on Davie Street, in Vancouver, B.C., on Saturday September 3, 2016. The bookstore - an LGBTQ institution - has been sold, 33 years after first opening its doors.

DARRYL DYCK/THE GLOBE AND MAIL

More than three decades after first opening its doors, the Little Sister's Book & Art Emporium – an LGBTQ institution in the heart of Vancouver's gay community – is changing hands.

While new owner Don Wilson, a store manager, isn't expected to make any big changes, outgoing co-owner Bruce Smyth admits the transition has been rife with emotion.

"There are good days and there are bad days," Mr. Smyth said. He sighs. "It's my time to move on, for sure."

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Mr. Smyth opened Little Sister's with his partner, Jim Deva, in April, 1983, after being frustrated at how difficult it was to find gay and lesbian books. The store was initially a modest space on the second floor of a residential house on Thurlow Street; in 1996, it relocated to the larger Davie Street location where it remains today.

The store's opening coincided with the first wave of an HIV/AIDS epidemic that swept Vancouver in the 1980s and quickly became a safe space where people could find information, and have discussions, about what was happening.

Shortly after opening, it made headlines during a protracted legal battle with the Canada Border Services Agency, which routinely seized gay and lesbian literature, calling it "obscene materials." In 2000, the Supreme Court of Canada sided with Little Sister's, saying the federal agency had carried out a campaign of harassment against the bookstore.

The store brims with warm memories for Mr. Smyth, largely of the sense of family among staff – "kind of magic," he said. But the past couple of years have brought tremendous challenges: His partner, Mr. Deva, died in an accident in 2014 and long-time manager Janine Fuller's health is deteriorating, requiring her to leave the store last year. The time felt right to pack it up, he said.

"It was a bad year or two," Mr. Smyth said. "I decided that I can't do it any more myself, because I'm legally blind. It was time to move on and let someone else do it, grab the reins and see what they can do."

Asked if he thinks the store will change much, Mr. Smyth said he hopes so. People today purchase largely from retailers such as Amazon and Chapters, he said; the store needs to adapt to survive. And, gay and lesbian literature is much easier to find now than when he and his partner looked for it in the early 1980s.

"I hope it stays relevant to the gay community, but then again, the gay community has changed so much over the years, and especially over the last 10 years or so," he said. "We finally got our wish, almost: We are part of the mainstream community. We're part of the Canadian mix."

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After Mr. Deva's death, Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson praised the gay-rights activist as a "kind heart who spoke up for the marginalized." Hedy Fry, the Liberal member of Parliament for Vancouver Centre, hailed her constituent for his "unflagging belief that the goal of equality was worth the fight," while Libby Davies, the New Democratic MP for Vancouver East, told the House of Commons that Mr. Deva "held the door for many to come out."

Employee Ken Boesem commended Mr. Smyth's devotion to the fight for gay rights and said his retirement is well-earned.

"Thirty-plus years is a long time to give to the community, so I think it's fair for Bruce to take a break," he said with a laugh.

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