Orlando Books by Jacqueline Dumas
Orlando Books was an activist, progressive bookstore on Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue from 1993 to the end of 2002.
When I opened Orlando I was just coming out as lesbian; the store was part of that coming-out process. I wasn’t too interested in the bar scene and wanted to create an alternative space where everyone in the community would feel welcome: a bright, airy open space that carried books I hadn’t been able to find in other bookstores at the time: progressive political books; feminist books; poetry; a good selection of international literature; books from small, independent presses – and books by queer writers, of course.
During our tenure, the bookstore hosted hundreds of readings for writers from across the country – among them, Daphne Marlatt, Dionne Brand, Gail Scott, Nicole Brossard, Shani Mootoo, Patricia Nell Warren, Paula Gunn Allen, Ivan Coyote, and Taste This. The store hosted musical events and publicized happenings of interest to the queer community. We sold tickets for events outside the bookstore – for EVM concerts, for Womonspace dances, the Pride dances – and for the Weird Sisters, Jennifer Berezan (who also appeared in our store on several occasions). We promoted the appearance in Edmonton of Suzanne Westenhoefer, the first openly gay comedian to appear on television, and the legendary singer/songwriter Chris Williamson. We took part in the annual Pride Parade and the Silly Summer Parade on Whyte Avenue. As part of our mandate to support social justice issues we collected money for the Delwin Vriend and Ms. T. legal challenges.
Orlando’s first location was between 108th and 109th streets, but we moved to 101st Street to escape the rising rents west of the tracks. Above the bookstore proper we opened The Room for Change where we held our readings and made the space available to groups in the community whose goals we shared: theatre workshops, singer/songwriters, political activists, spiritual gatherings. The Rainbow Business Association met there for a time.
After an incident with a local high school a group of educators and myself decided that queer students needed more support within the system. We authored a booklet that was eventually published and distributed by the Alberta Teachers’ Association called Safe and Caring Schools for Lesbian and Gay Youth: A Guide for Teachers.
There were challenges. In those days certain titles – primarily leather books from the US – were routinely stopped at the border, and when that happened our entire shipment of books would be stopped, which meant that dozens of titles (including customers’ special orders) could be held up for months because of one title, and by the time the books finally did arrive they were usually damaged.
In a way, the store became a gay bookstore by default. As Orlando became more and more active around gay issues, it became marginalized. The media would call to ask my opinion about current gay issues; however they never called about the weekly literary events. The Edmonton Journal stopped including our titles in the bestseller list. And although Orlando was not strictly a queer bookstore, in the minds of some, the fact that I was openly lesbian and outspoken came to define the bookstore itself. A few closeted people I met outside the store confessed they did not shop there for fear of being seen. And despite the fact that we probably had the best selection of progressive books in the city, a number of members of the political left stopped shopping at Orlando, Even nowadays when I mention which store I owned in Edmonton, the dismissive response is often, “oh yeah, the gay one.” When I hear that, I know that person never set foot in the store.
Mostly as a result of drastic changes in the book industry, Orlando Books closed in the late fall of 2002,