The owners of A Different Booklist didn’t decide for it to become a cultural centre – their community did.
“When people came to the bookstore, they would always tell us: this is not a bookstore, this is a cultural centre,” says co-owner Itah Sadu. “One day, the guy who does the window [display] just added the words ‘Cultural Centre,’ and we left it up.”
Nowadays, A Different Booklist is many things to many people.
“We’re not just in the commerce of buying and selling, we’re in the business of people,” Sadu continues. “It’s not just about selling books, it’s about: how’s your aunt doing today? Are you aware there’s a group doing a paint night for people recovering from stroke? Sit and have a cup of tea. Are you new to the city of Toronto? Here’s a list of things to see. Do you need transportation? We have a community taxi. We’re in people’s lives.”
The bookstore, which has existed since the 90s, even before its current ownership of Sadu and her husband Miguel San Vicente, is a tenant of the bigger umbrella that is A Different Booklist Cultural Centre – The People’s Residence.
The nonprofit entity is hard to define. It’s a place for education, music, seniors, storytelling, gathering, for cultural memory. It’s a Black-owned business in an important neighbourhood for Black history in Toronto – condo developers Westbank Corp. calls it Mirvish Village, ADBCC calls it Blackhurst – but it’s bigger than the vision of one or two people. It’s an organic expression of its people.
“When groups of people get involved and put their stamp on it, it ends up being bigger and better than you could have done on your own,” Sadu says. “You’re allowing people to tell you what they want, to show you what they want, and it evolves organically.”
From Margin To Centre
A Different Booklist has always existed on Bathurst, but it changed numbers in 2017 and its about to again. Originally located on the west side of the street, it was part of a thriving version of Mirvish Village connected to Honest Ed’s. That historic, character-filled, neon-signed gem and the entire city blocks it encompassed were (almost) totally razed to make way for Westbank’s ambitious redevelopment that will also be called Mirvish Village.
Many long-standing shops, studios and businesses were displaced, including ADBCC. They eyed a few locations, but decided it was important to stay close to the energy of the neighbourhood and continue its Black lineage. The area was once filled with Black barbershops, boxing gyms, beauty stores, restaurants from Caribbean diasporas and Contrast newspaper, an important part of Canada’s Black press. Many Black teenagers attended nearby Central Tech high school, and Sadu says a lot of them still come by ADBCC as seniors.
“We have a group called the Shakers that has a Monday morning program here,” Sadu gushes. “Nobody says ‘we’re here for a senior’s program.’ They say ‘I heard there was a party here.’ I just love that.”
In 2017, they moved across the street and a couple of steps north. They invited all their customers to help move, and they came out in droves to carry boxes across Bathurst. Customers new and old wanted to be part of the moment, and even small children helped out, symbolically carrying a magazine or a book across. Others brought food when the doughnuts and coffee were gone, because the event ended up stretching from 11 am to 6 pm – much longer than they thought. People gathered and chatted or drummed, turning the move into a community celebration.
The current space is half bookstore and half cultural centre, filled with specially commissioned art and culturally significant artifacts. In our visit to the space, Sadu can barely take a step without excitedly telling us about some important piece – an artwork by Naomi Michelle Moyer, a life-size photo of Marcus Garvey that someone travelled from Ireland to see because they heard it was a statue (ADBCC is also the keeper of a slab from his Universal Negro Improvement Association) or the ribbon inscribed with the names of everyone who attended the reopening ceremony.
Unfortunately, most of that space has been hidden behind a curbside pickup window since the pandemic started – but it’s still only temporary. In fall 2022, ADBCC will move directly across the street again, just a few steps up from their old home. Everyone will be invited back to move boxes across Bathurst once again. They’re also invited to buy a brick to help finance the project and become a part of it. They’re aiming to sell a thousand bricks by this August 1, Emancipation Day.
The new space is a heritage building preserved amongst the bustling construction, right next door to Alternative Thinking, one of the few shops that held out from selling to the developer. The city, led by councillor Mike Layton, garnered a trade of a city-owned laneway to ensure there would be a permanent home for ADBCC in the new Mirvish Village.
The plans for the new People’s Residence were unveiled in early June. Construction starts in January. It’s a collaboration between Ten2Four Architects and Laptiste Architecture Inc.: Shane Laptiste, Tura Cousins Wilson, Judah Michael Mulalu and Nazli Salehi are all young Black and POC architects. It’s designed to be accessible and welcoming, exuding a sense of unrushed comfort.
“These are young, brilliant, creative people,” Sadu says. “They represent a diverse world, they look like us, and they get a chance to flex their muscle and show us the brilliance of Black creativity.”
It’s a four-storey building, including a soundproof basement for music studios and rehearsal spaces, especially drums and steel pan. The ground level will be retail and that’s where the bookstore will be a tenant. The second floor will have performance and art gallery spaces, while the third floor will be a meeting and tech hub. There will be libraries and archives, scholars in residence, community programs and event spaces, areas for entrepreneurship and more.
“The plans are for an exciting destination and hub that all Canadians will think of as a great place to visit,” Sadu says. “While we’re there, we can intersect with a community’s memory, a neighbourhood’s history. We even have a space to engage and add our own legacy. A place where whoever comes through that door is treated with equal importance.
“The best way to describe it is: bell hooks has a book called From Margin To Centre,” she continues. “We want young and old people to look at the space and feel you are at the centre and never at the margins.”
A time to listen
That question of centre and margins is one that’s been on Sadu’s mind over the last year.
“Bookstores became friends again,” she says.
The pandemic has also reaffirmed the importance of independent bookstores as the keepers of cultural memory and the means to imagine possible futures, and there’s been new attention paid specifically to Black bookstores.
In the midst of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, people started sharing and circulating Black Canadian reading lists and many came calling to A Different Booklist looking for them.
“It’s forced Canadians to re-examine themselves and ask what is really the Canadian experience?” she continues. “Let us re-examine Austin Clarke’s role in Canadian literature. We are saying Atwood, we should be saying Clarke. Is David Chariandy part of the household conversation? Let’s think about it. That’s where this moment in history has pushed the book world: how history is recorded, the voice of it, the style of it, the telling of it – to hear me tell my story with my accent, all of that.”
While that’s encouraging, Sadu says she’s seen it before and wants to see if it will continue once the moment has passed.
“This moment is not a new moment,” she says. “It’s the Pan-African moment, the Civil Rights moment, the Harlem Renaissance moment. It’s a moment we’ve been speaking of every single day. This is just an amplified moment.
“The question then becomes: is this just a moment? Or is it sustained? Is this meaningful. If I have a spot at the table, is it the chair you have provided for me or is it the chair I was forced to bring to the table myself?”
For her, she says, the time is not to talk but to listen to the response to anti-Black racism from people who aren’t Black themselves.
“The question is not what are Black people thinking? No. The question today is what is society thinking about Black people? How do they see us and what are they prepared to do? It’s not about us workshopping you, giving you equity and diversity training. It’s about: how do you see us? How do you intersect with us? Are you here to save us? Discover us? We’re listening.”
It’s important not to bask in the glory or feel the pain of one specific cultural moment, she says, but to always create a new one.
“We can’t just be a moment locked in time,” she says. We always have to look to see what will be in the next chapter – and to make a space where it can be written.”
Toronto Pillars is NOW’s series profiling longstanding legacy businesses that make the city what it is. Have a suggestion? Email me (select Life from the drop-down).