The Toronto Women’s Bookstore (TWB) was always political.
It began in 1973 as some shelves at the Woman’s Place. After sharing space In Kensington, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore moved to its first stand-alone home at 85 Harbord St, early in 1975.
By 1983, it had already become a beloved institution in Toronto’s feminist community. During this same period, the pro-choice struggle was a central issue within feminist activism. Throughout, the bookstore supported the Morgentaler Clinic, which was located directly above the bookstore. Our customers were often hassled by anti-abortion zealots who demonstrated in front of the clinic and in front of the bookstore. One evening, one of them tried to throw a firebomb into the clinic, missed and destroyed the Toronto Women’s Bookstore instead.
Photo of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore staff on the steps of the Ontario Legislature at Queen’s Park during the August 1983 rally following an attempt to firebomb the Morgentaler Clinic located in the same building.
The tremendous support from the feminist movement for TWB was immediate and permitted us to move to our permanent home at 73 Harbord Street, where it remained until 2012.
Button showing the phoenix of the bookstore rising from the ashes after the 1983 firebombing of the Morgentaler abortion clinic
May Lui was a customer service and administration casual worker for a year, then became co-manager with Anjula Gogia in 1997. This was a time of revitalization for TWB. 1998 was the 25th anniversary of the bookstore. We planned new programs and community connections to celebrate this new stage. In the fall of 1998 famed US author Alice Walker was on tour with her new book By the Light of My Father’s Smile, and TWB organized the launch in Toronto. Tickets to the event were sold out, and the event itself was a huge success, the biggest event in TWB’s history.
We started a monthly book club open to everyone at low cost. We invited instructors to pitch four-week classes on different topics related to women, books, and social issues. Based on some of the content, and the preferences of the instructors, some courses were open only to women of colour.
TWB had found that with limited spaces (10-12 spots per course) sometimes a course based on issues relating to women of colour became over-booked with white participants. Deciding to limit registration to 50% or 100% women of colour was new to our community. We frequently had to explain to customers why such spaces were important. All staff were trained to respond to such inquiries, so that it wasn’t only one of the women of colour managers that spoke to the issue.
These conversations, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, sometimes resulted in a loss of customers. They were a small echo of tensions from over a decade before, when the first staff of colour at TWB had their own struggles within the predominantly white feminist bookselling and publishing communities of the time. Some of the issues included the lack of space given to women writers of colour. Relatedly, Huda Hassan, who will be hosting the 50th anniversary celebration of TWB, recently wrote an article for the CBC about what happened when a now-prominent group of Black and women of colour writers, suggested they edit a women of colour issue of Fireweed in the early 1980s.
As much as possible, events were free. When ticket costs had to be added to offset expenses, they were on a sliding scale, and nobody was turned away if they couldn’t pay. This principle was incorporated into how events were organized. All events not on-site were in accessible venues. While the TWB’s main floor was accessible, the basement and washrooms were not.
Even though we were a store, those who visited weren’t required to spend money on books or any other items. If they wanted to, they could come to TWB and gently peruse/read the books and magazines, check out the local feminist poetry zines, and see what free events were happening in Toronto via the posters and flyers, photocopied handbills and glossy postcards that different community groups dropped off.
In the pre-internet days, there was a literal hanging file folder in the front entryway for people looking for roommates, housing, shared rides to the then-popular Michigan Women’s Music Festival, and items for sale. All of this was a part of the free services offered to the community.
In the mid 1990s, while we did have email and internet, promotion remained old school. We paid graphic designers to produce gorgeous posters and promotion for different TWB events. And we still went out into the streets of different downtown neighbourhoods to poster and distribute flyers.
Our button collection became quite famous. May was the button buyer for a time and hugely enjoyed looking through the newest button catalogues, finding funny and sometimes political buttons for customers to read, laugh about, and possibly buy.
The landscape of independent bookselling had changed a great deal by 2012. Both online book sales and large bookstore chains had taken over much of the Canadian bookselling space. Despite great efforts by the community, and the owner who took over the store in 2010, TWB had to close its doors in 2012.
People always say that TWB was more than just a bookstore, and it was. Toronto, and Canada, lost a vibrant, political, feminist, queer, and anti-racist community hub when TWB had to close its doors. Many of us still miss it, eleven years later.
by May Lui and Judy Rebick
May Lui is a consultant and educator. She is the former manager and events coordinator at Toronto Women’s Bookstore and still has many unread books in piles all over.
Judy Rebick is a writer and activist who was a good friend of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.
This year, 2023, TWB would have turned fifty years old. We’re celebrating and commemorating this wonderful bookstore on Tuesday October 10, 2023, at 6:30pm at Lula Lounge, 1585 Dundas Street West in Toronto.
The event is free. While all advanced tickets are sold out, there is a waiting list.
A full list of performers, writers, and speakers is viewable on the event listing on Facebook, which will also post updates regarding rush seats the night of the event. If you aren’t on Facebook and would like updates about the event, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
To livestream the event, click on this YouTube link on Tuesday, October 10th at 6:30pm ET.
The event will also be recorded, so if you aren’t able to be there in person or watch it live, the recording will be hosted on the Toronto Women’s Bookstore’s page on the Rise Up website.