By Casey Stepaniuk
When you walk down Davie St in the heart of Vancouver’s gay village and see the familiar hot pink electric sign for Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium—often known just as Little Sister’s—you might not realize you’re passing a lot more than an LGBTQ+ book and sex toy store. While Little Sister’s is certainly a great place to find queer books (print and digital), sex toys, rainbow pride gear, trans supplies like binders, and more, it is also a powerful queer institution with a revolutionary history.
The store was founded in 1983 by Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth, who began what became a Vancouver queer literary hub in an old house on Thurlow Street. It was the first of its kind in Vancouver, although Glad Day Bookshop in Toronto precedes it, having been opened in 1970. Little Sister’s has been at 1238 Davie Street since 1996 and you can still find them there today. Jim Deva passed away in 2014—you can now enjoy the village in his memory in Jim Deva plaza at Davie and Bute, where the rainbow crosswalks are—and Smyth passed on the torch of the store in 2016, after 33 years of service at the store’s helm with his late partner Deva. Don Wilson is now the store’s general manager and owner.
The journey to the dynamic store it is today is an enthralling story of Vancouver queer history. Did you know that Little Sister’s was involved in a decade long court battle with Canada Customs because of the seizure of books destined for the store under the guise that they were “obscene”? Especially in earlier years before the Canadian queer lit scene wasn’t as prominent as it is now, the overwhelming majority of the store’s books came from the States. But the books destined for Little Sister’s were being targeted by Canada Customs agents, who routinely seized materials, despite the fact that the same books on their way to mainstream bookstores were delivered without question.
The original claim was filed against the Federal Government in 1990, with a decision in 1996 that concluded shipments had been wrongly delayed or withheld due to the “systemic targeting of Little Sisters’ importations in the Customs Mail Center.” In 2000, the case was heard by the Supreme Court, which paradoxically ruled that the actions of Canada Customs violated section 2 (fundamental freedoms) of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms but that the violation was justified under section 1 (the limitations clause). Judges did find that the way the law was implemented by customs officials was discriminatory. They also struck down part of the law that put the onus on the importer to prove material wasn’t obscene. Can you imagine fighting for 10 years to get this mixed response from Canada’s highest court?
If you’re interested in learning more, you can check out the fictionalized version of the story as a subplot in the wonderfully kitschy queer Vancouver film Better Than Chocolate and the 2002 documentary called Little Sister’s Vs. Big Brother.
Next time you’re in the store picking out the latest Lambda Award winning book or a pride flag to wave in the parade, remember the work of Vancouver’s queer elders who fought long and hard to provide this essential service to our LGBTQ+ communities.
Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian-in-training who runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find LGBTQ+ Canadian book reviews and a queer book advice column. She also writes for Book Riot. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian
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