Somebody's Child: Stories About Adoption
Curating a "repository of souls"
i2eye with Diane Nalini de Kerckhove
Home page Contact About Bruce All articles
Changing times, changing stores
Quill & Quire, July 2006
Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium was a landmark long before its lawyers appeared before the Supreme Court, serving as what co-owner Jim Deva describes as a department store for Vancouver’s gay and lesbian community, a place where books, pride flags, videos, and sex toys could be found under one roof. But a lot has changed in the store’s 23 years of business. Lately, for example, Deva has been trying to broaden his store’s customer base by appealing to a surprising demographic – straight people.
“I think the heterosexual community is kind of going through a sexual renaissance right now,” he says. “They’re really exploring their sexuality and fantasy fun play and all of this stuff that was happening in our community 25 years ago…. We’re servicing them now, and that’s a nice feeling.” Books like the Kama Sutra and various massage titles are shelved alongside their queer counterparts in the shop’s sexuality section. Little Sister’s is also reaching out to heterosexuals by promoting the fact that local newspaper readers voted the store the city’s best card shop and the city’s best sex shop.
While it seems unlikely that straight books will ever outsell gay titles at Little Sister’s, Deva says the response has been positive so far. And this is just one strategy for dealing with a changing marketplace. As homosexuality becomes less taboo, and more information and resources are available online, gay bookstores are seeing their traditional customer base erode.
The mainstreaming of gay culture may also be affecting the market’s sense of history and community. While Little Sister’s is trying to attract a hetero clientele, other gay bookstores are looking for new ways to connect with their traditional customers. At This Ain’t the Rosedale Library, a shop in the heart of Toronto’s gay district that specializes in counterculture literature and has featured gay and lesbian titles prominently since opening in 1970, co-owner Charlie Huisken is trying to reach a younger clientele by educating them about gay literature. “I think gay and lesbian intellectuals made a mistake in being so theory-oriented,” he says. “It’s a heartbreaker when I’m waiting on young people who have never heard of Nicole Brossard or Allen Ginsberg or any of the myriad of culture heroes. We’re waiting on thousands of young people who know all about Madonna but don’t know who the real creators are because it’s not being taught.”
To remedy that, Huisken has in recent years been teaching a course called “The Beats for Beginners,” introducing students to the work of beat poets, including gay icons Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Huisken says the response has been encouraging, with the courses attracting a wide range of students of different ages and backgrounds. He teaches the 10-week course through Anarchist U, a Toronto volunteer collective that offers free courses in the arts and sciences. Huisken attracts students through ads in the store and on the Anarchist U website, and hosts classes in a space above the bookstore.
One happy side-effect of the growing interest in gay material is that it’s easier to stock quality titles, says David Rimmer, owner of After Stonewall in Ottawa. He’s also noticed a renewal of interest in gay and lesbian literature among small presses, which is encouraging. “They’re putting out more titles than ever ... reprinting people who shouldn’t have gone out of print, bringing on new talent and nurturing older ones,” says Rimmer, noting in particular the work of Canadian presses Insomniac Press and Cormorant Books. Another publisher with a gay-friendly list, Arsenal Pulp Press, has even teamed with Little Sister’s to reprint backlist titles by authors such as Jane Rule and Sarah Schulman under a separate imprint, Little Sister’s Classics. Says Rimmer: “[Customers] can walk in here and they can see gay male literature and know where to find it, so the niche market still works for me.”
But John Scythes, owner of Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop, has had a very different experience. It’s hard for him to compete with the deep discounts offered by Indigo and Amazon. “People come in, look at interesting books on our shelves, and then go home and order it on their computer. We have friends who do buy some things from us and say, ‘Well, I’m going to order this $50 hardcover on Amazon because I get $15 off.’ And we say, ‘We understand.’ After all, shopping is shopping.”
At the same time, some gay and lesbian bookstores have taken a page from Indigo and Amazon and tried to use the web to their advantage. While After Stonewall’s online catalogue is still in the works, Little Sister’s has an online store featuring a fully searchable catalogue of books and other products. “It’s a tremendous amount of work, but it’s still good, and it’s nice to be sending books and other stuff to little communities throughout Canada,” says Deva.
Glad Day, meanwhile, has been listing stock on Abebooks website for about five years, and Scythes says it makes only a small difference to his business. While the market for in-print titles is not very lucrative, online sales are a solid venue for rare and out-of-print titles.
Another challenge that gay bookstores have had to face that most others haven’t are court cases about censorship and obscenity. Little Sister’s is currently awaiting a ruling from the Supreme Court on whether it can get advance court costs to continue its 20-year fight concerning the Canada Border Services Agency’s habit of censoring gay-themed books and materials by confiscating them at the border. Glad Day fought a costly court battle against the Ontario Film Review Board stemming from charges that the bookstore sold a video that had not been rated. Glad Day challenged that the law requiring such ratings was unconstitutional and won on appeal. But in both cases, the court costs were more than $100,000 each, and while some of that was covered by donations, much of it was not.
Both This Ain’t the Rosedale Library and After Stonewall have had a few small problems at the border, but nothing on the scale of the Little Sister’s or Glad Day cases. “I don’t order a lot of smut,” says Rimmer. “I’ve had a few things taken over the years, but it’s always been something I can’t argue – I know I shouldn’t order S&M titles.”
Whether the market for specialty gay and lesbian bookstores will remain profitable is anyone’s guess. Scythes describes the market as precarious, noting that while his sales are down, he’s still doing the same amount of work as ever. For his part, Rimmer says he doesn’t see his situation improving any time soon, but that doesn’t mean he’s ready to close up shop. “It’s never been a big moneymaker, this store. It never will be. It doesn’t change much,” he says.
Deva, on the other hand, is more positive about his store’s future, despite the challenges that lie ahead. “Our books still save lives, there’s no doubt about it, and we still get the buzz of getting the right book to the right person,” he says. “A parent whose kid is coming out is always a heart-wrenching one here in the store, but if you can get them some good information, get them over the guilt thing and dealing with their son or daughter, it really is a good feeling.”
next article: Fertile ground© Bruce Gillespie 2006-2012
This site is a Happy Medium.