Community shows support for Mirvish Village businesses
As a 10-year-old back in the late 1950s, Paul Braithwaite paid his first visit to a bookstore on his own.
That book retailer on Bathurst St. near Bloor St. W. along with the popular Third World Bookstore just up the road closed their doors a long time ago.
A Different Booklist, which is close by and promotes literature from across the African Diaspora, has been in existence for the last 20 years. First owned by Dr. Wesley Crichlow, a tenured associate professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, it’s now owned by husband and wife Miguel San Vicente and Itah Sadu.
With the upcoming redevelopment of Mirvish Village, A Different Booklist, which is housed in a building that will be torn down, has to find a new space before the end of January 2017.
Braithwaite, now 67, joined community members and local residents recently in a walk through Mirvish Village to voice their support for the bookstore to be included in the redevelopment as a space for Black cultural expression.
“A Different Booklist is a place where people come to learn about Black and African history,” he said. “More than that, it’s a community meeting place and there are very few spots like this in Toronto.”
With the emergence of the digital age, independent bookstores are quickly becoming extinct.
A Different Booklist has however proven that bookstores still matter as it was the recipient of this year’s Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
“It’s amazing how this place has been able to survive and thrive in an age when bookstores are closing throughout the country and the world,” said Braithwaite who has a law degree and is a former Ontario Ministry of Finance senior policy adviser. “It just shows they are valued.”
During the walk, Sadu made a compelling case for her business to be a vital part of the redevelopment.
“This building is going to be gone, but whatever we transition to has got to be stronger,” she pointed out. “We are very fortunate to be at this space, because I believe it is the only space that you could kind of go to in the city and have an expression of Africa Diasporic Caribbean culture.”
Sadu rolled off the names of numerous authors, politician, celebrities and even ordinary people who have visited the bookstore in the last two decades.
“Danny Glover was here recently and he was overwhelmed by the fact that while he was here, people came in reflecting the Diaspora that he could have conversations with,” she said. “When the late Johnnie Cochrane came by, he signed 91 books in less than an hour. What was awesome about him was that he obviously did his homework before he came and knew a lot about this province and this city. When the Grandmothers from South Africa come here as part of the Stephen Lewis initiative, this is the space they come to speak and hear about Canadian culture after they are finished shopping at Honest Ed’s.
“If you are the Prime Minister of Barbados or Jamaica and you want to have a tap on the pulse of what’s happening in the Diaspora, this would be the place to be. People who have fought for the liberation of South Africa have been here as have Cuban doctors who were recently here to provide an update on the Ebola crisis in West Africa.”
Trinidad-born Newmarket resident Jamille Sabga, who was on board the MV Maersk Alabama that was attacked by four Somali pirates in the treacherous Gulf of Aden nine years ago, visited the bookshop late last month.
The pirates seized the container vessel that was en route to Mombasa, Kenya, holding it for several hours before the USS Bainbridge, which was dispatched to the scene, managed to clear a path for the American-registered ship to continue the journey – with the aid of an armed escort.
The pirates held the ship’s captain, Richard Phillips, for five days in the Maersk’s life boat in the Indian Ocean before American Navy snipers shot and killed three of his abductors.
The story of Phillips and the hijacking is portrayed in the film, ‘Captain Phillips’, released three years ago.
“We heard from Mr. Sabga his narrative of that experience outside of the film that we see on Hollywood and it was riveting,” noted Sadu.
Over the years, A Different Booklist List has hosted social celebrations and educational events and it has been a space that community members have used to do business transactions.
“If you don’t have money and you think you want to get married and you have just five friends, you come into the backyard here and do that simply,” Sadu added. “People come here to ask about how we can educate our children. I have had people come into the bookstore and sell real estate and their event was free.”
Spence Gallery owner Joan Spence is unsure what the future holds for her nearby business.
Located in Mirvish Village the last 11 years, the gallery specializes in contemporary Caribbean, Latin and African art.
“The art community was quite homogenous in terms of the kind of art you would see and we started to try to fill the gap,” said Spence. “I knew quite a few artists who were very well trained and highly skilled, but yet would not have a lot of representation in other galleries. I have to find a space shortly. We have been looking. It’s just finding the right spot.”
Representatives from Westbank Corporation, the real estate developer that purchased Mirvish Village three years ago, were on hand to listen to business and community members concerns.
“It’s not about saying ‘yes’ to the first tenant that approaches us for space,” said project manager Jonah Letovsky. “That’s very easy. Our approach is how can we do retail in such a way that it reflects the community. A lot of what we have been talking about up until now in our consultations is sort of related to maintaining the heritage buildings around here. That’s important, but I think we also want to talk about the cultural and intangible heritage.”
Westbank will take possession of the buildings on the site bounded by Bloor, Bathurst, Lennox and Markham Sts. -- with the exception of one residential building at the northwestern corner of Markham and Lennox Sts. -- on February 1, 2017.
“We will have a conversation about the major themes that were discussed during the walk and that will inform the work that we do,” said Westbank project development associate Felicia Morrison.