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Historicist: Third World Books and Crafts

Leonard and Gwendolyn Johnston's venerable black-culture bookstore.

Advertisement from the Black Trade and Business Directory (1970)

Advertisement from the Black Trade and Business Directory (1970).

“All through my life the schools avoided me,” explained Leonard Johnston, proprietor of Third World Books and Crafts, to a newspaper reporter who visited his shop in the summer of 1969. “They ignored my history, my culture, my music. Now I’m trying to educate. Politically, culturally, every way I can think of. In fact, I’d rather convince you than sell you a book.” The bookstore, which the militant radical and railway porter had opened with his wife Gwendolyn less than a year earlier, specialized in books on the history and culture of Africa and its diaspora, black literature, and volumes on radical politics. The store’s purpose was to enable the local black community to learn about themselves.

Decades later it had succeeded, becoming recognized, in the words of journalist Philip Marchand, as the “nerve centre for black intellectuals in Toronto.” Third World Books thrived for more than 30 years, at numerous addresses but most notably in the heart of Seaton Village—a strip of businesses along Bathurst Street catering to the city’s black and Caribbean communities—until it closed in early 2000, not long after Lenny Johnston’s death.

Article from the Toronto Star (August 23, 1969) featuring an interview with Leonard Johnston

Article from the Toronto Star (August 23, 1969) featuring an interview with Leonard Johnston.

Toronto-born Leonard Johnston was a member of one of the city’s earliest black singing groups, the Onyx Boys. In the 1930s, the trio sang numbers like Jimmie Lunceford’s “Linger Awhile,” and they were regular guests on local radio—although, as Johnston complained bitterly decades, later, “We never got a dime.”

During the day he worked as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway for well over 30 years, becoming an active member of the union led by Stanley Grizzle. Politically minded, he joined the Communist Party, and became an activist for racial equality. He got married in 1937 to Gwendolyn, also born in Toronto, and they would have three children.

A voracious reader, Lenny Johnston learned everything he could about African-Canadian history and world politics, and long dreamed of opening a bookstore where members of the black community could congregate, learn about their culture and history, and debate politics. Setting aside $16 per month from his pay for years, the Johnstons eventually saved enough to open the bookstore in November 1968. Lenny kept his job on the railroad, but on off days he traded his porter’s uniform for a dashiki to man his shop’s counter. They named it Third World Books and Crafts, he once explained, for the two thirds of the world’s population that is non-white.

“It’s worth it because we feel that we have been instrumental in our people learning about themselves,” Gwen later recalled of their intentions for the store. “When we were children and sat in school, there was nothing taught about the wonderful history of Africa, nothing about what black people had contributed to the world. Can you imagine that? They just tried to cut us out of history and so we feel that in a small way, we’ve been able to open these doors.”

In this, Third World Books was part of a late 1960s black cultural renaissance in Toronto, during which numerous university student groups, cultural organizations, community newspapers, shops, and restaurants were established. Historian Funké Aladejebi has suggested that one of this movement’s dominant motives was to educate and raise the consciousness of Toronto’s 40,000 black residents.

Faced with discrimination in the workplace, on public transit, and in the rental housing market in Toronto, blacks came together to vent about feeling like second-class citizens “in circles where there was trust, support and camaraderie,” writes Althea Prince, who was a student and activist in the 1960s and 1970s. Third World Books provided one such venue.

However, not everyone was happy about the bookstore’s existence. In its early years, the storefront window became the target of graffitied swastikas and messages of hate. But the Johnstons persevered.

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The small store’s interior was decorated with posters of Malcolm X and Chairman Mao, authentic African masks, and a one-dollar bill sent to Johnston by a white supremacist threatening him to get out of town. A small sign, handwritten by Johnston and posted on the wall, read: “For 400 years the man had us working for nothing. Now he sells us books telling us how he did it. He wins again.”

(Right: Cover of the first edition of Eldridge Cleaver’s Soul on Ice [Ramparts Press Inc., 1968], a book available at Third World Books. From Wikimedia Commons.)

By the early 1970s, it was rumoured that Third World was home to more than 10,000 books. They were an eclectic literary mix, but Lenny was extremely knowledgeable about everything he sold. “You got an introduction to everything on the shelves,” one regular visitor recalled in the Star decades later. “He read every damn thing in the place.”

There were politically charged volumes by Eldridge Cleaver, Frantz Fanon, Kwame Nkrumah, and Stokely Carmichael; novels by the likes of Richard Wright and Austin Clarke; and books of verse. The most incendiary material was kept in a back room until requested by name. And there was lighter fare like periodicals, Caribbean and soul food cookbooks, and a selection of children’s books. Many of the books were specially imported and unavailable anywhere else in Toronto.

“Even the library didn’t have some of the books Third World was able to bring in,” Rosemary Sadlier, author and president of the Ontario Black History Society, once told a reporter. In addition to books, the shelves were filled with African crafts, items carved from ebony, and Muslim prayer shawls. Johnston also sold dashikis, in African prints and bright colours, navy blue Mao suits, and LPs of African music.

From his perch behind the counter at Third World Books, Johnston became something of an unofficial spokesman for the local black community, being quoted in the newspaper regularly in the store’s early years. He never pulled punches, letting his philosophical mix of Marxism and Malcolm X—as one reporter described it—shine through. Asked for his opinion on how life for blacks in Canada compared to the United States for a Star article in November 1970, Johnston didn’t see much difference. “The only difference is in degree and percentage,” he expounded. “If there were more blacks here it would be the same. America’s racism is raw, it’s out front. Here, it’s covered up.”

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On at least one occasion, apparently tired of being asked the same questions again and again, Johnston threw one reporter’s line of inquiry back at him. “Look, let me ask you this,” he told Barrie Hale in the Globe and Mail in May 1971. “You’re white. What does it feel like to be a white man in Toronto, a white man in Canada?”

(Left: Article from the Globe Magazine [May 8, 1971] featuring an interview with Leonard Johnston.)

The Johnstons’ desire to educate went beyond the bookstore. In a collection of essays, Althea Prince, a university friend of the Johnstons’ daughter, recalled attending Sunday brunches at the Johnston household. “At those brunches, the Johnstons talked to us about life in Canada, about Pan-Africanism, and a new vision of world history,” wrote Prince, who is today a professor and author. “This vision located us as part of an African Diaspora which had a mission at hand.” Prince regarded the Johnstons—affectionately known by many as “Lennie and Gwennie“—as being her “surrogate parents.”

The success of Third World Books had much to do with Lenny Johnston’s dynamic personality and sharp wit. He intently and intensely debated ideas with anyone, black or white, who came into the shop. “He liked to talk on any subject and most of his ideas where his and only his,” his daughter Carol McGrath later reminisced for Elaine Carey in a May 1998 edition of the Star. “You may not have agreed with him but everyone always listened to him.”

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Historian Sheldon Taylor first visited Third World Books in the early 1970s as a student, looking for a copy of Robin Winks’s newly published The Blacks in Canada (1971). He couldn’t afford the cover price, so Johnston gave him a copy as a gift. While Taylor completed his PhD, the bookshop became a second home for him, although Taylor—a “right of centre radical” by his own admission—and the militant leftist bookseller didn’t always see eye to eye. “He used to tell me that the only radical thing about me was the size of my afro,” Taylor remembered in the Star on February 3, 2000. The two remained longtime friends.

(Right: Advertisement from the Black Trade and Business Directory [1970].)

David Austin, a radio documentarian who shopped there regularly in the 1980s, had similar experiences. “In these formative years,” Austin recalled of his weekly visits in the Star on October 22, 2006, “I, like so many other young men and women who frequented the store, was exposed to writers and thinkers—Audre Lourde, Claude McKay, bell hooks, Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Cheikh Anta Diop, C.L.R. James—and a range of ideas such as Pan-Africanism, socialism, Third Worldism, and anti-imperialism. Third World Books was the site of lively, and, at times, heated debate. We were imagining and crafting the world anew, and our tools were the books that graced the store’s shelves.”

The strip of shops, on Bathurst south of Dupont, where Third World Books was once located. Photo by Kevin Plummer/Torontoist.

Located first at 70 Walton Street—at Gerrard and Bay streets—Third World Books moved to 689 Bay Street, then 748 Bay Street. It survived longer than competing stores that opened in the 1970s and 1980s catering to local black readers and political activists. In the early 1980s, the Johnstons relocated to larger premises at 942 Bathurst Street, between Bloor and Dupont, in the heart of Seaton Village, a neighbourhood that emerged as “the axis of immigrant Caribbean-Canadian life,” in Royson James’s words. Within blocks of the new location were the headquarters of the Home Service Association, supermarkets specializing in Caribbean food, Musicland Records, Tropic Furniture Mart, the Carib Foto Studio, beauty salons, barber shops, and restaurants. Al Hamilton’s Contrast, one of the city’s first black newspapers, wasn’t far away.

In a review of Toni Morrison’s Jazz for Canadian Woman Studies, an academic recalled how she’d come across the book by happenstance, revealing something of what it was like to shop at Third World Books:

Books are not fastidiously catalogued as they are in the new high-tech bookstores; rather they are scattered here and there on shelves, tabletops, wherever open space may be found. I remember I was looking for a book … and I moved aside a stack of books to reach some others piled on the floor. And there at the bottom of the pile was a [newly published] book entitled Jazz by none other than Toni Morrison.

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Third World Books grew to be one of the largest black bookstores in North America and, Norman Richmond assessed in an obituary for Lenny Johnston, “an important intellectual and cultural centre.” Renowned across the continent, Third World Books attracted famous visitors over the years including Angela Davis, Paul Robeson, the Mills Brothers, Quincy Jones, and Michael Jackson and his brothers (who heard about it from Jones).

(Right: Obituary of Leonard Johnston from the Globe and Mail [June 22, 1998].)

Third World Books, over the years, served as a venue for innumerable book launches, author lectures, seminars, community meetings, and even karate classes. The Johnstons’ support for local artists and authors was heartfelt and enthusiastic. Third World Books provided local authors with self-published or small press books an outlet to sell their publications, speak at events, and otherwise find an audience.

Third World Books became one of the first venues to sell a local, fledgling black women’s art journal, At the Crossroads. Of the Johnstons, the periodical’s publisher, Karen Miranda Augustine, recalled: “They were encouraging, hoping you did well, and valuing all that you tried to do. And, unlike many adults, they took you seriously.” She continued:

I still remember with much affection Gwen and Lenny’s concern when I came in after a nine-month publishing drought: “Are you bringing in your magazine? Are you still publishing? You haven’t stopped?” Almost in unison, looking at me intently—their encouragement heartened me, as I pulled fresh copies out of my bag. They didn’t want me, or any other youth, to give up. They understood what was necessary. And they knew that you could do it.

Another local black enterprise the Johnstons helped foster was the Too Black Guys apparel line in the early 1990s. Before being picked up by Spike Lee’s shop in New York City, and before the hip-hop clothing company opened its own boutique in Seaton Village, Too Black Guys got its start selling its line of shirts emblazoned with black pride slogans and lessons from black history from the basement of Third World Books.

The Johnstons proved to be community leaders beyond the bookstore as well. Lenny was an active member of a number of community organizations. He and Gwendolyn jointly received a Harry Jerome Award from the Black Business and Professional Association in 1997, and she was honoured by the Ontario Black History Society for her community service.

Lenny Johnston died in late April 1998, at the age of 79, after a long fight with heart disease. Gwendolyn, who had long worked alongside Lenny but was by then in her 80s, kept the shop going for a spell. There were suggestions within the local black community that someone would buy the store and continue its legacy, but no offer ever materialized. Eventually, on January 15, 2000, Third World Books quietly ceased operations after more than 30 years.

The Star‘s Royson James remembered Third World Books, on the occasion of Gwendolyn Johnston’s own death in early May 2009, as “the Bathurst St. landmark that for decades served as propagator and preserver of black literature on love and protest, triumph and disaster.”

Fortunately, in the decade and a half since Third World Books closed, new bookstores catering to the black community, such as A Different Booklist, located just south of Bloor Street on Bathurst, and Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton, have opened to fill the void. They carry on Third World Books’ legacy of carefully curated and culturally attuned reading material.

Sources include: Yaa Amoaba Gooden, “‘Betta Must Come’ African Caribbean Migrants in Canada: Migration, Community Building and Cultural Legacies,” Ph.D. Dissertation, Temple University (2005); Keith S. Henry, Black Politics in Toronto Since World War I (Multicultural History Society of Ontario, 1981); Andrea O’Reilly, review of Toni Morrison’s Jazz in Canadian Woman Studies (Fall 1993); Althea Prince, Being Black: Essays by Althea Prince (Insomniac Press, 2001); and articles from the Toronto Globe and Mail (May 25, 1959; May 8, 1971; October 18, 1980; November 12, 1983; May 16, 1991; August 20, 1994; and June 22, 1998); Toronto Life (July 1994); and Toronto Star (August 23, 1969; November 7, 1970; January 18, 1972; April 30, 1973; April 14, 1979; October 12, 1980; June 9, 1986; February 5, 1990; January 15, 1994; July 5, 1997; May 4, 1998; February 3, 2000; October 22, 2006; May 5, 2009; and February 27, 2012).

Every Saturday, Historicist looks back at the events, places, and characters that have shaped Toronto into the city we know today.

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