Edmonton Queer History Project

Celebrating the People, Places, and Events that built the Queer Community in Edmonton


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Common Woman Books by Sheryl Ackerman

Queer History Project Supporter Sheryl Ackerman wrote up this article (and provided the attached photos) on Common Woman Books. Please click here to download in PDF Form: Common Woman Books Submission Revised.

Common Woman Books

Common Woman Books acted as a gateway for me, and probably for many others, to feminist and lesbian events, resources, books, records and culture. In its early days, it was the first bookstore in Edmonton that used the word “Lesbian” for its section on lesbian resources and fiction. It also included a section for gay men. I volunteered there in the 1980s.

A little bit of history follows. Common Woman Books was created in 1978 by Mair Smith, Halyna Freeland and Julie-Anne Le Gras, to make feminist literature available to Alberta Women. It was “a whole shelf of feminist books” in Halayna’s basement in Norwood. For a while, it became a “travelling bookstore” until it moved to a real bookstore location on 109 Street above Windsor Bowl. It was now the first women’s bookstore in Alberta, and was run as a non-profit collective. About 15 women were part of that collective.

September 12, 1981 was the big STOREFRONT opening on 104 Street in Old Strathcona, where it really grew, and became a boisterous centre that included books, records, events, a bulletin board always full of fabulous and interesting information, author readings and signings, concerts (such as Holly Near), guest speakers (e.g. Kate Millet, Barbara Ehrenreich), film festivals and so on. It was a hub of activity, centered on the desire for social change.

In 1987, the store moved to much larger premises on 109 Street in the Garneau Theatre Building. Andrea (Harbour) Ansbacher and Halyna Freeland were key in keeping the store running, Andrea as full time, and Halyna as part time staff. There were still volunteers and an 11-member board. The store added to its name, and became Common Woman Books/ the Radical Bookseller. According to Andrea, “Although we branched out into selling socialist and gay men’s books, it was still the feminist theory, lesbian and women’s fiction which paid the rent.”

Andrea also recalls, “Common Woman Books had one more move, back to Old Strathcona on Whyte Ave and 106th Street. But by now, many stores carried feminist books, and even lesbian books could be bought in more ‘regular’ bookstores. I believe Common Woman Books and other ‘feminist bookstores’ led the way for this to happen.”

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Orlando Books (1993-2002)

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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,