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A Different Booklist at Bloor and Bathurst is the independent bookstore that keeps going

In case you haven't noticed, it's been "riddim an' hard times" for Toronto's independent booksellers. Queen West's Pages Books & Magazines wrote its last chapter almost a year ago due to increasing rent, and last month saw the locks changed on This Ain't The Rosedale Library, a thirty-year-old institution that had only just recently settled into smaller Kensington Market digs. Whether or not Glad Day Book Shop -- now North America's oldest gay bookstore -- will face a similar fate remains to be seen.

For the little neighbourhood book shop, the large corporate threat that was Chapters and Indigo now includes Costco and Amazon. Yet even as the bookstore battle shifts to a small versus big box versus e-market model, there still remains local independent stalwarts that have focused on an oft-ignored 'strategic alternative': community development. Bookstores are, in fact, informal community centres.

Even though A Different Booklist has long built its Bathurst and Bloor reputation on this mandate, it's ten-plus years of survival owes much to it acute sense of the still-undocumented oral and literary history of Toronto's Caribbean community. The bright yellow storefront -- always recognizable for its window stacked with carefully curated African and Caribbean lit, not to mention that Caribbean Camera newsstand just outside its front door -- is a link to a forgotten Bathurst past that includes the ghosts of the Stax-stocked Theo's Record Shop and that "nerve centre for Black intellectuals", Third World Books and Crafts.

"Book stores are seen by people in a society as a special place," explains co-owner Itah Sadu, of A Different Booklist's role as a centre of activity for a confluence of communities: the Annex, the African and Caribbean diaspora, youth and even academia.

"We have a saying here: 'we are who we are because of others'. So implicit in that is the understanding that our success is determined by the level of service and the level of engagement that we have with people in particular communities."

In some ways, that confluence is a credit to A Different Booklist's own history. The shop was originally founded  fourteen years ago by Wesley Crichlow, a tenured associate professor who carried academic books that appealed to his Caribbean-Canadian gay and lesbian studies. When Sadu and her husband, Miguel san Vincente took over ownership, they not only kept those academic connections, but expanded into their own interests.

Sadu, a Canadian-born childrens' book author and storyteller raised in Barbados, is the reason behind the shop's extensive youth section on its red shelves, and has been responsible for A Different Booklist's tight relationship with schools and libraries. Sadu was also behind the Toronto Public Library's naming its Black and Caribbean Heritage Collection in honour of Canadian icon Dr. Rita Cox.

Meanwhile, the Trinidadian-born san Vincente brought his past activism in the trade union movement and human rights to Booklist's syllabus. That, and the eventual closure of Third World Books and Crafts, reveals a willingness to not only sustain the community connections of predecessors, but also be transparent enough in what their place is in the permanence of Bathurst and Bloor's past. So when A Different Booklist celebrated its "official" tenth anniversary last year, Sadu and san Vincente celebrated by forgoing the typical self-congratulatory in-store party, opting instead for a donated park bench close to Bathurst station in honour Third World's late founders, Leonard and Gwendolyn Johnston.  

While it's easy to get lost looking at the framed photos of past book launches that line the shop's sunny corners (for the likes of Johnnie Cochrane , Lorna Goodison, and Rachel Manley) and the celebrities that have counted themselves as fans (Queen Latifah and David Rudder), it's worth considering the shop's impact on the Canadian publishing industry. Sadu casually mentions receiving a letter from Harpers Collins thanking the store for contributing to the success of Lawrence Hill's The Book of Negroes -- "The sales were significant enough [here] that we had to get noticed," she muses -- and thanks to Different Booklist's almost fifty/fifty stock split between indie and major presses, the shop's often been in a position to recommend self-published books to publishers.

Most importantly, however, has been A Different Booklist's relationship with Caribbean publishers and authors, matched by its membership in the Caribbean Publishers Network. The shop is a regular presence at Calabash, Jamaica's reputable literary festival, which has helped the shop stay on the pulse of any emerging Edwidge Dandicat's. Indeed, as Toronto's Caribbean community asserts itself with the Michael Lee Chin and the ROM-sponsored Caribana art exhibits, A Different Booklist is in a unique role in the education of Toronto's increasingly profitable diaspora market.

"Let me say this: we provide a unique type of literature for people," says Sadu. "It's usually literature people don't see themselves reflected in other spaces... because people know they can come here and see themselves reflected, I think that adds to the support we get from the community."

Rea McNamara is a Toronto-based writer and columnist.

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