It’s one of spring’s first patio-worthy evenings in Toronto and Michael Erickson is basking in the mild weather on Glad Day Bookshop’s back porch. “Tell everyone!” he says of the hidden gem of a patio off Church Street, which a neighbouring business wants to rip out in order to build a private laneway behind the bookstore.
Glad Day’s new location couldn’t feel farther from the cramped Brontë-esque attic above Yonge Street, three blocks away, where the world’s oldest LGBTQ bookstore was located for 35 of its 47-year history. The front window is filled with groups of friends catching up over food at the café-style counter that runs along the south side of the store, while the heart of the 200-person-capacity room is filled with dozens of young gay men from the OurSpace social club listening to AIDS activist Tim McCaskell read from his book Queer Progress: From Homophobia to Homonationalism. During a typical visit to Glad Day’s former location, you might have seen one other customer. Or you might not have.
Five years ago, as indie bookstores in Toronto and beyond seemed to be going extinct, Glad Day’s owner John Scythes tried – and failed – to find a buyer for his own failing business. That’s when Erickson, a high school English teacher with twin passions for books and LGBTQ activism, led the charge to assemble a group of supporters who ultimately banded together to buy Glad Day.
Erickson “co-ordinated leaders of the community,” says Winnie Luk, one of the new co-owners, who has worked with the Inside Out Toronto LGBT film festival for 16 years. “It was the idea of getting as many people together who could support it financially and also, with their skillset, keep Glad Day running.”
Erickson says book sales have more than doubled since the store moved into the space once occupied by a martini bar on the historically queer stretch of Church Street last November. The co-owner collective began as a group of 23; though people have come and gone, that number has now expanded to 30. Each bought a share of the business based on their desired financial commitment. Their involvement with the store’s operations is similarly volunteer-driven. One of the collective’s first major changes was to diversify the stock, expanding the selection of titles by and about racialized and trans people. Erickson says books in all sections sell similarly well, but “queer parenting, children’s books, and youth fiction are our major sales sections.” In that spirit, drag performers Fay Slift and Fluffy Soufflé started a monthly series for gender-variant children and queer families that sees them, dressed in full regalia, reading aloud queer-friendly children’s books, such as Catherine Hernandez’s M Is For Moustache: A Pride ABC Book and Vivek Shrya’s The Boy and the Bindi.
Fay, whose typical look might consist of a full skirt, oversized Marilyn Monroe wig, green mascara, and a bushy grey beard, says her young fans “become mesmerized with the beauty that a drag performer has.” One little girl told Fay she loved her lipstick and Fay promised to give her one of her own at the next event. The next month, when Fay pulled a sparkly lip gloss out of her taco-shaped purse, the little girl couldn’t believe Fay had remembered. “I got a huge hug from her,” Fay says.
By day, Fay is J.P. Kane, a kindergarten teacher. “I see resources that for me as a teacher I could buy at Glad Day and bring into my classroom,” he says. “The more that’s provided, the more that is going to be consumed.”
It’s eclectic events such as this that have made Glad Day’s programming unique. “There was no way we could make rent selling books,” Erickson says, noting ground-level locations on Church have some of the highest rents in Toronto. “We would go bankrupt in two weeks. People come for a great meal and they might grab a drink. People come for a drink and they might pick up a book. People come for a book and they stay for a coffee.” Glad Day had events scheduled on every day of May and June, including the ’90s dance party Saved By the ’90s; Tell Me Something Good, a storytelling event focused on true sex stories; SNL, a party for queer women of colour; and the self-explanatory “tipsy knitting” on Mondays. The Brockton Writers reading series moved to Glad Day in part because of its accessible washroom, and Coach House Books will run a reading series every Tuesday in July to celebrate its newly released collection of essays, Any Other Way: How Toronto Got Queer.
Erickson says Glad Day is 10 years away from making a profit but that the store’s legacy is something money can’t buy. “There is a reason why this is the oldest surviving LGBTQ bookstore in the world,” he says. “There’s a reason why Toronto in many ways leads the world when it comes to acceptance, diversity, and freedom. I think the bookstore and freedom of speech and liberation are tied to stories. To be able to take the beauty and the power of story and for it to be manifested on a regular basis with physical human gatherings is nothing short of historic and miraculous. And so, I mean, what else are we going to do with our money?”