BOOKS TO FOSTER A SENSE OF PRIDE
Guayna-born former teacher is co-proprietor of Toronto bookstore
BY NORMAN FARIA
February 11, 2007
DURING the 1960s and 70s the place in Toronto to get specialized books and pamphlets on socio-economic and political developments in the developing countries like Guyana was the “Third World Bookstore” operated by Afro-Canadian couple Lennie and Gwen Johnson.
It was nicely situated on the west side of Bathurst Street just above the main thoroughfare Bloor Street. It was near not only the University of Toronto campus but also the then sizeable Caribbean immigrant communities around the Bathurst St.Clair/Vaughan Road area.
Despite the coldest, darkest overcast and gloomy Toronto winter days one could spend many a happy Saturday mornings off from work chatting with the kind hearted Gwen and Lennie who, if memory serves me, hailed from the eastern Canadian province of Nova Scotia.
They carried everything. I still have (late President) Dr. Jagan’s “West on Trial” and Walter Rodney’s “Groundings with my Brothers” which I bought here. Aside from other popular books , they sold text books and served as an outlet for self publishing authors. They closed the store in the 1990s.
Today, the Johnsons’ dedication to disseminate a wide range of views on developing countries and people of colour generally is being carried on in their own way by Guyana –born former school teacher Rita Burke and her husband Sam. Theirs is Burke’s Bookstore, opened in 1994 and presently located on St.Clair Street West near Christie Street.
The Bookstore’s website spells out their mission: ”Dedicated to providing quality items that reflect the African-Canadian/American/Caribbean Experience.(and which) are specially chosen to educate and address equity, diversity, and race issues, while fostering a sense of pride.”
“We make knowledge readily available (because we believe) people must see themselves in positive ways so that individuals can function at their highest potential”, Ms.Burke elaborated in an interview with the Sunday Chronicle while I visited the store last September.
While not shying away from the focus of the store, she mentions “African-Canadian” frequently. Ms Burke says her interest and promotional thrust also includes Indo- and other Caribbean writers. Cyril Dabydeen’s books, for example, are there as well as Cuban authors. White authors such as Marx and Castro , for which you can’t go wrong, are also stocked –just like the Johnsons did.
It’s doubtful the store could get by carrying only “serious” or “high brow” works.
They would like to carry more stuff from Caribbean-rim publishing houses. Looking around, I didn’t see too many titles from, say, the fairly well established Jamaican publishing firm Ian Randle Publishers ( it printed “Prehistoric Guiana” by Dennis Williams and “Liberation Cricket” by Barbadian Dr Hilary Beckles, for example). Rita, a former teacher at Sir Stanford Fleming College in the Ontario provincial town of Peterborough, explains; “We do stock some but frankly, it is hassle doing business from the Caribbean and I hope things improve in that regard.”
As with the Johnsons, who were among the pioneers of importing genuine handicraft from Africa and the Indian sub-continent, the Burke’s carry handicraft. They also do custom picture framing.
What’s the reading culture among her regular customers like these days and in Canada generally? The multiplicity of TV stations , video and other electronic entertainment has surely cut into reading habits. Not necessarily, says Rita with a confident tone. “There is buoyancy in reading culture. It’s holding its own.”
In 2004, the Burke’s started Burke’s Literary Awards (BURLA) to honour authors whose works fit in with the store owners’ overall outlook. The store also sponsors weekly book readings from authors such as Barbados-born Toronto residents Austin Clarke and Cecil Foster as well as Dabaydeen.
Rita (nee Ward), left birthplace Georgetown in 1967 to study nursing in the UK. In 1973, she joined Sam, also a former teacher at Sir Sandford Fleming, in Canada. As with nearly all Guyana-born people, she still remembers “back home”. She insists on straightening the Guyana flag among the others on the shelf so that it would look proper at photo taking time.
They remember the Johnsons well. In fact, they would frequently shop at their place. The Burkes still have book reading and buying habits they nourished from young.. People are still buying and reading books, they tell you. Despite the other attractions, people still haven’t gotten out of the habit of curling up with a good book and satisfying their thirst for knowledge.
Not only immigrants from places like Guyana .Longer established white Canadians wish also to learn more about the “Third World” , to learn more about new Canadians among them and share their deep traditions and aspirations so that all can work together to make Canada an even better place for all.
And one of the main places in Toronto to find exactly what they want is Burke’s Bookstore on St.Clair Street West.
(Norman Faria is Guyana’s Honorary Consul in Barbados)