Amy Gottlieb: To start with, I want to thank you so much for agreeing to participate in our oral history project on Toronto feminist activists and activist organizations. We want to begin the interview on the Toronto Women’s Bookstore by asking you to briefly introduce yourself.
So, could you begin by telling us your name and the name, if it was different, that you used in the ‘70s to the ‘90s? Could you tell us the country of your birth and the year? If you were born outside of Canada, when did you come to Canada and how did you get here, and your first languages spoken?
Anjula Gogia: Great. OK, so, my name is Anjula Gogia. I am 49 years old. I was born in 1971 in Montreal. My parents came from Delhi to Montreal in 1966. I have two kids. I have a male partner but I consider myself queer. And, what else about me? My first language spoken actually was Hindi. My parents spoke Hindi with me until I was about four, until I went to nursery school.
And they were middle class Hindu Punjabis living in Delhi, so they both had English educations and had impeccable English. In fact, my mother has a master’s degree in English literature. So, when they decided to make the switch to English with me, it was because they felt I would feel better speaking English with us at home. So, even though my first language was Hindi, English is my main mode of communication. And with my parents, up until this day we just speak English with each other unless we want to not have people understand what we’re saying and speak behind the back, in which case we speak Hindi with each other. [Laughs]
I’ve been in Toronto for over 25 years. I love this city and it’s been my home for a long time.
Amy: Great. Thank you for the biographical information. It’s very helpful. I’d like to start by asking you to tell us the story of your time at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. When did you start working there and in what capacity? Who else was on staff during that time?
Anjula: Sure. Well I guess I’ll start my story back when I was I guess in my late teens and when I was coming to Toronto to visit. And I’ve always been an avid book reader; always, always, always. It’s what I’ve always loved to do. And the Toronto Women’s Bookstore was always a destination for me when I was 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. So, it was always the place that, you know, called to me. So, I knew about it for a long time. I loved it very much.
And when I moved to Toronto to go to the University of Toronto, I was probably 21. I had been living in Vancouver for two years, so I moved to Toronto when I was 21. And at that point I got very involved in a community festival called Desh Pardesh which was a South Asian queer left organization. And one of the things I did as a volunteer was take on their book displays. So, because of my love of books, I had no knowledge of the book industry but I had decided to take on the running of their book table at the festival. And I did that for two years and really enjoyed it.
And when I graduated university – it was 1995 – my roommate at the time was Silvana Bazet. And she had just started dating someone named Esther Vise, and Esther was the manager at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, So, I got to know her a little bit and she told me that there was a relief job opening up at the Women’s Bookstore. This was back in 1995. And relief staff at the time was just an occasional staff, when they were short staffed, someone to, you know, go and do a book table or work in the store for a couple of hours. So, I immediately jumped at that opportunity because what could be better than working at the Women’s Bookstore.
So, I got hired as relief staff in 1995. I worked for a year, you know, off and on, very occasionally. And then I went travelling. I went away travelling in Asia for several months. And when I came back there was a job opening for a full-time job. I believe the job at the time was, you know, being a bookseller, working the cash, selling books, restocking, that kind of thing. So, I applied for it and I got it, and I started working full time in 1996.
At the time, Esther Vise was the manager. It was a very small-staff team. There was myself and two other staff – Mariss and Abby were their names – so there were four of us working full time. Shortly thereafter we hired somebody, May Lui, to help with our books, like help with our bookkeeping, to sell books but also to help with returns and help with entering invoices.
And then what happened was, a number of things happened after 1996. So, the first year was very stable. Esther was our manager. She taught me everything I knew about selling books at that time within a feminist antiracist context. She really mentored me and, you know, by watching her sell is how I really learned how to sell, and watching how she managed the staff as well.
In 1997 her brother got diagnosed with cancer, her younger brother, which was of course devastating for her and her family, her brother Jonathan. He was in his early 20s at the time. And as he got the diagnosis and started to move into different medical treatments, she started to take time off to spend more time with him. And as she took time off, I stepped up my role.
So, I started to jump in and do some emergency backlist buying, frontlist buying, taking more of a view to, you know, what it needs to manage the store. And I would say between 1997 and 1998 I became sort of a de facto assistant manager by default, because of what was happening with her brother and her need to pull back and my ability and desire to pull in. Her brother passed away, very sadly, and she left the store in 1998. And at that time, May Lui and I were appointed co-managers of the bookstore.
Now the bookstore, for the vast majority of its existence, has been a non-profit corporation, which means that there was a staff team and a board of directors. And at various times during its history, from ’73 until 2010, during that large period of time the store was a non-profit. During that time, the store has gone through many incarnations of having a collective or a management structure, and a board of directors that was heavily involved and a board of directors that was less involved. And I would say, when I came in in 1996 really as a full-time staff, it was very much a management structure with a board of directors there to support but not really involved in any way in the day to day. The day to day was really left to the managers and to the staff.
So, when I came in as a co-manager with May in 1998, there was a board of directors but they were very hands-off. And May and I essentially ran the store like owners would. All the responsibility, the vast majority of the authority at the time, all the workload, the primary decision making was made by us. So, we took the role and the workload and the responsibility that an owner would without being owners in name.
And this was something that a lot of people were very confused about by the bookstore. Also of course, people kept thinking it was a collective. During my whole time there people assumed we were a collective. And we would always say it’s actually not a collective. It used to be a collective then it wasn’t a collective, then it was a collective then it wasn’t a collective. But at no time during my time there was it a collective. It was a management structure, which I can go into later in detail. It had its various challenges within that structure base as well.
So, from 1998 until 2006 I was the co-manager but really very heavily involved in every aspect of the store, of financial decision making and oversight, frontlist buying, events organization. I organized events. We oversaw event organizers, you know, hiring and firing of staff, marketing, promotion, all of that, returns, all of that we had to oversee.
I will also say that, going into the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, one thing that’s very important for me to note is that my mother started her own small business when I was 14 and living in Ottawa. She started her own food business. And I spent every summer and every Saturday working, and every holiday working in that food business from the time I was 14 until the time I left Ottawa when I was 20.
So, I had a lot of very formative years in learning how to run a business by watching my mother build this business from the ground up. She started it from our kitchen and then she ended up opening a factory when I was 15 and built this massive Indian food empire that continues to this day. So, I learned so much about running a business through my mother. I also learned what it meant to work very, very hard to grow your business. I learned about customer service through her. I learned about supply chains, about quality, about so many things.
So, when I think about what’s my background with running a business, I actually have no formal background in feminist bookselling. I did a degree in international politics and South Asian studies. I used to work for Amnesty International before that so I have a background in human rights. I have zero background in feminist bookselling. But what I brought to my work at the bookstore was a love of books and I really think an understanding of what it means to run a business by watching my own mother do it. And that fed into so much of how I ran the Women’s Bookstore every day.
Amy: Thank you. I want us to sort of step back to some of that earlier history. Despite the fact that you weren’t there, I know you have a familiarity with it, particularly in the late ‘80s. But you know, my understanding is that the bookstore was founded in ’73, 1973, and a few years later it moved to Harbord Street –
Amy: – where it sat for, you know, many years until it closed in 2012.
Anjula: So …
Anjula: You can go on. I’m going to clarify what happened.
Amy: OK. At first it was a collective. But then the two women who provided leadership to the bookstore, my sense is that Patti Kirk and Marie Prins decided that a non-profit business model was best and began to run it that way. They both left in ’86 after some difficult struggles at the bookstore, and a collective structure was formed at that point. The collective members at that time were Sharon Fernandez, Marilyn McCallum, Beth McAuley, Wendy Wine and Jude Johnston, as I understand.
And this is where I’m sort of leading to this. In 1989, citing the need for more books by and about women of colour on the bookstore shelves, Sharon Fernandez, who was the only woman of colour on the collective at that point, created a women of colour bibliography. And the bookstore started to focus on books by black, indigenous and women of colour.
And I’m wanting to, from the point of view of when you got involved in the bookstore and your sense of that history, if you could comment on the importance of that bibliography. On the context of the late ‘80s for a lot of the kinds of things that were going on within feminist organizations about taking an intentional antiracist approach to running the bookstore. You know, within that context of a lot of that ferment and feminist organizations being challenged around recognizing their racist practices and taking an antiracist position and approach to their organizations. So, if you could comment on that.
Anjula: Yeah, definitely. Now again, because I only started working at the store really in ‘95/’96, this is all things that I’ve gleaned from other people. But a few important things to note is that the bookstore did move to Harbord Street in 1976, but they moved to 85 Harbord Street. And it was a very – it’s very important to note that they were on the ground floor of the Morgentaler Clinic, and the Morgentaler Clinic was above.
And there are stories that I have from other women who worked there during that time of it being a very intense time in the city of Toronto around abortion rights and the struggles for pro choice. And the bookstore was at the centre of it because it literally was at the bottom floor of the Morgentaler Clinic. And I know that Esther tells me stories of Women’s Bookstore staff escorting women up to the second floor, right. So, we were always very much at the centre of so much that was happening politically.
And in 1985 there was a bomb, a firebomb that was intended for the Morgentaler Clinic, but it actually went through the windows of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore and started a fire. And the bookstore burned down, which was of course a massive, massive event in the Women’s Bookstore history and in the feminist history of Toronto, right.
Amy: Yeah, thank you for talking about that because that is a really important piece of that history, yeah.
Anjula: It’s an incredibly important piece. And so, the bookstore burned down and many of the books were burned. The space was not useable. And the feminist community really rallied to meet a fundraiser to move the bookstore to 73 Harbord, which is where it was moved to after the time. And Michelle Landsberg was very key in that. She really helped to garner support and there were gift certificates that were purchased and there was a massive support campaign. So, with the community support it then relocated to 73 Harbord, which is then where it stood until 2010.
Now, during ’73 I would say until 1993, yes, there were major discussions around how the bookstore would be run, as a collective versus a non-profit model. And you’re right that my understanding is that Marie Prins and Patti Kirk did leave very much in part because of the decision-making structures, right, that people wanted it as a collective and they wanted it as a management structure. And there were tensions with that. And then they left and they started Parentbooks which just opened up down the street at Harbord and Bathurst. And they ran that, I mean Patti still runs it up until this day. So, those tensions very much led to them leaving the organization and having other people come in.
In terms of the staff, Sharon Fernandez was very, very key for the women of colour bibliography, but Mona Oikawa is another name. She worked there for many – I don’t know how long, but she was very key, played a very key role along with Sharon in building up the book base by women of colour and black and indigenous women. So that’s Mona, and I’m sure you know how to spell her name, it’s O-I-K-A-W-A, and she’s currently at York University. So, Mona Oikawa and Sharon were the two central figures.
Now you have to remember the mid to late ‘80s was really an intense time in the women’s movement, right? You had IWD committees that were being … The whole issue around race and the women’s movement was like full front and centre in the women’s movement. That happened at the IWD Committee, but it also happened in the presses.
So, I don’t need to tell you what happened with the Women’s Press, Amy, given that Maureen is your partner. But, the Women’s Press of course, which was the feminist press in Canada, had questions about books that they were publishing and issues around cultural appropriation, right. Which were very, very divisive within the Women’s Press and these were major issues that were being discussed.
And now you could probably tell me the year, Amy, that Women’s Press split in two and Second Story Press founded.
Anjula: 1988. And that was Margie Wolfe that started Second Story Press. And it still exists until this day. And issues around cultural appropriation were the reason why it split into two. So, you put the Women’s Bookstore within the context of what’s happening with the women’s movement, right? Like, you’ve got the fact that it was firebombed in the mid ‘80s, issues around pro choice and the struggle around abortion rights, the issues around race, racism, cultural appropriation, all which affected the Women’s Bookstore very, very deeply.
So, Sharon Fernandez and Mona putting together a women of colour bibliography. And now, for some of the folks who might be, you know, reading or watching this webcast, this was the days before the Internet, right. You had no idea what books were being published by women of colour because you couldn’t just Google your list by, you know, Bookriot or Electric Literature. None of that existed. So, how would you know about books by women of colour and black women and indigenous women, right, unless there was a central thing.
And so, thus a bibliography was born, which became not only a very practical tool that we could ship to different places across Canada. It became a very symbolic tool for women, black women, indigenous women, to see that their stories were there. But it became a political statement as well to say the Women’s Bookstore stands by issues around race and racism. That these things are prevalent and are part of the women’s movement, and we need to foreground and profile and highlight the work by black women and indigenous women and women of colour, right.
You have to remember that – and we’re talking even now, 2020 – there’s not a lot of women of colour and black women and indigenous booksellers in Canada and in North America. There’s still less than 5% maybe. You know I can count on maybe two hands how many there are in a leadership role across the country. So, imagine how many there were back in the late ‘80s; very, very few, right. There was a very vibrant feminist bookstore network of feminist bookstores across North America. There was a newsletter that came out, there were conferences. They were all white. They were all white women, right?
So, the fact that Sharon Fernandez and Mona Oikawa were doing the work every day, and experiencing racism from the other staff as well as from the community, you know I really salute them for really paving the way for having other women of colour and black women and indigenous women, you know, find a home at the Women’s Bookstore. Their work was absolutely key in paving the ground for that.
Amy: Yeah. It sounds like the bibliography, the women of colour bibliography played a really important role in that trajectory of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore becoming an intersectional queer-positive, anti-racist, feminist bookstore.
Amy: And it became that and a hub within the community. I’m wondering about were there similar kinds of initiatives or moments in terms of lesbian writers? Because, for sure, I think that that was also a time when, if you were a lesbian writer, it would have been difficult to find a place to publish your work outside of some of the feminist presses across Canada and the United States.
Anjula: Yes. I mean there was never a bibliography as such. And I think my understanding of the history of the Women’s Bookstore was that lesbian writing was always there, right. And books by lesbian writers were always very much a part of what we did and what we sold. There were always, there were many lesbians that were involved as staff, right, throughout the years.
Amy: When I think back to the collectives that I was mentioning, the majority of those women would identify
Amy: – as lesbians.
Anjula: Yeah, exactly, exactly.
Amy: You might call them queer now but.
Anjula: Yeah, at the time it was lesbians. But there wasn’t a particular thing that you could latch onto, right, like the bibliography or a particular moment. I think it was just like so much embedded in terms of who the bookstore was, right?
Amy: That’s important. I just wanted to get at –
Anjula: Yes, definitely.
Anjula: First of all, it was stocking all the books that we could. Actually, before that I would say it was the sections. When I got to the bookstore – and I don’t know when this started, probably it started during Sharon’s time. But the way that the, you know, if you walked into the bookstore you would see various sections on the wall, right? Like how do you find books? You organize it, right? We had a section on spirituality, on cookbooks, on violence against women, on lesbian writing, on fiction, on poetry, on theory.
Amy: – what that difference might have been. So, you know it feels like there was a really intimate relationship between – that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore saw between itself as a bookseller and writers, and specifically women of colour who were writers. What’s kinds of supports – I think you’ve mentioned a little bit but I want to get a little bit more focused. What kinds of support were offered to writers of colour, women of colour?
And we had sections for South Asian women, Middle Eastern women, indigenous women, black women, Jewish women. And those sections were incredibly powerful because people could find the books that reflected their own communities there, right, in a way that you couldn’t find in any other bookstore I would say probably across North America. Those sections were very, very intentional. So, if you were a Jewish woman and wanted to find fiction and non-fiction, you would go to that section. If you were a South Asian woman, that’s where you would go, and so on and so on.
So, that was a very big support that we played, to say that, you know, your voice is here and it matters, and we’re going to create a section that has your name on it. And I know, God, I can’t … There were so many people that would come and make a beeline. I made a beeline for that section when I was a customer. In my late teens and early 20s, that’s where I would go to find books by other South Asian woman writers, because I didn’t know where to find them elsewhere, right. So those sections were very, very, very intentional and very important, and I’d say very empowering, right?
Now, what do you do when you’ve got a mixed-race black woman and indigenous woman, right? You order two copies and you cross shelve and you put one in each. Of course these weren’t perfect. Where would you put lesbian writers, right, lesbian South Asian? Would you put them in the lesbian section or in the South Asian section? You try and put them in both and you have all these very detailed notes on your computer system, see X, Y, Z. But really, they were very important, right? And there was a mix of fiction and non-fiction in both of those sections. So, that was one way we supported.
The second thing was ordering as many books as possible to put in those sections. So ordering, like just having the books there is key, right? As many books as possible, is key, to put in those sections. The third thing is recommending them. And the job of any good bookseller is to recommend and hand sell books. That’s what we live for. That’s what we love to do is to put books in people’s hands. Again, now you can go on a computer and get 75 different recommendations in five seconds about what to read. But before that time, people relied on us to tell them what was good, what was new, right? So, we would hand sell them. We would hand sell those books.
And the other thing that we did was that we produced events. For me, I love – I’m an events organizer. And what the bookstore did was not only sell books but make community. So you hear these words making community; what the hell does making community mean? For me it’s meant bringing people together, right? Creating spaces where people can come together and gather. So we did that with events and book launches. And we did that for events and book launches by and about black, indigenous, women of colour, lesbian women, where people could come in and, you know, they might not know anyone else there but there’s a certain writer who’s reading their book. And you can meet other people and talk to other people. And there’s food, right?
The other thing that we did that was really important is by just creating a welcoming environment. So, when black women came into the store, we wanted them to feel like gold. We didn’t want them to have the same kind of shit that they get put upon by other retail stores, right? We wanted them to feel loved and respected and welcome.
And how do you do that? It’s by greeting your customers when they come in. It’s by taking extra time, asking them how they’re doing. Oh, you’ve got a five-year-old. Did they like the book that we recommended last month? Like, that’s what my mother taught me about being a small business owner is you get to know the people that you’re working with.
And you develop relationships, right? And how do you make people feel welcome is that you have to be warm to them. You have to make them feel like this is their home. And I didn’t care if they bought a book. If they wanted to come and they couldn’t afford a book but wanted to sit on our bench and read for two hours, as long as you don’t crack the spine so I can’t sell it, read it, right? Because this is where you’ll see yourself reflected. So, all those things I think contributed to the work that we did with black, indigenous and other people of colour.
Amy: I’m wondering how, sorry, I’m wondering how you – how the Toronto Women’s Bookstore saw its relationship to publishers, particularly to feminist publishers, of which at that point there were many. There are way fewer today but …
Anjula: Yeah. And you know they were our go-to, right, for the books. Like Sister Vision, Women’s Press, Second Story, Sumac Press, they were our publishers, at the time. South End Press in the States, you know, Fernwood Books, not just the feminist presses but the feminist and small presses that were publishing books by women and women of colour. They were the books that we wanted to profile the most, sell the most, launch the most. They were our books. They were the mirror side of what we were doing. So, I’d say we had a very good relationship.
And one thing that, you know, I had to bring into my work at the Women’s Bookstore was put aside political differences. You know I came from having several years working at Desh Pardesh and TCAR [Toronto Coalition Against Racism] and working in different activist communities. And you know, I had my own fair share of having friends who were exes or exes of exes, and they’d come into the store and they would be uncomfortable and they had this political argument two years ago.
And even with some of the presses that you knew there was tension there, but one of the things I realized working at the Women’s Bookstore is that you had to be astute and be welcoming to everybody. So yeah, I may have a political argument with you two years ago, but right now you’re my customer and I’ve got to show you respect and sell you that book. And that’s what I tried to do with the presses as well, right?
So you know, as much as Second Story came out of an issue around cultural appropriation at the Women’s Press, we sold their books. They published books. And Margie Wolfe, I have a tremendous amount of respect for her as a business person. It’s one of the few that are still standing, right? And they publish great books. So you know, I had to really say, we need to go out there and work with different people despite and across differences as well.
Amy: Yeah, yeah. Well that sort of follows neatly or precedes neatly the next thing I was wanting to talk about, which is how the bookstore saw its relationship to feminist communities and to feminist activists. And in particular, I mean obviously there’s what you’ve talked about in terms of the Morgentaler Clinic, there’s certainly the impact of that really important conversation and activism around antiracism within the movement. And you know, really important inclusive approaches to politics. I’m wondering, for instance, about how an issue of pornography and erotica played out in the context of the bookstore, if there were – what kinds of debates and discussions.
Anjula: Definitely. So, I mean one thing you have to realize about any feminist space, or any political space, is that it’s really shaped by the people who are working there, right? So, the bookstore is a place that’s a retail space. It was shaped by the staff. Now the people coming in may have had different opinions, but the staff at the times were the ones that really led the way.
So, I know that in the ‘80s there were huge discussions about porn and is porn feminist, is porn not feminist. And there were major divisions within the feminist communities by sex workers and women who wrote about sex work as porn and exploited it. When I came in in ‘95/’96, my understanding … And I think this is what May, not just May but the staff at the time, May and other staff took on the voices of – well, how would I describe this, is that, you know we carried the books about porn. We put them in our feminist section because that was a part of feminist history. But we also carried books by sex workers and we put them in our labour section because that was a labour issue, right?
So, we had our own idea of what we wanted our kind of feminism to look like and what we wanted the feminist bookstore to look like. And to us that was a sex worker-positive bookstore. So, would we carry the books that there were some debates around? Yes. But would we profile the voices of sex workers? Yes. You know? We also did book launches, say by Kamala Kempadoo that you know she’s written books about trafficking in different parts of the world as well. But she’s done a lot of work with sex workers as well, right?
So, we’d try to take I guess complex approaches to these issues. And you can’t just say, well we’re not going to carry anything, but you might not display the books that you might not agree with. You might carry them and spine them and put them in the section, but you wouldn’t put them on display. There are ways to do that in a bookstore where you can carry books that you don’t always agree with and you don’t recommend, but it’s there. You don’t hand sell it, but it’s there. These are debates that we were very aware of, but we made our own decisions about how we were going to include them in the space of what is the bookstore.
Amy: Yeah. Just getting back to the issue of appropriation of voice that was raised front and centre at the Women’s Press in the late 1980s, as we were talking about earlier, and basically precipitated the split in the press. There were clear demands from women of colour and indigenous women, women of colour, for presses to publish their work. For white women who were engaged in appropriating voice to step aside, to give the space, seed the ground, to black and indigenous writers and writers of colour.
I’m wondering about how the Toronto Women’s Bookstore, I mean we know about the history and about how you positioned yourself in terms of the way you described the shelving. The way you described the kinds of events that you would do. And the ways in which you encouraged and recommended those books to people who came into the store. And also, what made the store a welcoming place for black, indigenous and women of colour. I know that there were likely decisions that you needed to make about books that you would decide not to carry.
Anjula: Yeah, for sure.
Amy: And I’m wondering, because you know, around appropriation there certainly were critiques of certain books, and I’m just wondering if you could talk about that.
Anjula: Yeah, so there was one book, oh, and Amy, maybe you can help me remember this. It was a Women’s Press book written by Anne something or another. It had D in the title. What was it? It was one of those books. It was a white woman writing about an indigenous community.
Amy: Yeah, Anne Cameron.
Anjula: Anne Cameron. We didn’t carry her books. So there were notes, there were … At that point we had a computerized inventory system and we could write notes on there. So Anne Cameron, and I forget – Daughters of Copper Woman, right?
Amy: That’s it, yes, yes.
Anjula: Anne Cameron, Daughters of Copper Woman was one of the books that people said was she was writing as, you know, she was taking the voice of an indigenous woman when she was a white woman. We made a very conscious decision not to sell that book. There were notes saying do not order this book. If someone special ordered it, yeah, we’d get it in for them, you know, and we’d sell it to them. And I’m not going to give them a half an hour lecture because that’s not what I do as a feminist bookseller. But we would not carry it on our shelves.
Anjula: And we were very clear about that. But we would special order it in.
Anjula: And these are decisions, you know, we make now at Another Story Bookshop, right? We don’t carry Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, but we will special order it in if somebody wants it. So yes, these were decisions that we had to make. Now of course you’re always going to have books … When you’re buying for a big bookstore, you cannot read every book that comes across. You don’t know what’s going on with every single book you bring into the store.
But if there were issues that were brought to us about certain books, and over the years there were definitely books, that people would say to us, “This book is really problematic. It’s very racist”, we would take it off the shelf. We would write a note saying, OK, someone had a problem with this book, it was problematic in a certain way. So, for sure we would not sell books that we knew for a fact were appropriating or taking that voice away.
I’m sure there’ll be people who read this, who see this and say yeah, but you carried X, Y and Z books. You know, I went into your store and you carried this book and that book and that book was problematic. And we probably didn’t do it all the time. You know, we may have missed – obviously we were going to miss several of them. But we were very intentional and we would have staff discussions about these things for sure.
Amy: Yeah. I’m wondering if you could talk about, I know personally, from personal experience but also politically, in 2002 there was a controversy over buttons that Jewish Women Against the Occupation had, were selling, that the Women’s Bookstore was selling those buttons that said Women Against the Occupation, Jewish Women Against the Occupation, Women Against the Occupation.
And I know that there was an objection that was brought by the Canadian Jewish Congress and there was a boycott that was threatened. I’m not entirely sure how successful that boycott was. And then there was media and National Post got into it. The Varsity published an article.
Anjula: Now Magazine as well.
Amy: Now Magazine. So, I’m wondering if you could talk about that because it certainly, you know the bookstore became a sort of moment, sort of an organization that was highlighted and charges against it. And also, as well, a community that came together that came together to defend the bookstore very, very, very strongly at that time, so.
Anjula: How much time have you got, Amy?
Amy: I know. [Laughs] I was hesitant to raise this but I just think, you know it is something that people will remember.
Anjula: It became, yeah, no it became a very major political moment in the Women’s Bookstore history. I would say probably after the firebombing, became one of the most heightened moments of crises I would say within the bookstore’s identity and history.
So, what happened was, in 2002 there was a book launch by Nahla Abdo and Ronit Lentin, a book about Israel and Palestine. And at that book launch we sold buttons that said Women Against the Occupation. Now there was a flag of Palestine with a woman symbol in that flag and it said Women Against the Occupation. And a customer came in, a regular customer came in and noticed that book. We had buttons, you know we sold buttons and magnets at the front desk, and the button was there at the front desk. And that customer went away and talked to some people, and we got calls to take the button away. And we said no, that this is a button that came out of a Jewish Palestinian women’s solidarity committee and came out of a book launch, and we were going to sell the button.
And then word spread. Thank God this was before social media because I think it would have been much more intense had we had Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. Thank God it wasn’t. But word spread very quickly and very strongly that the bookstore was selling a button that was anti-Semitic, which we felt it wasn’t.
Now, at the time I was managing the store with May Lui. May is mixed Chinese and Jewish. We had Esther Vise who was the head of the board. So, she had left the bookstore in 1998 but continued on in the role of being part of the board of directors. And she was still quite involved. You know, we consulted her quite regularly. And she was Jewish and was very involved and has been very involved in various solidarity, Jewish women’s solidarity organizing.
So, we didn’t make this decision alone. You know, I consulted. Me and May consulted. And we said, “No, we’re going to keep selling this button.”
And then what happened was the calls got louder and louder. Canadian Jewish Congress asked us to stop selling. They have a magazine, like a newsletter that came out that was very popular and people read it. Now Magazine called us … Well, this happened later.
So, the whole thing, it went on and on and on for several months. What happened was, it started small and then it steamrolled and got bigger and bigger. So, we were asked to stop selling the button. We didn’t. And when we said that we didn’t, I think a lot of people really didn’t know what it was that we were selling, because they weren’t coming into the store. But we started to get pulled out of events that we had been a part of.
So early on, we were booked to sell books at a queer Jewish conference that was happening. And we were going to be their bookseller and, you know, we had a lot of books that we had ordered to sell because we were very involved in the queer Jewish community in Toronto. You know, people came to our store because we carried those books.
So, we were asked not to attend. And it was brought up at that conference why we weren’t there, and I remember I had two dykes who were Jewish dykes who went to the conference, who supported us and said that they were in tears during the Q&A defending our position, and were so devastated that we weren’t there. We worked with the Hillel Centre and sold books at many of their events. We were pulled out of those events. So, we were actively pulled out of things that we had booked.
And then we started to get a lot of phone calls and media saying to us, “You need to stop selling these buttons.” And when we said no, we started to get denounced in synagogues, in community groups, in newspapers. And then at one point the Canadian Jewish Congress – and I forget the person’s name, it was I think the Director of Communications – sent us a fax asking us to sell another button. And that button was a flag of Israel and it said on it, “Stop Homicide Bombings”. And they demanded that we sell that button.
And we said, “No, we’re not going to sell that button. We’re going to continue selling our button.” And when we said no to selling that button, they really upped their boycott against us. And there was a boycott. There was definitely a boycott. We lost a lot of the Jewish feminist customers that we had spent years and years and years building relationships with, right, that were so much a part of who we were.
They were calling us. Like, we were getting calls every day. People were calling us saying, “How can you do this? What are you doing? Why are you being anti-Semitic?” And we’re saying we’re not.
Now you have to remember that when the Canadian Jewish Congress asked us, demanded, actually sent us a fax asking us to sell that button, these were not people who were connected to the bookstore. These were not people who had been shopping at the bookstore, who worked with us, who came to us. These were people from outside the community. But they connected with the various Jewish feminists and queer communities, right?
And of course we all know the Jewish community is not one thing, right. There’s lots, like there’s no one community of anything, right? So there’s, you know, various different communities within the large rubric of that community. And when we said no to the no more, stop homicide bombings, Now Magazine – was quite popular at the time – denounced us and said we were the shame of the week. I’ll never forget that. That was Alice Klein and Susan Cole that put that in there.
And at no point did they call us or contact us to say why did you not sell this button. And I would have said to them, there was no consultation with us. They demanded this of us. They didn’t come and sit down and talk to us to say, OK, there’s an issue here, let’s talk about this, right?
Now what we also did at the same time that this started to get very serious was that we started a solidarity, or an advisory committee to help us guide through these political waters. And who was on that advisory committee was Sheryl Nestel, Shlomit Segal, Esther as part of the board, Hanadi Loubani, Badea Warwar. So we had Palestinian women and Jewish women that had a history of working in feminist movements and had histories of working with the Women’s Bookstore, and had a history of working across these issues in their communities. So, we felt like they were our experts guiding us through this. And they said, “No, don’t sell this button.”
Now at one point we put out a statement about why we were not selling the button. Then people didn’t like that statement, then we were going to put out a second statement. And at some point I said, “We’re a bookstore. We shouldn’t be putting out all these statements.” We spent so much time as a group, hours upon hours upon hours upon weeks upon months debating these issues and trying to figure out what to do.
Then what happened was, Michele Landsberg came in and said … You know she was someone who loved the bookstore from her core, right, and was very upset by what was going on. And she said, “There must be a way to solve this from a feminist perspective.” And she understood that there were people outside the feminist community that were imposing their beliefs on us. Like that request for the stop homicide bombings did not come from the Jewish feminist community. It came from the Canadian Jewish Congress, which really didn’t have much to do with us at that time.
So, she brokered a meeting between several members of the Jewish feminist community that were very upset by what we were doing. So Elyse Goldstein was one of them and this meeting was held at Kollel. So there were sort of the two sides that came together. So there was Michele, Elyse, some other women who had been very much a part of the Women’s Bookstore. Then on the other side there was Sheryl Nestel, Shlomit, myself, Esther and May. I was the only non-Jew amongst a group of I think it was 10 to 12 Jewish women who were there, and it was a very intense few hours.
And you know they talked about how hurt they were by us having that button. We talked about why we felt it was important to have the button there. We ended that meeting by saying another thing, that we wanted to have another button that they would create together that said, you know, women for peace, with a flag of Israel and a flag of Palestine. And we agreed to that as a way to sort of heal some of the wounds and to recognize where they were coming from.
And Michele Landsberg wrote a column in the Toronto Star that came out on thanksgiving that basically talked about that meeting and said the boycott is off. The way that she wrote that article made it sound like we had capitulated and stopped selling the Women for Palestine button, which we hadn’t done. We continued to sell that button. But she wrote it in such a way that you could read it and see that we may have capitulated, which we never did.
Now I love Michele, but I told Michele at her book launch many years ago at Trinity-St. Paul’s in front of about 1,000 people saying, “Michele, you didn’t write that article truthfully. You left something very important out.” And so we had a conversation across this insane book launch about that moment. But you know what she did mean so much to me because she really helped take off the heat, right?
In the end, that group of women didn’t come into make that button, but we ordered that button. We found a supplier in the States and we found a button that said, you know, Women for Peace in Israel and Palestine. And we carried it along with carrying the initial button and along with carrying many other buttons.
But we were still boycotted. We were told now months later – so this went on for months, and many things happened. One of the things that happened was there was a solidarity bookstore, a solidarity campaign that was started by Reena Katz who ended up working at the store full time, who now goes by Orev. And Orev really rallied people around different communities to say, “You need to shop at the store because they’re being boycotted.”
There was a conference that was coming up, no a book launch. There was a book launch that we were supposed to have done, a book called Kollel, which was a book about queer Jews that we were supposed to be co-sponsoring along with Glad Day Bookshop. And I was told by the editors of that book that, if we put out a full-page ad in the Canada Jewish News and spent $1,500 and made a donation to, I think it was the Jewish Defence Fund, – I don’t know, it was some donation to a group – that we would be allowed to co-sponsor the launch. And if we didn’t pay that money we would not be allowed to co-sponsor that launch and it would only be Glad Day.
And I remember that call, Amy. I remember that call and I remember getting off the phone and crying and swearing at the same time saying, “Fuck you”, right? Like, “Fuck you. I’m not putting out a full-page ad and donating $600 to an organization just so I can co-sponsor your book launch.” Like, “What the fuck is this?” right? Like this was months after the article that Michele had put out. So this did not end, right. This did not end. This went on for months.
And during that time, so that happened – I don’t even remember the sequence because there were so many things that happened. We were told on the phone that they were going to call our landlord and tell him what was going on with us, tell him that we were being anti-Semitic. And our landlord was Jewish and we were terrified. We had met with him and we explained and he understood. And he loved us and we loved him. He was a great landlord. But I was terrified.
And we were told … Now at the time, sales to the University of Toronto, the course book sales was 70% of our business. Our bread and butter as a bookstore was selling textbooks to U of T. We were told our textbooks were going to be threatened. They were going to get on the phone and they were going to call professors and tell them to stop ordering with us, right? It was very serious.
I’d be working on the cash at the front desk on a Saturday and I’d be getting calls from people saying they worked at Mount Sinai, and they were going to get every single person at Mount Sinai to stop shopping with us and just spread stuff about us. And this is while I’ve got customers in front of me. I had customers coming in saying, “Why are you doing this?” And it was awful. It was traumatic. It was intense. And it went on for a long time.
But what I will say is that the support … What I had to do, like I remember I used to swim twice a morning at the athletic centre. And I remember swimming and crying in the pool because I was – you know I had spent six years at that point working my bloody ass off helping to build that store up, working 60 hours a week for shit pay, right, for what I believed in, for a space that was political and queer and feminist and antiracist and revolutionary.
And during those months I really felt that we could lose it all. I really, really felt that everything that so many people had spent years building could be lost because of this. I felt that so deeply in my bones. And I remember swimming and crying and swimming and crying. And I remember thinking, OK, if we’re going to get out of this, it’s going to be because of the community that supports us, right? We were a bookstore that thought no – even though we were non-profit, we never got grants from any arts foundation or anything. We only survived by the sale of each book. So, I had to tell myself the only way we’re going to get through this is if the community supports us and buys books.
And they did, right? That community solidarity, that campaign that Orev and others started, it worked. People started shopping with us. And we became known as the political bookstore. When Tariq Ali came to Toronto, we sold his books. When Noam Chomsky came to Toronto, we sold his books.
And I think people really rallied behind us. We lost customers. We lost Jewish feminist customers that never came into the store again. And it broke my heart. It really broke my heart. Even after that article that Michele wrote, things were never the same I would say. And there were people who wouldn’t come back in. There was just too much mistrust and too much pain. And it hurt me very, very, very deeply that that happened.
But I felt like who we are is a political space, right, and a community space. And I felt like we had done the things right by consulting the community, by having people like Sheryl and Shlomit and yourself, Amy, and others rally behind us. I felt like we were taking the direction from the people who were our people. And these are the Jewish feminists, you know, activists that were so much a part of who the bookstore was, right? And they really helped guide us through this. So, that’s the story.
Amy: Thank you. I realize that it’s not easy to talk about that and thank you for telling us that story even though it’s … I can tell from your voice it still raises a lot of –
Anjula: It’s been almost 20 years.
Amy: – difficult emotions and …
Anjula: It was so intense. It was so intense. It was so, like it was so intense.
Amy: And I guess I’d like to move in thinking about the bookstore, about another thing that sort of threatened the bookstore which was its financial stability. You know, I don’t want to gloss over that or forget to talk about that, because of course, for a bookstore it’s really important. And I know that you’ve talked about the sort of bread and butter of the course orders and that.
But I just want to say that my understanding is that in 1993, just a few years before you joined the bookstore, that it was in serious risk of bankruptcy. And that, well you talked about Esther Vise keeping the bookstore afloat as a full-time volunteer and developing a staff team and a board structure to secure the future of the bookstore. I’m just wondering if you can talk about the financial pressures that the bookstore faced at the time that you joined it and for the years that you were there.
Anjula: So yes, the bookstore, so one thing to know about bookselling is that the margins are very low. No one is in bookselling for the money because the pay is, it’s retail wages. You’re talking minimum wage, barely more. Books are sold on consignment. You know you can order a book from a publisher and you have up to a year to return it to the publisher to get a credit on your account.
What happened was – this is from what I understand from Esther – was in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, as there were tensions in the bookstore around structure and collective, and the bookstore was run as a collective in the late ‘80s, one of the things that stopped happening was sending returns back to publishers. So, you would order books in and, to keep cash flow going, you have to go through inventory. And you know, if a book hasn’t sold in 10 months, you kind of have to send it back to the publisher so that you can order in another book and sell it because the margins are low.
TWB stopped sending back its returns in the early ‘90s, to the point where that’s why they almost went bankrupt – was that’s why they faced bankruptcy was because their cash flow was gone, right? And I think the place was mismanaged at that point, and the collective structure was part of that.
So, when Esther Vise came, she was working at the store part time but she took over in 1992/1993, and she worked for a year full time for free. She lived with her parents and worked for free. She was the reason why the bookstore lasted as long as it did. And I don’t know if enough people know that, but she is really by far the reason why the bookstore got through that. Without her, it would have closed in ’93 hands down. And she built it back up with her two hands and two feet standing, you know, day after day returning books. She spent months and months returning books to get the cash flow back.
When I got there full time in ’96, our finances were the pits. We had barely any money. Our credit history with publishers was terrible. We were making, our annual sales were about $450,000 a year, but you have staff expenses, you’ve got rent, you’ve got overhead, you’ve got cost of books. And every month we were juggling to pay our bills. We never had enough money to pay our bills ever.
And it was hard. Those first five years were hard. Me and May would juggle our bills every single month. Who can we pay? Who can we not pay? Who can we get on the phone? What can we return? How much can we do with as little staff as possible because we can’t afford to have more staff? How much can I max out my credit card? How much can I borrow from my family? How much can I borrow from this person so we can pay this publisher?
But at the same time, in the late ‘80s we hired someone named Rachel James, Rachel Kalpana James, as our events coordinator. And certain things started to happen in 1998 I would say. Rachel came on board and organized our first major event in many years. And that was a sold-out event with Alice Walker at the Danforth Music Hall. And we had over 1,000 people there.
And I think that event really put us back on the map of feminist bookselling and bookselling in Toronto. She organized a fantastic event. Dionne Brand introduced it. And I think it really signalled to people that, OK, the Women’s Bookstore is back and back in a big way. It was incredible.
And Rachel organized many other amazing events for us. She also started a courses and a workshop series at the bookstore where we started to offer courses in the evening with 10 people, you know, small courses on different things, writing, feminist economics, money, feminism 101. And they were a way of building community. It wasn’t about selling books; it was come and do those courses.
At the same time, you know we had always sold books at the University of Toronto. We were always the people who sold the course books for women and gender studies at U of T. But when I started working there in 1996, that became under my job description was selling the course books. And one of the things that my mother always taught me about business was give the best customer service you can get, right? Go beyond the beyond to give excellent customer service.
And so I started to build that business. I started to build professor by professor. I would call them up and say, “Do you want us to sell books for your courses at U of T?” Because people were always complaining about the U of T bookstore. And for people who don’t know, the Women’s Bookstore was at Harbord and Spadina, right in the heart of the University of Toronto. We were right there. Our location was right there.
And this was the time before the Internet so people couldn’t buy books that easily. And it was a very easy way to make money. So, I slowly, slowly started to build up the course book business as a way to just make money, right? Like you’ve got a captive audience, students. You’ve got a captive audience, professors. Why not bring them into your store?
But how do you do that? Because, a lot of professors who had supported the store back in the early ‘90s had had terrible service, right? The bookstore wasn’t getting their books in. They couldn’t get the books in on time. No one ever got back to them. And what we had to do was, course by course, say order with us, we’ll take care of it. And I worked really hard to build that business up, to give professors excellent customer service, to say your book is going to come in.
So, courses start in September. We maxed out our credit cards in June, July and August because, come hell or high water, I was going to get those books in for those professors in September. And we got on the phone and negotiated with the publishers to say, “Send us the books in July. We owe you money by the end of August but we’ll pay you by the end of September.”
And this is the hard work of running a business that people don’t see behind the scenes when your finances are shit, right, is you have to build relationships with people and with publishers. And get on the phone and communicate and communicate and communicate and communicate. And so, if there was a book that was going to be delayed, I made sure I communicated that with the professor. So, these are things that we did.
We also, you know we’ve always been very close to the academic community, we started to launch more books by scholars, right? So, we had a big book launch for Gayatri Spivak for A Critique of Postcolonial Reason. I think it was in 1998. We had 500 people at that book launch. We had a lot of scholars. We also had a wine and cheese reception for her at the store. We wined and dined them and spent a lot of money on booze. And people were happy. So, these are ways that you build things back up; slowly, month by month, event by event, right?
In 2001 the U of T bookstore had a strike by their staff, and we got a lot of course book orders. And by that time we had already established good protocols and good working relationships. And at that point we were ordering way beyond women and gender studies. As a bookstore, you can order any book that’s in print. It doesn’t have to be a feminist book. So, we weren’t just selling books for feminist courses. We were selling for religion, anthropology, history, political science, you name it. As long as it’s a book and we can order it in, we sold it.
But that strike really increased the number of course books that we – courses that we were offering. So, by the time I left in 2006, our course book sales were 70% of our business and our annual revenue was $1.6 million. And when I started it was $500,000.
Amy: Wow, yeah.
Anjula: And probably some time in 2001 we started to be able to pay all of our bills on time every month. We could stop juggling our bills. We also were able to offer all of our full and part-time staff benefits, medical and dental benefits without them paying a thing into it, a penny into it. And that was all course book sales. That was all the money that was won from course book sales.
Amy: That’s great.
Anjula: They had to be smart.
Amy: Yeah, yeah. Wow, there’s a lot of lessons to be drawn from that one. So, you know, what you also have, particularly in the 1990s, in this period of time and into the 2000s, is the context of the growth of the big chain bookstores and larger presses who are starting to cash in on the growing interest in women’s writing. And so, you know, how did the Toronto Women’s Bookstore need to situate itself in order to survive in those kinds of changing conditions, in relation to both the larger presses as well as the chain bookstores like Chapters, Indigo etcetera?
Anjula: So look, when you have Chapters and Indigo, and when I got … By 1998 you could see the writing on the wall with Chapters and Indigo. And then when Amazon came in, that was really – you could see it coming like a, I would describe it as a train just barrelling right towards you and how long is it going to take to squash you.
The only way we could do it was by being the best damn community bookstore we could be, right, by customer service, by really fostering loyalty, by having events, by creating community, by giving excellent service to professors. We did all that. And that had to happen day after day by giving excellent service to customers.
But you can’t beat 40% off, right? You cannot beat 40% off the latest Margaret Atwood. So, whereas we would sell maybe 50 copies of Margaret Atwood’s latest hardcover at Christmas, we were down to selling 10 because people were buying at Indigo for 40%. And no matter how many events and how much great service you give, money talks, right? People would say, “I can buy it for $22, why am I going to buy it for $37?” You know, “I can buy lunch for $15.” And they’re right. So, we lost a lot of customers who went to Indigo and Chapters and Amazon, and of course we know they still do. And it was tough.
The only thing that kept us really going was those course book sales. And you know it’s kind of like you’re running on a treadmill just to stay still. Like, you have to keep running because if you don’t keep running the treadmill stops, right? Or a hamster cage. You’re running on a hamster cage and you have to keep running. And you’re not going anywhere but you have to keep running because if you don’t everything’s going to collapse.
So you had to keep giving excellent customer service, organizing events, getting your course book sales in. It was a hustle. Every day was a hustle. Like every day was a hustle because you’re always at the brink. Running a feminist independent bookstore, you’re always at the brink. And you’re right, the large presses were carrying …
Like when Sarah Schulman published, I believe it was Rat Bohemia with Penguin Books, people were pissed off that she left the small presses to go to Penguin. And she was like, “Look, I can get Barnes & Noble with Penguin Books.”
Well guess what Sarah Schulman, I mean she was a great author, but Rat Bohemia went out of print with Penguin and the small presses kept her books in print. There’s a story right there, right? So yeah, the small authors went to the big presses and those presses were selling at Barnes & Noble, with Amazon, with Indigo, with Chapters. And it did affect us because the mainstreaming of BIPOC and queer literature is great for the authors but it’s tough on indi bookstores, right? So, again we looked at the course book orders as a cash cow. Like that was the thing that made or broke us.
Amy: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I mean the Toronto Women’s Bookstore was a real radical hub of literary, cultural and political activism in the ‘80s, ‘90s and into the 2000s. And you know, it’s clear from what you’re saying as to how difficult it was for it to sustain itself financially, and you know, despite having an incredible amount of support within the feminist movement and within other movements and course orders etcetera. But at some point the exigencies, the pressures of our capitalist economy are such that it made it very difficult for it to continue, right, to survive.
Anjula: Well, there were a number of reasons I think why it didn’t survive, but definitely money. And you have to remember that, along with very low margins is the fact that you cannot pay your staff very much, right? And what that means is you have very high staff turnover.
And when you have an antiracist, revolutionary, political bookstore, you need staff who follow those ethics. You need staff who are smart. You need staff who are reading books. But you also need staff who know how to be business people. You need staff who can work the cash properly and do returns and receive and make sure the books are shelved properly.
And what I often found was you had – because we could never pay more than $12, $13 an hour at that time, staff wouldn’t stay. It would be a stepping stone to a better job, whether it’s in community activism or in an NGO or going back to school or … So, the staff turnover was massive. And that was the hardest thing was the staff turnover, because you have to have trained staff, like especially when you get into computer systems.
We used a system there called Book Manager which is, you know it takes time to learn. And if you make a mistake, it has repercussions down the road. If you don’t shelve a book in the proper place, you can’t find it and you can’t sell it, right? If you don’t receive the book, if it’s sitting in a box, you can’t sell it to the customer who’s coming in and wanting it.
So, you have to have excellent staff. And we just found that the staff wouldn’t stay. We would always have high staff turnover. And that’s really hard. [Laughs]
Amy: Yeah. I mean, I was going to talk about why it was that the Toronto Women’s Bookstore wasn’t able to survive. I’m wondering if you can imagine a scenario where it could have, despite what you’re talking about in terms of staff turnover, despite what we’re talking about in terms of the large presses, despite what we’re talking about in terms of Amazon, Indigo, etcetera, in terms of those deals that the large bookstores can give.
Anjula: So, one of the things that I think was very unique and ultimately was the downfall of the Women’s Bookstore was its structure. So, it never had an owner until 2010. And so what that meant was that everyone – there were so many people that walked through its doors as staff and as managers, right? But what that meant was that there was no owner to provide continuity.
Now, when I was there with May, we did the work with two of us as owners would. But what was very difficult was the tension between collective responsibility and collective authority. And I know that many other feminist organizations and many other – some other feminist bookstores also faced this was, I was never an owner of the bookstore but I did the work of an owner, but I didn’t have the final authority of an owner.
And in those latter years, there were a number of staff who really wanted to have a lot of input into decision making. Great. But they were getting paid to work every hour. I was on a salary, right? You have to remember the managers were on a salary; the other staff were on an hourly wage. I probably got paid less than everyone there because I was working incredible amounts of unpaid overtime.
And at the end of the day, I could never say, well this is my bookstore and it’s going to run this way. What would happen was people would be very confused about where the ultimate decision making lay. There was a board of directors but they were very hands-off. But technically, they were the ultimate decision makers but they weren’t there running the bookstore. And I felt like, well I’m the one who’s here doing all the slog and coming in at eight in the morning and leaving at nine at night if there was an event, I wanted to have the final say. But I couldn’t have the final say because I wasn’t an owner.
And so, it became very convoluted in the last few years that I was there about how do you deal with this tension between authority, collective authority and collective responsibility. We were never a collective, but I felt like the staff at the time wanted it to be a collective-ish model without it actually being one, right? And at some point, when you run a business you need to say this is how it’s being done and I don’t want to spend three hours talking about it. And that’s what was happening at the Women’s Bookstore.
Now, you have that combined with the fact that in about 2004 I could see the writing on the wall with the course book sales, right. Because then you’ve got the Internet and you know that students are starting to buy books used online. The professors aren’t ordering books for their classes as much; they’re ordering course readers. That, you know if they do order books, it’s very easy for students to sell them so they’re not going to come into the Women’s Bookstore to buy their book.
So, when you have a sell through for a class that could be 80% of an enrolment, you sell those books to 80% of those students, you could start to see those numbers decline to 60%, 50%. And you can see, what I could see back in 2004/2005 was the writing on the wall with the course book sales. I knew that that was our big money maker and I knew that was going to be in jeopardy. I knew it was only a matter of time before those sales started to tank and before the work that it took to get those sales was not going to be worth it, right, for the amount of work it was to sell those books. Because you would have too many books that you need to return and it was a lot of work.
We were stocking, by the time I left in 2006, we were stocking over 100 different courses at U of T that were anywhere from 10 students to say 500 students. Some of those 10-student classes had 12 books and you’d sell maybe three of them. Now you have to think of the nitty gritty of those nine books that you have to return to a publisher, right? It’s a lot of work. And at what point does that work outweigh your margins, right? And I knew that there was going to be a point where that would happen.
And I also knew that the structure of staffing was burning me out in a very big way. And I came to the point … And now May left the store in 2005, so that very long-established co-managing relationship we had, ended because she left to do different things. We hired a co-manager but it wasn’t the same thing.
And so, I looked at that time and in 2005 I thought either I buy out the bookstore and I become an owner or I skedaddle, and I chose to skedaddle, right? I wanted to have kids and I knew that I wanted to have a family, and I knew that that would not be possible working 70 to 80 hours a week.
So, how does it survive? I think it would have survived if it had an owner at the time. And after I left, there was a series of different managers that took over, right? And no one wanted to stay for longer than a year so; it was manager after manager after manager. And finally, in 2009 the store was in very dire financial straits and they put a call out to say either someone buys it or we close it.
And there was one person who offered to buy it. Her name was Victoria Moreno. So it became, she bought it out in 2010 and it was not financially viable and she closed it in 2012. So that’s what happened. But I think by the time she got it, it was too late. And I felt like she didn’t focus on the course book orders enough. I mean I wasn’t there all the time, but I think it was very hard for her and the money wasn’t there.
Amy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. I’m wondering, from where we are today in 2020, what do you think might be the most interesting thing or things, the most interesting pieces about the story of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore for activists, for researchers in this period. What are the most interesting or the most – the lessons that we can learn and the things that we can take into the work we do now?
Anjula: Well I think it’s the importance of how important a community space was to people’s lives. I think that there’s something – I don’t know if I’m going to answer your question, but I’ve had so many people say to me over the years, you know, how important Women’s Bookstore was to them, how it saved their lives, right? Like how going in there as a young queer, as a young trans person and reading a book about themselves as being trans literally saved them from killing themselves.
And there were women who came in who bought books about incest and rape and violence and it saved them. And there were women who were, you know, black women and indigenous women and women of colour who read books about themselves and it made them feel sane in this world. And I think what it tells us is the importance of stories and of books and of who we are and how important that is for our survival, our emotional survival, right. In a world that is polarized, where racism runs deep, where violence is deep and on many different levels, we need spaces like this, right, not just the books but the physical spaces. Like that sense of community is so important.
Souvankham Thammavongsa is one of my favourite writers. She just won the Giller Prize for her book called How to Pronounce Knife. She wrote a little piece for the Kenyon Review a couple of months back about how she started out as a poet over 20 years ago. And before she published a book of poetry she came out with a zine called Big Boot that she brought to the Women’s Bookstore and we sold. Now I wasn’t coordinating the zines there; Alex MacFadyen was. And Alex took that zine and Alex was a zinester and he – Alex is trans – and he took that zine and he sold it. And how important it was to Souvankham for that zine to be there.
A year after that zine she wrote a book of poetry called Small Arguments that followed at Pedlar Press, which is a fantastic small Canadian press published. And how we sold that book, and I hand sold it over and over and over again and I loved it. And how important it was for Souvankham to find her book in a store like ours and how it helped her to feel confident as a writer, and how she felt real as a writer because her work was recognized and sold by us.
Her book is one of the bestselling books in Canada this past week because she won the most prestigious award in the country, the Giller Prize. And you can trace that back, right. And she talks about that, in this piece for the Kenyon Review that’s on Another Story Bookshop’s feed. And she talks about the Women’s Bookstore and the role that independent bookstores play in a writer’s life, right, in their psyche, and the role that we play in the psyche of queer and BIPOC writers who aren’t reflected in the mainstream. And here she is.
I cried when that announcement came out last week because I have, you know I have a 20-year-long relationship with her selling her books and here she is. And that short story collection is brilliant. It’s fantastic. It’s so good. So, to me that’s a perfect example of what we do as bookstores, right? That example right there is who we are and the role that we play and continue to play.
Amy: Thank you.
Anjula: I don’t think I answered your question though. [Laughs]
Amy: No, you did. You did. And partly it’s because it’s a place of community but it’s also a way of supporting writers who didn’t have the support at the beginning. And that’s what small booksellers, independent presses, that’s all of what they do.
Anjula: And political struggle. Like, so I work at Another Story Bookshop now. I’ve been there for eight years and I’m the events coordinator. But in the last six, since COVID started in March I’ve really pivoted to just helping the store sell books to customers, doing online sales. And I’m there several days a week selling books.
But one of our bestselling books is, well there are many but one of our bestselling authors is Adrienne Maree Brown who’s written books, you know, Emergent Strategy, Pleasure Activism. She’s got a new one coming out called We Will Not Cancel Us. And these are books about activism and radical politics and transformative justice. You know, we launch books by Kai Cheng Thom and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarashinha, Adrienne Maree Brown, Pamela Palmater. And these are books about transforming who we are, right?
And I think bookstores like Another Story Bookshop are still so important to political and revolutionary communities because you just go in and you find the books, right, or they’re on our website right now. If you don’t want to come in, you can at least – they’re there. And we promote them and we bring authors in. And we do events and we bring … The event that we did with Adrienne Maree Brown in May 2019 was fantastic. There were hundreds of people at Lula Lounge. It was a blast. It was amazing. It was packed with people and we sold a truckload of her books on activism. It was great.
Amy: Yeah. Wow. So, I want to thank you, Anju, for being such an important part of the transformative process of being at the Women’s Bookstore, and how important a hub it was for us here in Toronto. I want to thank you for your ongoing work at Another Story Bookstore. And thank you so much for this interview. It’s amazing to talk with you and to hear you talk about the history and the important lessons that we can draw from it. Thank you so much.
Anjula: Well thank you, Amy, for doing this work. Like this work of archiving is so important to all of our communities, right, and to have our stories here. So thank you for the recognizing. I have to say that, as one of the few women of colour in leadership roles in bookselling, you often get ignored and ignored and ignored. And I’m used to being ignored, being ignored for 20 plus years. That’s changing I think in the last year or so, but thank you for interviewing me and for recognizing me. I really appreciate it.
Amy: Thank you so much. I really, really appreciate it.