Sitting on Harbord Street just west of Spadina, is a small store with an unassuming orange brick facade. On the side of the building is an ageing sign with the resolute face of an African woman, her eyes looking straight ahead, her features faded with time. Inside the visitor finds a colorful array of books and media of every imaginable type. Near the register is a rack of handmade zines with titles like Antigone and The Haircut. Buttons and magnets portray vintage pop art with cheeky slogans, feminist messages, and peace signs. Towards the back lies everything from the latest women’s studies and anti-racism anthologies to children’s books, little philosopher dolls, and lefty magazines like This, Adbusters, and Herizons.

What would become the Toronto Women’s Bookstore started out as a few shelves of books at a women’s centre on Dupont Street around 1972. The aim of the project was to promote books by and about women at a time when such titles were relatively scarce. By 1973 the collection had moved to Kensington Avenue where it was one wing of an organization that included a feminist printing press and self-defence collective. Patti Kirk, now owner of Parentbooks and often cited as one of the founders of the TWB, became active in the bookstore in 1973.

“The store consisted of bricks and boards for shelving and several hundred titles, many of which were pamphlets,” Kirk recalls. “After moving to Harbord Street, the bookstore became a much larger and more ‘serious’ enterprise. We increased the stock by a huge amount. Much more was being published by, for, and about women, so it was a lot easier to stick to our mandate and increase the stock.”
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Over the years the bookstore developed a rapport with local feminist scholars who returned to the TWB when they needed texts for their women’s studies syllabi that were difficult to find at more mainstream booksellers. Providing for that niche market has been a major source of income for the TWB throughout the years, and at their current location the entire second floor is devoted to course books.

“By 1974 I was co-ordinating along with Marie Prins,” recalled Kirk. “In that same year, the collective was disbanded but the store remained non-profit, which it still is today[…]We remained [at 85 Harbord] until the fire in 1983.”

The fire was suspected to have been an act of arson directed against the Morgentaler Abortion Clinic, which in July 1983 was located directly above the TWB. Miraculously, course books for U of T women’s studies classes somehow surived the blaze and the TWB was able to offer them from a temporary Brunswick Avenue location.

However, even with insurance covering some of the damages, the TWB lost about $35,000 in stock. In a 1983 interview with The Varsity, Kirk called the misfortune “overwhelming, our worst fantasy come true,” and described their post-fire situation as “no money, no place, a slow insurance settlement, and a long interruption to business.”

In an effort to recoup their losses the bookstore held a “fire sale” where friends and supporters bought the damaged merchandise. They were able to move to the bookstore’s current location at 73 Harbord St. the next year. The TWB’s place in local progressive movements helped it stay alive and the store became a community centre of sorts for its lefty clientele.
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In the summer of 2000 the TWB’s place as a course book supplier was further strengthened when workers at the U of T Bookstore went on strike. When the dust cleared and the strike ended in September an estimated 100 profs had pulled their books from the bookstore in solidarity with the workers, and some of them never went back.

“When the next semester came they just stuck to ordering with us,” explained TWB co-manager Janet Romero-Leiva. The strike, and the TWB’s efforts to foster a good working relationship with profs, are some of the reasons the store now carries course books for not only women’s studies but religious studies, Spanish, English, Near and Middle Eastern studies, and music, among other departments.

In 2002 the bookstore attracted some brief controversy over its political buttons. Among the many button designs available were slogans such as “Stop the Occupation” in reference to the Israeli occupation of Palestine. When U of T then-assistant professor of psychiatry Ari Zaretsky brought in some buttons from the Canadian Jewish Congress reading “Stop the Homicide Bombings” the bookstore refused to sell them.

What followed was harsh condemnation from several Jewish groups including the Canadian Jewish Congress, but many Jewish and non-Jewish supporters defended the bookstore. “[N]othing in my long association with the bookstore has given me cause to view them as my enemy,” Frieda Forman, a former director of Women’s Education Resources at OISE who had worked extensively with the TWB, wrote in 2002.

“Quite the contrary: they have always carried an extensive collection of books and periodicals by and for Jewish women as well as significant works on anti-Semitism and racism.” Forman was one of a group of Jewish feminists who met with TWB staff to discuss the issue and develop a new button with Israeli and Palestinian peace activists.

The TWB has received some flack for having pricey books, but has also tried to keep close to the market price for textbooks.

“I don’t find that the books are more expensive than any other place, and I find that because they are books that are hard to come by, I’m usually willing to pay,” commented Hannah Ford, who, as a double major in women and gender studies and equity studies, buys a large portion of her books at the TWB.

Alana Edun, a biology student taking women’s studies courses for her distribution credit, agreed. “Some of the books that I saw that were listed on the website for Indigo were actually more expensive,” she said.

Now over 36 years old, the history of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore is the history of Toronto’s feminist and progressive groups, and also very much a part of U of T’s history. However, late last year it was announced that without tremendous additional support, the store would be unable to repay recent debts from previous managerial regimes. The store has gotten a tremendous response since its call for donations in late 2009, but it’s not out of the woods quite yet. “We really weren’t expecting such a huge increase in sales,” said Romero-Leiva. “Right now we’re out of that immediate danger of closing.”

Having raised about $30,000 of its $40,000 fundraising goal, the bookstore will stay open at least until the end of its fiscal year on May 31. After that, the future is still uncertain. It would be a tragic irony if the bookstore that survived a major fire was felled by the changing book market and poor economic climate, but if the store has fought for this long, perhaps its final page hasn’t been written just yet.

Photos by Dan Epstein