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The book biz: in Toronto, a women's bookstore beats the odds armed with committed politics and a savvy business plan.

At the Toronto Women's Bookstores 32nd anniversary party, there's free barbeque in the backyard and a line around the block. On the eighth day of a heat wave that's blanketed the city with smog, the joint is packed with customers chatting, fanning themselves and chowing down on burgers, salads and iced tea.


It's no small feat for any women's bookstore, not to mention one that's already survived one firebombing Firebombing is a bombing technique designed to damage a target, generally an urban area, through the use of fire from a incendiary device, rather than from the blast effect of large bombs.  (back when it was below an abortion clinic An abortion clinic is a medical facility that performs or specializes in abortions. Such clinics may be public medical centers or private medical practices.

Planned Parenthood, whose clinics offer abortions as well as other reproductive care and counseling, is the largest
) and faced down an attempted post-9/11 boycott because the store carried "End the Occupation of Palestine The term occupation of Palestine is a hotly disputed issue in the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. It may refer to:

Geographic areas:
  • West Bank
  • Gaza Strip
  • East Jerusalem
  • Golan Heights
  • Sinai peninsula
  • Israel
Political terms:
" buttons. But there's something else you notice as you look around the room: 9 of the 12 staffers--many of them rocking "Bookstore Babes" T-shirts--are women of color not of the white race; - commonly meaning, esp. in the United States, of negro blood, pure or mixed.

See also: Color
. Instead of a "Women of Color" shelf, the bookstore has a wall neatly divided into brimming shelves labeled "African-Canadian," "Caribbean," "South Asian" "First Nations," "Latina," and "Arab." They manage to pull off 1,200-person events with sliding scale slid·ing scale
A scale in which indicated prices, taxes, or wages vary in accordance with another factor, as wages with the cost-of-living index or medical charges with a patient's income.
 tickets and free childcare. Staff salaries start at $12 (or about $10 in the U.S.) an hour and get health benefits, and last fall, they were voted Best Bookstore in Toronto by NOW, the city's free weekly.

How do they do it, when other women's bookstores are going bust and still being run mostly by white folks?

Boom, Bust, Rebirth

We all know the sad story about feminist bookstores. According to according to
1. As stated or indicated by; on the authority of: according to historians.

2. In keeping with: according to instructions.

 Feminist Bookstore News (which itself went under), between 1997 and 2001, 30 percent of its member stores have closed. Many have shut down since. And it's not just the bookstores--presses have suffered, too. In the mid-'90s, independent feminist and queer presses like Press Gang, Firebrand fire·brand  
1. A person who stirs up trouble or kindles a revolt.

2. A piece of burning wood.

 or Kitchen Table were publishing lots of new books a year, many by queer women of color. By 2001, all four of those presses had closed shop. (Firebrand has since re-opened with a new owner.)


Toronto Women's Bookstore was in the red in the mid-'90s. A few years of an economic recession and the beginnings of the big box stores had taken their toll. After the store almost closed during the early '90s, May Lui and Anjula Gogia were hired and assumed managerial positions. Both were women searching for what they wanted to do with their lives. They never dreamed they'd end up running a feminist bookstore but learned they had talent for the business and loved it. While the store had a commitment to anti-racist politics, Lui and Gogia were some of the first people of color Noun 1. people of color - a race with skin pigmentation different from the white race (especially Blacks)
people of colour, colour, color

race - people who are believed to belong to the same genetic stock; "some biologists doubt that there are important
 to work in managerial positions, and they went on to carefully select and hire many more staff of color from diverse communities. The shift in staffing and the shift in vision that came with it have included a hugely expanded customer base and ramping up the store's profile by producing large-scale events (1,000-plus audiences for bell hooks Bell Hooks (or bell hooks, born Gloria Jean Watkins, on September 25, 1952) is an African-American intellectual, feminist, and social activist. Her writing has focused on the interconnectivity of race, class, and gender and their ability to produce and perpetuate , Angela Davis Angela Yvonne Davis (born January 26, 1944 in Birmingham, Alabama) is an American communist organizer, professor who was associated with the Black Panther Party (BPP) and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). , Alice Walker Noun 1. Alice Walker - United States writer (born in 1944)
Alice Malsenior Walker, Walker
 and Dorothy Allison, among others). That's what staff say got the store back in the black.

From smart moves like grabbing "" as a domain name to creating a 4,300-person e-mail list, these women emphasize that having business savvy is what has allowed them both to survive financially and to subsidize activities like $5 queer-of-color poetry nights and free childcare at big events. When Gogia came on board, the store carried books for 10 courses. Now, they stock books for 130 courses, and course book revenue makes up almost 65 percent of the store's income. "I aggressively courted professors when I came on," says Gogia. "You could see what was happening with the big box stores and I knew we had to be ready. You have to have politics but you also have to be pragmatic about how to fund them."

A Bookstore for Many

Staff like Rosina Kazi have expanded the store's reach into communities that even feminist bookstores traditionally ignored. Kazi is the lead singer for the South Asian underground band LAL LAL Laughing A Lot
LAL Los Angeles Lakers
LAL Lithuanian Airlines
LAL Lightning Activity Level (used for wildfire prediction)
LAL Limulus Amoebocyte Lysate
LAL Latitude and Longitude
LAL Live and Learn
 and a mainstay of the local activist music community. She has worked hard to use the store as a venue for hip-hop poetry nights that are all-ages and accessible to youth. Janet Romero, the store's events coordinator, works with the Latina women's writing circle Lengua Latina and organizes queer Latina and Caribbean readings at the store. She also manages a crazy, beautiful events calendar that has Shyam Selvadurai, Mango Tribe, Winona LaDuke and queer Native science fiction writer Daniel Heath-Justice on deck.

"We wanted it to be different from some other feminist bookstores," says Lui, "where when you walk in, there's all white women working there, Naomi Wolfe and Gloria Steinem on the posters and maybe a scary dream catcher or something."

When asked why so many feminist bookstores are closing, Lui says it's more complicated then just pointing the finger at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. "If the whole thing about feminism is for white women to access what white men had, a lot of that happened," Lui says. "So successful white women will go to the chain bookstores."

Gogia also thinks having a woman-of-color definition of feminism affects everything, from what books they stock to the atmosphere of the store. "When women of color are in a critical mass of leadership, the way we define feminism changes," says Gogia. "We don't just stock old-school women's politics. We have one of the best sections on globalization globalization

Process by which the experience of everyday life, marked by the diffusion of commodities and ideas, is becoming standardized around the world. Factors that have contributed to globalization include increasingly sophisticated communications and transportation
 and Middle East issues in the city. We'll do events for Octavia Butler and Dorothy Allison, but we also do the ticket sales and book tables when Tariq Ali or Noam Chomsky comes to town."

Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha (born April 21, 1975) is a Toronto-based poet, writer, educator and social activist. Her writing and performance art focuses on documenting the stories of queer and trans people of color, abuse survivors, mixed-race people and diasporic South Asians  is a Toronto-based queer Sri Lankan writer.
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Title Annotation:feature
Author:Piepzna-Samarasinha, Leah Lakshmi
Publication:Colorlines Magazine
Date:Mar 22, 2006
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