Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

The Last of its Kind

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Northern Women's Bookstore

By Ashliegh Gehl

If you ask Margaret Phillips, a cofounder of the Northern Woman’s Bookstore, why she opened the quaint shop in Thunder Bay, she’ll let you in on a running jest. 
 “We joke, and say it was because we were tired of having to travel 1,000 miles to be able to get our books,” she said.

Traveling that distance would bring any northwestern woman past the towering sculptures of Canadian geese in Wawa to the scenic shores of Lake Superior with a pit stop in Sault Ste. Marie. They’d scuttle past the giant nickel in Sudbury and the Spirit Catcher in Barrie until they landed on the doorstep of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.

“It was the leading [women’s] bookstore in Canada, if not North America,” said Phillips.

When the feminist movement made its way through Thunder Bay in the 1970s, advocacy groups started to crop up, tackling political issues.

“What we were lacking was the literature,” she said. “So, we decided we should have a store of our own.”

Eleven years after the TWB opened its doors in 1973, Phillips and her business partner, Anna McColl, did just that in 1984.

Since then, the landscape these stores were founded on has changed considerably. So much, that after 39 years of business and community service, the TWB is closing its doors on Nov. 30. A move that has its storeowner, Victoria Moreno, crushed.

“It’s heartbreaking for me, and it’s heartbreaking for everyone else to see it go because it’s been such a landmark in this city, but it’s been primarily an outpouring of grief more than anything,” said Moreno, about the response the closure has received.

She was about 18 years old when she stumbled upon the store for the first time; it’s a discovery that has played a significant role in her life for the past 20 years.

“It was so important for me, in that moment to have discovered it as a woman, and as a Latin American woman,” she said. “It made such a difference in my life, and the most heartbreaking thing is that this base won’t be here for other people to discover.”

Moreno was a part-time employee at the store for four to five years before stepping in to save it from closure in 2009, reopening the store several months later in the spring of 2010.

“I just made a last attempt to keep this bookstore alive because I really believe that these spaces are important,” she said. “I believe that, in this day and age, we’re losing these spaces. And perhaps they’re going into cyberspace, but they’re not the same thing. It’s not the same experience.”

Like the handful of bookstores that have fallen before it, Moreno credits ebooks, big box stores, Amazon and high rent as the cocktail responsible for the store’s demise.
In part, the demand has changed.

“It’s hard for me to say how things have changed in what [women] are buying because my experience has mainly been that people are not buying,” said Moreno.

When Phillips opened her store 28 years ago, the demand was there and the impulse to buy books by women for women was thrilling.

“We were so hungry for the literature back then, because feminist books were just beginning to be published,” said Phillips. “Historical books were being rediscovered. It was very exciting to find the literature that we could identify with.”

In Phillips’s time, the feminist movement has shifted in many directions. In the last decade — much like independent bookstores — its been declared dead more than once. Jane Tolmie, an associate professor in the department of gender studies at Queen’s University, is familiar with this lament. 

“People put a lot of energy into saying that feminism is dead. And then you always, of course, have to wonder why do you have to keep telling me that it’s dead if it’s dead, because it seems to die again every year or so,” said Tolmie. “There is that sense — especially watching the recent shenanigans during the American election — there’s that sense there’s a desire to push aside women’s interests. And I’m glad to have seen there was a push back in the election results.”

Tolmie has read a number of comments about the TWB’s closure. Some are rather unsettling. 

“Looking at comments on the Internet about the bookstore, there were all sorts of people who wrote in truly foolish things, like ‘Well, they shouldn’t have had a store that was only for women,’” she said. “And that kind of comment reflects a real problem with the idea about a bookstore that focuses on women writers is naturally alienating for male readers, which is nonsense.”

When the TWB closes up shop at the end of November, the Northern Woman’s Bookstore becomes the last of its kind. Not just in Ontario, in Canada.

“It’s just very, very sad. It makes me feel rather lonely to know that I’m the last,” said Phillips.

It’s quite possible that one day Phillips’s joke will be recycled. Surely someone will open a women’s bookstore in some part of the country all because they were tired of traveling to the boreal forest, where the northern lights brighten the winter sky.

“I’m hoping that, in someway or form, this will evolve into something else,” said Moreno. “That people will realize the importance of it and take initiative and perhaps develop and evolve into something for the newer generations, the younger generations. Something that’s still alive and hopeful for everyone out there.”

Ashliegh Gehl is a freelance writer and multimedia journalist.

She has written for the Women's Post, Montreal Gazette, Quill & Quire,, Northumberland Today and The Intelligencer newspapers.

Between countless cups of oolong tea, Ashliegh has been busy working on two books. Visit her website for more information.

Read more about the Northern Women's Bookstore on Open Book: Ontario's Literary Landmarks Map.

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