The End of an Institution: Saying Goodbye to the Toronto Women’s Bookstore

After withstanding protests, a bombing and two recessions, the Toronto Women’s Bookstore is one tough broad. But on Oct. 9, it was announced that the store would shut its doors for good after 39 years. At the end of November, Toronto will lose a space that has been precious to many.

“Harbord street is very quiet from mid-April to the end of August; all the students are gone,” says storeowner Victoria Moreno. “Perhaps if it were at another location people would have popped into the bookstore, discovered the café, and then it might have become that space that I was envisioning.”

Moreno’s aspirations for the Toronto Women’s Bookstore stem from her earlier experiences there. She first became a regular at the store in the late ’80s, beginning to work there in 1989 and continuing until the mid-’90s. Moreno found the TWB to be a vibrant space that served as a gathering place for a community who cared about women’s rights. It was also fiscally sustainable.

But the enterprise was no longer financially secure by the time Moreno took over ownership in the summer of 2010. Prior to that, the TWB was run as a non-profit organization. Despite being an institution within the city’s feminist enclaves, however, in December 2009 the store reached out to the community for help, and without a buyer it likely would have closed. Two years later, facing a similar situation, it is shutting its doors permanently.

The TWB was founded in 1973. The feminist movement was gaining momentum, and what began as a few shelves of books by and about women soon grew to accommodate the increase in publishing of women-centered writing. The bookshop became an important focal point for feminism within the city. Before being housed in its current location at 73 Harbord St., it was located below the Morgentaler Abortion Clinic. The bookstore was fire bombed in July 1983 in what appeared to be an attack on the clinic. Undeterred, the store reopened down the street. The loss of this historic and dynamic space has prompted an outpouring of grief from the shop’s community and an evening of readings in celebration of the store has been organized for Oct. 30.

The TWB is only the latest in a string of Toronto bookshops that have closed over the last few years. “I’m not sure how much should be read into the fact that it is a women’s bookstore versus that it is an independent bookstore,” says Rotman School of Management professor Rebecca Reuber. “The economics are just very bad for independent bookstores, and when you’ve got one that arguably has a fairly niche market, that limits it even more.” The rise of major book chains in the US and Canada, as well as the growth of online sales, online communities, and the increasing popularity of e-books have all contributed to poor returns for the store. And as both Reuber and Moreno note, the literary landscape is different from what it was when the TWB first opened: “the benefits that people were getting from the Women’s Bookstore, my guess it that they are getting them in different ways now,” says Reuber. “How people read books and how people learn about books, and share books with their friends and with a wider community— that has changed so much.”

Moreno credits her early experience at the Toronto Women’s Bookstore with empowering her and shaping her personal feminism. She describes the space as freeing. With the recent string of sexual assaults in the neighboring Bloor and Christie area, Moreno feels there is still ample need for the feminist space her store provides. “I am saddened this younger generation won’t get to experience this bookstore,” she says. “We still need this space, and yet we are losing it.”