Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

When A Bookstore Ain’t Just A Bookstore

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When A Bookstore Ain’t Just A Bookstore

By Dalton Higgins

As an active practicing author who works in public relations and music festival production, people always ask me, “where do you hang on your downtime, if you have any downtime?” And the answer is simple, and always the same. Bookstores. For some of those of my ilk, who were born in the 1970s, we grew up hanging out at retail outlets, not just to purchase things, but for social reasons. For example, while record stores are yesterday’s news for most, and justifiably so (I won’t lie, I found some nice gratis Stromae tunes online just last week!), it is sometimes while putzing out at these divine retail outlets that we begin to feel more alive.

It was while wasting away some rare free evening time at one of my fave bookstores, A Different Booklist in the Annex the other day, that I started to ponder a lot of things happening to me in this literary life. For one, the joint has been around for 20 years. That means that I have been thumbing through books on their shelves for that long. For my fellow roti enthusiasts, that sometimes means downing a roti and a Ting beverage next door at Caribbean Roti Palace, and then spending countless hours looking at books that reflect the politics, music, culture, art and comedy of the African Diaspora, that includes the Caribbean, African, Latin America and the indigenous Black Canadian experience. Given that I tend to view bookstores as these vital community hang spots and hubs, maybe I admittedly do too much hanging out, and not enough purchasing at times, but listen—I ain’t Michael Lee Chin or Akanimo Udofia.

As a self-professed music junkie, it was actually at another bookstore in the ‘hood that closed down in 2000 that I actually learned about jazz music. For those lucky or old enough to have visited the late Third World Books & Crafts, all I can say is “wow”. Located just north of Bloor on Bathurst Street, which used to be a hotbed of Black and Caribbean businesses—you still see some small traces of that entrepreneurial activity today—the late owners Leonard and Gwendolyn Johnston’s store was where Toronto’s black community creatives would hang out and discuss arts, business, politics and everything in between. Race relations sat atop that list of things to discuss and debate. And my experience there as a youth left a dent in my consciousness, and greatly informed how I view bookstores in general. Every time I stepped in there I would hear jazz music blaring from the speakers. Growing up in a Jamaican household where it was either R&B, country music (don’t ask) or reggae 24-7, I was intrigued. It was while visiting Third World Books that I learned about jazz legends like Thelonious Monk, Charles Mingus, Miles Davis and John Coltrane, just by talking to Lennie. He and his wife Gwendolyn opened the bookstore for the same reasons I would imagine many do—to cater to niche audiences who were an afterthought in the mainstream book business environment. And like many bookstores, they sold other things. I used to see dashiki’s in there (which might have unconsciously triggered my dashiki fixations as an adult), Ebony and Jet magazine, Fidel Castro and Black Panthers paraphernalia, and vinyl LP’s. My introduction to some of the finest writers in the world, like James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni, had nothing to do with school. For many in the community, class was in session at the bookstore because it was where they learned about their histories and cultural identities that had been ignored in traditional classroom settings. A pattern that continues to this day (see: Toronto’s Africentric Alternative School). Esteemed Toronto broadcaster Norman “Otis” Richmond once recalled how the store was so well known in North America that a young Michael Jackson and his brothers even bought books from there while in town. It was while hanging out at the store and doing everything but buying books, that I met Adrian and Rob of Too/2 Black Guys clothiers, when they were selling their tees out of Third World’s basement. This was way before they got the interest of Spike Lee, or before Mary J. Blige and Ice Cube rocked their gear. Then when they opened up their eventual retail outlet nearby, that became another haunt. You buy clothing, then you hang out and listen to new music, mostly hip hop at the time.

Attaching myself to niche community bookstores has played a major role in me having a place to hang out in other cities too, while launching titles and digging around for good live music establishments to frequent. The former Nkiru Books bookstore in Brooklyn, which was once owned by rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli was not just a place to browse new titles, but to find out what open mics and hip hop events were happening and worth checking out in the ‘hood. I even launched one of my titles Hip Hop World at Hue Man in Harlem in 2009. While the turnout was poor, of the 15 or so people that attended, one was an MTV reporter, the other a hip hop legend, but that wasn’t even the point. We were all there to share tales about our respective hip hop worlds.

While book retailing will continue to migrate to the Internet for both good and bad purposes— apparently books are one of the top items people purchase online—for some racialized community members like myself, bookstores tend to serve another entirely different purpose. It’s a safe space for inquisitive minds. And I think we should do our darndest to help keep some of these venues alive. Seriously. Buying everything on the web is way too much of an isolationist activity, non?

Dalton Higgins is a National Magazine Award-winning journalist and radio and TV broadcaster who blogs and therefore is. His book Far From Over: The Music and Life of Drake (ECW Press, Oct. 2012) sheds light on the cultural conditions in Toronto that helped create the Drake phenomenon. His five other books (Fatherhood 4.0, Hip Hop World, Hip Hop, Much Master T, Rap N' Roll: Pop Culture, Darkly Stated) examine the place where the worlds of technology, diversity, hip hop and hipster culture intersect. His daily Daltoganda, musings, rants, jabs, pontifications and fire-and-brimstone blather can be accessed from his digital pulpit on twitter: @daltonhiggins5

Click here to read Dalton's archived articles on Open Book: Toronto.

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