How one bookstore’s efforts are helping Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ artists weather the pandemic through community

Glad Day Bookshop, an independent bookseller slash bar slash artistic performance venue, sits squarely in the middle of downtown Toronto’s “Gay Village” at the intersection of Church and Wellesley. It’s an icon in an iconic neighbourhood: the world’s oldest LGBTQ2S+ bookshop, and a focal point where many in the community find comfort and camaraderie.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, Glad Day has also become a source of essential financial support for LGBTQ2S+ tip-based workers, including restaurant servers, drag performers, and artists.

Since March, they’ve raised over $300,000 for community members in need. For some, this money has been a lifesaver. One grateful patron wrote on the Glad Day Facebook page that they had been living off crackers and water before they received their share of the donations.

Glad Day has also kept people connected through their online arts space that started as the pandemic began, called Glad Day TV (GDTV). Through Facebook Live and Zoom, LGBTQ2S+ artists and performers have found audiences despite the closure of physical venues, and thus have managed to keep working.

These are just the latest community initiatives from the bookstore that has been serving Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ community for 50 years. They stand out because they’re providing financial support to artists who face serious economic difficulty without opportunities to perform. Even more than that—they are models of community care in a time when feeling community is a privilege.

Glad Day was founded in 1970 by Jearld Moldenhauer in Toronto’s Annex neighbourhood, and since then has changed location several times. Moldenhauer initially ran the bookstore out of his own home, alongside another publication that would go on to become the LGBTQ2S+-focused publication, Xtra.

After three location changes, Glad Day found itself on Toronto’s famous Yonge Street from 1981 to 2016. According to Michael Erickson, one of Glad Day’s current co-owners, the bookstore was bought by 23 people in 2012 to save it from closing.

Currently, the store sits in the centre of the “Gay Village,” the downtown Toronto neighbourhood which has been historically accepting for LGBTQ2S+ people and hosts the city’s annual Pride festival.

“I think we revitalized a street that had been kind of dying, mostly because of gentrification,” said Erickson in an interview with The Pigeon.

The bookstore’s continued success is in part due to its unique business model. Patrons can come to Glad Day to buy the latest bestseller, but they can also grab a drink after work with friends or attend a drag performance.

“It’s no secret that [our rent] is almost $18,000 a month here,” Erickson added. “So that’s a lot of teas, that’s a lot of books to sell. So really, we need all those income streams to work.”

COVID-19 hit Canadian bookstores hard during the first wave of the pandemic. According to BookNet Canada, book sales fell 24 per cent on average during the spring and early summer, with some weeks down by up to 44 per cent compared to 2019.

While this was happening, Glad Day had already made a vital shift to their business model.

Through Facebook and Zoom, the staff of Glad Day created an online performance space called Glad Day TV (GDTV). Performers and artists can host workshops, shows, or musical performances—and get paid for their labour. 

One such artist is ZacKey Lime, a drag king and puppeteer who hosted weekly puppet shows through GDTV earlier this summer. Until recently, he was also a producer with the Toronto drag space House of Kings.

Online performance spaces were vital to his livelihood during the summer.

“Right before the pandemic, I had just recently got to a place [where drag] was my main source of income,” he said in an interview with The Pigeon.

After the pandemic began, that work quickly dried up, including an opportunity to be a curator for a stage during Pride.

ZacKey was fortunate in finding gigs online. First, he and his co-producer Alexandher Brandy shifted House of Kings online and started doing two shows a week—a four-fold increase from their pre-pandemic schedule of two shows every month.

“We were doing one booked show and one open stage every week because we [realized that] twice a week [wasn’t] enough,” he said. “If we’re going to be sitting at home all day, every day, [then] people are going to want this every week, and we [as performers] want something to do every week.”

Even with two shows a week, ZacKey found that he wanted to do more, so he started a weekly puppet show with GDTV called “Puppet Time with ZacKey Lime,” aimed at a children’s audience.

ZacKey had previously put on shows for children, but it was never a recurring gig.

“I kind of knew that if I were to do a kid’s show, it would be filmed,” he said. GDTV provided the perfect opportunity.

“[I thought to myself] now is the exact right time to do it.”

GDTV was not merely a new business strategy. It was also part of Glad Day’s mission to support the LGBTQ2S+ community by providing a space for performers.

Pre-pandemic, Glad Day would often host events for free. After Toronto went into lockdown mid-March, GDTV spots became paid opportunities funded by their Emergency Survival Fund.

This fund is administered by Glad Day’s non-profit arm, Glad Day Lit. Money is gathered from donors and redistributed to LGBTQ2S+ artists, performers, and tip-based workers.

Private individuals can donate to the fund through the Glad Day Lit website. There have been a few corporate sponsors as well, including TD Canada Trust, Absolut Vodka, and the condo developer Graywood Developments.

The fundraising has been very successful. “We’d set a goal to raise $100,000 in a month. And I think we raised $100,000 in [the first week],” Erickson said.

30 per cent of the money collected goes towards keeping Glad Day afloat. Even then, the fund has distributed over $300,000 to community members since it began in March.

The funds are distributed as grants, no-interest loans, or paid work opportunities through GDTV.

The resolve behind the fund is clearly written in the application form, which states in capitalized text, ”YOU DESERVE SUPPORT.”

“If we had things like a [Universal] Basic Income or better social supports then Glad Day wouldn’t need to launch a campaign like this,” the form continues.

The future goal for Glad Day’s owners is to merge the entire business into a single non-profit. Currently the business’ non-profit arm, Glad Day Lit, stands separately from the rest of the establishment.

Financial concerns are a big driver for this decision.

“We’re never going to make money [as a for-profit business.] We’re never going to pay off our debts even,” Erickson said.

As a non-profit, Glad Day would be eligible for grants and other funding resources. Erickson believes that while Glad Day might be a precarious for-profit business, it would be a very stable non-profit that would only require grant funding for 20–30 per cent of their business. according to him, most non-profits require funding for 75 per cent of their operating costs.

Erickson is also frank about how long GDTV can keep supporting artists.

“We might be able to go to the end of January. But we’ll need some additional funding and fundraising to go beyond that.”

If GDTV does not survive, its loss may be heavily felt by the LGBTQ2S+ artistic community, including performers like ZacKey.

“In this pandemic, Glad Day has kind of acted as a parent to everyone,” he said. “What Michael [Erickson] […] and all the staff at Glad Day do keeps this community together.”

Erickson himself describes the fund’s conception as a result of Glad Day’s knowledge of their community.

Toronto first went into lockdown the weekend of March 14. In the days leading up to lockdown, customers were telling Glad Day staff that they had lost their jobs.

“[What happened] in that [pre-lockdown] week is that people who worked at the airport, people who worked in daycare, people who worked cleaning houses, people who were artists who had gigs booked, [they all] came in saying, ‘I’ve lost my job,’” Erickson said.

In fact, the Emergency Survival Fund was launched before lockdown officially began in the city. According to Erickson, the fund launched on March 8. Bars and restaurants did not close until March 16, and Ontario premier Doug Ford didn’t declare a state of emergency until March 17.

The fund started distributing funds just a few days after it launched. By comparison, the federal government’s Canadian Emergency Response Benefit (CERB) program wasn’t made available until April 6.

Erickson said that the staff and owners of Glad Day didn’t have faith in the government to provide financial support to tip-based workers, drag performers, cleaners, and anyone with income “that isn’t always easy to track or prove.”

According to ZacKey, some drag performers and other artists were able to get financial assistance through the CERB scheme, but not everyone qualified.

The response from the community has still been overwhelmingly positive. On Glad Day’s Facebook page, grateful recipients share stories of being able to afford groceries because of the money they received from the Emergency Survival Fund.

The Toronto Arts Council lists the fund as a resource for artists in the city—and it is the only listed resource specifically catering to the LGBTQ2S+ community.

Twysted Miyake-Mugler is one of the most notable figures in Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ artistic scene. Twysted is a champion vogue dancer—an artform with its origins in the LGBTQ2S+ community of ‘60s New York City. The name of the dance style is lifted from the fashion magazine ‘Vogue’ since the form features model-like poses, spins, and contortions.

Twysted is a founder of the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance, a space for racialized youth that brings together vogue dancers from across the city for workshops, community programming, and competitive vogue competitions known as “balls.”

Over the summer, Twysted ran free, public voguing workshops through GDTV.

Previously he had only ever taught dance privately in small workshops or in his home. With GDTV, his audience immediately became larger; his workshops were attended by people as far away as Argentina and Brazil.

For Twysted, Glad Day has always been a space for performers to share their art—even those just starting out.

“Glad Day really, really, really is there for people from the ground up,” he said in an interview with The Pigeon. “A lot of people don’t really understand the importance of that because they wait for you to have some kind of reputation or following […] But Glad Day is willing to be [the] first event where people are still trying to figure out their own technique or their brand [in terms of community work].”

Erickson describes how the bookstore acts as a resource for people who may not have much of a support system of their own.

“Glad Day is the place where, when people have something to celebrate—like a promotion at work or they got into permanent school—they’ll come to Glad Day alone and tell the staff, and be happy.”

People also come for advice, such as dealing with work harassment or difficult landlords.

“We kind of function as a referral service community centre,” Erickson added. “And when all the community centres are closed, we’re still open.”

“So, if you’re having a bad day, have a coffee, have a pint, have a poutine to ease your sorrows.”

Glad Day’s unique contribution to the community stems from its unique business model, combining a traditional independent bookstore with a restaurant, a performance space, and even a therapist’s office.

It is difficult to describe that synthesis concisely, but ZacKey has a suggestion.

“Going to Glad Day feels like going to a living room, like going home.”

Tahmeed Shafiq is oftentimes a journalist, editor, and writer, but is always fond of cats. He is an undergraduate student at the University of Toronto. His writing can be found in The Varsity and Lightspeed Magazine. Find him on Twitter @tryingtotype.

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