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The World's Oldest LGBTQ Bookstore Is Still a Toronto Icon

And in normal times, they throw the best dance parties in the city.

Something fun is happening. | Photo courtesy of Glad Day Bookshop
Something fun is happening. | Photo courtesy of Glad Day Bookshop
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Sometimes a bookstore is more than just a bookstore. This is especially true in the queer community, where bookstores can function as safe spaces for activism and socializing—a place to check the bulletin board for a new roommate, a place to discover new topics and recommendations, a place to hold union meetings and even drag brunches. 

In Toronto, Glad Day Bookshop is all of the above and more. At 51 years old, it is the longest-running queer bookstore in the world, a trajectory that parallels Canada’s gay liberation movement itself. Co-owner Michael Erickson still remembers his first visit, when he first realized a representation he didn’t know was missing.

“My memory is that I was just astonished at the sheer number of books that had been written by and about gay, lesbian, bi, and trans people,” Erickson says. “I was overwhelmed at the amount, and then that also comes with a little anger and resentment because well, all these books are here, why did no one tell me? It was a mix of excitement and anger [over] your own history being denied to you.”

Photo courtesy of Glad Day Bookshop

Glad Day’s story begins in 1970 with a guy and a backpack. Frustrated by the lack of access to queer books in Canada, activist Jearld Moldenhauer turned himself into a mobile library, hauling books and manifestos to gay liberation meetings. Eventually the backpack gave way to a permanent space on Toronto’s Yonge Street. 

The year was 1981—the year of Toronto’s bathhouse raids, and a turning point in the liberation movement. On February 5th police barged into four gay bathhouses, harassing bathers, prying open lockers, and gathering names of their families and employers. Just under 300 men were charged, the largest single arrest in Toronto history at the time.

The bathhouse raids became a catalyst for revolution akin to the Stonewall riots in New York, and the bookstore, a hub. “Glad Day was a site where people would gather and organize and mobilize,” explains Erickson. “It was people finding information about the next demonstration and protest.”

The Yonge Street location later included a third floor meeting and event space. The wall of the staircase became a community board where people sought and found roommates, lovers, friends, jobs, and support. “I think bookstores become like a home base for a lot of people’s journey of self-awareness,” says  Erickson. “It also ends up being a place where people can gather for free any time. The place where they can go where there’s a problem.”

Limber! | Photo courtesy of Glad Day Bookshop

The original spirit of Glad Day still persists today, so much so that it is quite literally owned by the community. When the bookstore was in danger of closing in 2011, Erickson corralled a group of over two dozen people to pool their money and purchase the space. Four years later, Glad Day relocated to Toronto’s prominent gay neighborhood of Church and Wellesley, to a former bar about five times bigger “and about five times the rent,” jokes Erickson. 

Bookcases are on wheels, rendering the space entirely malleable for its 75 or so monthly events. “It really has a multipurpose function, where you come for a drag brunch on a Sunday and it’s always sold out and packed, and twelve hours earlier there may have been a bear bash dance party, or a lesbian hip hop night.” Most of the events have no cover charge. 

In 2015, Glad Day created Naked Heart: LGBTQ Festival of Words, one of the largest queer and trans literary festivals in North America. In a typical year, they host 40 events and over 70 authors over a weekend in November. They’ve started hosting events on their Facebook page, so even in the pandemic, folks around the world can partake in everything from writing workshops to burlesque. Meanwhile their non-profit, Glad Day Lit, has raised over over $250,000 for drag queens and queer artists who are currently out of work.

And in non-Covid times during Toronto’s Pride—one of the largest Pride festivals in the world—they also provide some respite from the thronging crowds. At least, some of the time.

“We’re right in the heart of Pride [on Church street], so on Pride weekend we can’t do quiet readings anymore,” says Erickson. “We do it leading up to the event. They can kind of duck out of the crowds, so it can be a little bit of an oasis. But then at night we just have raging parties. It’s a really huge gathering and mix of people which includes not only travelers around the world, but people who live in rural communities all across Canada too. It’s just as wild, wet, and sexy as the rest of the city.”

What a delightful crosswalk. | Anna Kraynova/Shutterstock

Michael Erickson doesn’t just work on Church Street; he calls this neighborhood home.  Here are some of his favorite restaurants, bars, and businesses to visit next time you’re in The Village (post-lockdown).

Pegasus  
Four billiard tables, dart boards, pinball machines, and trivia nights (including the upcoming “Are You Smarter Than a Scottish Guy?”) make this bar a chill alternative to the more cruisy spots in the Village. 

Woody's  
A Church Street institution opened in 1989, Woody’s is a must-visit for out-of-towners, who may recognize the bar from the television show Queer as Folk. (Though the series was set in Pittsburgh, it was filmed in Toronto.)

Dudley’s Hardware Paint & Decor
The oldest business on Church Street opened in 1934, Dudley’s is a one-stop-shop for all DIY and Pride parade needs. 

The Black Eagle 
Leather and/or denim is the demo of this two-floor industrial bar and dance club, though a simple jockstrap would work just fine. Heavily cis-male, with theme nights from Kink 101 to RuPaul's Drag Race screenings. 

Buddies In Bad Times 
An alternative theater spotlighting queer voices for the stage, plus more well known fare like a staging of Larry Kramer’s The Normal Heart and a performance by porn activist Annie Sprinkle.

Crews & Tangos
A two-floor space known for lively drag shows, plus karaoke nights and a dance floor when you’d rather be the one doing the performing. 

Hair Of The Dog
This gastropub’s spacious, ivy-laced outdoor patio is often voted the best in the city and pairs well with the notable wine list and hearty fare. 

Craig's Cookies
You can have your Pop Tart or rainbow chocolate chip cookies stuffed with unique ice-cream flavors like Ube, but if you just want the cookie dough—a family recipe—you can do that too (they say it’s to bake at home but what you do with it is up to you). 

Spa Excess 
Toronto’s largest bathhouse for men, with over four floors including a whirlpool, billiards table, full bar and gift shop for all your bathhouse curio needs (and wants). 

Express Pizza 
“After clubbing, people flock to this place called 'gay pizza' by the locals,” says Erickson. “It is actually Express Pizza at 447 Church Street) and they serve simple slices to soak up the booze in your belly.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist's Senior Travel Writer. She knows that Spa Excess isn't for her but there are some things in there she'd really just like to see for herself.
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