Pride in Places: How the world’s oldest queer bookstore propelled Canada’s equal rights movement

Glad Day Bookshop storefront
(Photos courtesy of Glad Day Bookshop)

The founding of Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto in 1970 was an act of activism. 

Before Jearld Moldenhauer set down roots for what would become the oldest queer bookstore in the world, he had to face and own his identity. He wrote about confronting the psychological torture related to his repressed homosexual feelings and desires. 

While studying undergraduate at Cornell, he searched for literature that could help him grapple with gayness, except the libraries available carried an “evil intent” regarding homosexuality. Moldenhauer began to experience an “inner voice” pushing him to take on the role of a gay political organizer.

After graduation, he worked as a research assistant to a physiologist at the University of Toronto, but he was terminated after creating a gay student union on the campus. Not yet finding his voice, he didn’t protest. Instead, he’d hitchhike across Western and Eastern Europe for eight months before returning to Toronto to build Glad Day Bookshop as a second project to support Toronto’s fledgling Gay Movement. 

A performance inside Glad Day Bookshop

By 1974, unexpectedly, he found himself as a full-time bookseller, and the business was thriving until the government began targeting and trying to censor queer literature in 1985.  In his writing, Moldenhauer remembers the seizures of books, magazines, films, and even greeting cards escalated to the point where it became clear that the authorities were determined to put Glad Day out of business.

Glad Day wouldn’t go down without a fight, including challenging the court over the banning of The Joy of Gay Sex by Dr. Charles Silverstein and Edmund White. Winning was bittersweet because it only exacerbated the animosity from homophobic outside parties.

The trajectory of the gay equal rights movement aligned with the existence of the bookstore, most notably, the Toronto Bathhouse Raids in 1981, which propelled Canada’s queer revolution with the same vigor Stonewall Riots energized in America. The bookstore was where people found information regarding the movement and connected with like-minded community members.

Patrons in drag inside Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto.

Moldenhauer writes that by 1991, he grew “tired of both the unending harassment by the Canadian Government and the regular commutes between Toronto and Boston,” where he had opened a second location. As a result, he sold the Toronto operations to John Bruce Scythes, who ran it for the next 21 years. 

But as progress swept Canada, including the federal legalization of gay marriage in 2005 – ten years before the United States – new modern dangers threatened Glad Day Bookshop, more specifically, the digitization of libraries and high rent prices. 

In 2011, permanent closure loomed over Glad Day until its customers intervened. The same folks who found themselves in the literature and a sense of belonging within the bookstore walls refused to say goodbye to a place that had been instrumental to their liberation. 

Glad Day Bookshop

One of its current co-owners, Michael Erickson, told Thrillist that he “corralled a group of over two dozen people to pool their money and purchase the space.” Four years later, they relocated the historic bookstore to the gay neighborhood of Church and Wellesley, inside a former bar 5x times bigger.  

Erikson said, “I think bookstores become like a home base for a lot of people’s journey of self-awareness. 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.”

A party at Glad Day Bookshop

To ensure Glad Day Bookshop would survive for future generations, the group of owners made the business-savvy decision to make it a permanent event space. They put the bookcases on wheels to make the venue easily accommodate their 75+ 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,” Erikson told the outlet. 

But the community’s queer ambition didn’t stop there, and in 2015, they launched Naked Heart: LGBTQ Festival of Words, one of the largest queer and trans literary festivals in North America.

Inside Glad Day Bookshop

The bookstore continues to fight an uphill battle for its existence, most recently, the lockdown brought upon by Covid. And yet Glad Day concerns itself with the community it champions instead. 

Its activism branch, Glad Day Lit, created a fund for 2SLGBTQ artists, performers, and tip-based workers in March 2020, raising over $230,000 in 7 weeks and providing emergency funds to over 800 2SLGBTQ people in need across Canada in the first two years of the pandemic. 

Despite world bookstores dwindling in numbers, it remains North America’s oldest surviving–and thriving–gay bookstore. And it just goes to show: where there are queer people with a will and access to information, there will always be a way. 

Glad Day Bookshop

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