Werq the stairs: days 624 — 630

In which I reminisce about bookstores past

The weather in Vancouver is still mostly good: sunny when I go buy slip covers at Bed Bath & Beyond; or when I stroll to work in the morning; or when Vancouver House is framed by the setting sun and wispy cirri, and when I turn around and see Yaletown towers all tinted gold.

That one’s going in my 2018 retrospective for sure!

Things turned a little wetter on Thursday, though that also brought RAINBOWS. Believe it or not, I don’t remember seeing many rainbows in Vancouver. Maybe the conditions aren’t right, because if it’s overcast all the damn time you won’t get proper refraction? Don’t ask me, I’m not a rainbowologist.

But speaking of rainbows, it’s time for a stroll down queer memory lane…

1221 Thurlow Street was torn down last week. Not a big deal, I thought at first; the little Korean ribs place had been vacant for a while, and it’s far from the only West End spot to suffer this fate. However! I picked up on my social media feeds that this address was a very special one, for between 1983 and June 1996 it was the home of Little Sister’s, Vancouver’s LGBT bookstore. And then I did remember looking up the place when I moved out west in August ’96, because of course I did. And I vaguely remember being confused about which address it was at. I probably checked out both just to be sure.

Funny coincidence: the Vancouver Men’s Chorus sang a specially commissioned song about Little Sister’s in their summer show this year: the store was on the second floor above a restaurant, and on the landing was a little bulletin board where you could post classifieds, catch up on what was happening in the community, or cruise other book-lovers. Though I’ve never known the store at its old Thurlow Street location, I can easily imagine what it was like. Let’s travel further back…

After coming out in 1992, one of my my favourite places to hang out was After Stonewall, Ottawa’s LGBT bookstore. David Rimmer, the owner, was the sweetest guy you’ll ever meet; he was the first to tell me what “Stonewall” meant, and sold me the freedom rings that were all the rage back then, and which I still flaunt ever year at Pride. It was on the second floor too! 105 Fourth Avenue, just off Bank Street. A quaint little house in a quiet neighbourhood, easily accessible by transit. And am I dreaming, or was the House of Speculative Fiction located on the ground floor? Yeah, I’m pretty sure it was. Boy, there’s a gateway drug for you: grab all the curious folks and fill them with tales of other worlds, other genders and sexualities, then get them curious about the other bookstore upstairs…

After Stonewall was a safe space, where a young queer nerd could stop and relax and learn and try to find himself. It was cozy, and crowded with books and magazine racks and greeting cards and the little table with jewellery across from (ie: 5 feet from) the cash register. Their new space at 370 Bank St was bigger, more accessible and closer to downtown, but maybe it lost some of that cozy familiarity? Then again, maybe that’s just nostalgia talking. I believe both After Stonewall and Little Sister’s gained more than they lost by moving to their new digs. We don’t need to hide our bookstores away on second floors of small old houses anymore.

Still… yeah, I get it. If I heard 105 Fourth Avenue was torn down, I’d mourn. And first chance I got I’d visit the spot, and try to listen for the ghosts, the sounds of pages being turned, of baby queers hungering to discover a history and culture they never knew.

But hey, let’s end this post on a happier note: RuPaul. I remember reading about her for the first time in The Advocate (probably) and being very confused with how articles mostly used “she/her” but sometimes “he/him”—hey, we’re not born knowing the nuances of gender and drag, right?—She was at the ’93 March on Washington, which I still probably have a VHS tape of somewhere. I remember clearly one bit where she said “People always ask me where I see myself in ten years. I see myself in the White House, baby!” Which, well, didn’t quite happen. But Ru did go on to superstardom and, as problematic as the show is, RuPaul’s Drag Race has elevated many, many queens to stardom as well, and brought drag into the light.

A few of these drag stars were in Vancouver Saturday on the Werq The World tour: the top four of Season 10 (Eureka, Asia O’Hara, Kameron Michaels and Aquaria); Valentina from Season 9; Kim Chi and Bob the Drag Queen from Season 8. It was an awesome evening. Bob is hilarious, Kim Chi is gloriously nerdy, Kameron is beautiful, and I guess Asia will never live the butterfly thing down.

Who knew all this would be possible twenty-five years ago? Who would have thought parents would ever bring small children to a drag show? Who would have thought a year ago I’d ever be a Drag Race fan? But it is, and they did, and I am. Just goes to show, you never know what the future will bring.

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