What began as a small independent book store decades ago has grown to become one of Toronto’s foremost gathering places for the Black community and others in the city.
A Different Booklist has since added ‘Cultural Centre’ to it’s name and ‘The People’s Residence’ for good measure. It’s become a place where all are welcome and most who visit will tell you carries an infectious energy.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the physical space on Bathurst Street south of Bloor Street West was a cultural hub for people to come together for workshops, open mics, and social events.
“When you went in there you felt like you were in your own home and your space,” Wendy Jones, the head of Toronto’s Pan Fantasy Steel Band, said. “As you walk through the doors, you will be greeted with the biggest hug or the biggest smile.”
Those gatherings continue online during the lockdown with book launches, interviews with speakers, and discussions about what’s described as both the past and living history for the Black community.
Owners Itah Sadu and her husband Miguel San Vincente opened the store to bring people together and learn more through literature. It soon became much more than that.
“The community said you are now a cultural centre,” Sadu said. “A meeting place, a place where expression, whether it be artistic or otherwise, sometimes refuge. They pushed us to imagine, to validate what we were doing.”
Shelves are lined with titles from Black authors telling stories often not heard or made readily available elsewhere. From that, conversations unfold and personal experiences are shared.
“If you really want to get up to speed on what’s happening in the Black community, my better off is A Different Booklist,” member Sherwin Blyden said. “That’s where the legacy lives, the history lives. Right? That’s where you know you will find that welcoming spirit.”
The store originally lived across the street from where it now stands, beside the iconic Honest Ed’s store, before it was torn down at the start of 2018. A Different Booklist transcended and survived the change, through the power of the community coming together.
“Our community can come, you give us lemons, and we are going to make you rocket fuel in a second,” Sadu said. “Suddenly, your DNA kicks in and then you remember but I came out to greatness. I just have to continue greatness.”
Now it’s a matter of negotiating with West Bank, the developer behind the new Mirvish Village currently under construction, for an opportunity to move back into an even bigger and better space.
“I’m just so proud (of) where she started and where they are now,” the senior project coordinator for Harbourfront Centre, Diana Webley, said. “There needs to be more space. It’s almost like not enough space.”
Staying in the Annex neighbourhood is key for Sadu and those who frequent A Different Booklist, based on the history of Black-owned businesses in the area. Caribbean restaurants, beauty supply stores, and barbershops once lined the street across from Bathurst subway station, but only a few are still in existence today. Around the corner was the home of Contrast newspaper, where Black writers would come together to provide the stories central to the community.
For now, it’s a matter of keeping the energy alive while looking to the future. An online ‘Buy-a-Brick’ fundraising campaign has been launched for people to donate and help continue cultural programming, while investing in the new space to come. A place that promises to add to the Black legacy in Toronto and provide that much more.
“I want to thank all the progressive people, all the people in this Annex-Bloor community,” Sadu said. “It got to a point in this development that we would attend meetings, and the community spoke on behalf of us. That is progress.”