For nearly 30 years, this activist bookseller has bridged the gaps in Canadian literature

From behind her bookstore counter, Anjula Gogia has helped spread the word of feminism and anti-racism in Canada

For Anjula Gogia, the world of books can catalyse change and help us see what we overlook

Anjula Gogia has spent her career been working to centre voices and authors who have traditionally been stuck at the margins of CanLit. (Courtesy of Anjula Gogia)

Long before the internet, feminists concocted imaginative ways to trace radical texts by women of colour. One technique — created by feminist writer Sharon Fernandez in 1989, and later refined by professor Mona Oikawa — was developing the Women of Colour bibliography: a book that listed works by women of colour, Black and Indigenous authors. For years, it sat at the front desk of Toronto Women's Bookstore, a direct and intentional way of addressing gaps in the offerings of bookstores across the continent.

When Anjula Gogia joined the Toronto Women's Bookstore in 1995, the bibliography was no longer front and centre. "It would have had to be updated all the time with new books and no one had the time," Gogia says. By then, the technique was deeply embedded into the bookstore's shelves — and ethos.

Across the country, there are only a small number of independent bookstores that are run or managed by women of colour. Gogia, an activist bookseller for nearly 30 years, was recently awarded the Freedom to Read Award by the Writer's Union of Canada — the second woman of colour to be recognized. 

Gogia first became a bookseller when she joined the Toronto Women's Bookstore shortly after moving to Toronto. The bookstore began as a single shelf in a women's resource centre on Dupont Street in the early 1970s. Later, it expanded into a full-fledged operation, with a self-defence collective and feminist printing press joining the bookstore. Through boycotts and bomb threats, the collective perservered for nearly 40 years as the city's largest independent feminist bookseller. 

That was until 10 years ago, when Toronto Women's Bookstore shut down in the aftermath of the 2008 recession. By the time the doors closed, the store had been managed by many feminist scholars, writers, and activists — including Anjula Gogia.

Gogia helped guide the organization past many obstacles with her inventiveness and insight. As an activist bookseller, now co-managing Another Story Bookshop on Roncesvalles Avenue, Gogia maintains an unwavering loyalty to, and love for, both books and her community, centering voices often consigned to the margins of CanLit. 

Anjula Gogia receiving the Freedom to Read Award. (Courtesy of Anjula Gogia)

The business of selling books 

Gogia developed a love for literature at a young age. As a teenager, she frequented Toronto Women's Bookstore to scavenge for new titles. It wasn't until she moved to the city as a student and budding activist that she could commit herself more fully to the collective. When she wasn't helping out at the store or reading, she was mobilizing with Desh Pardesh, a South Asian queer left organization and the Toronto Coalition Against Racism (TCAR). 

In her youth, Gogia was based in Ottawa, where her family resides and runs one of the largest Indian food manufacturing companies in the country. As a teenager, she observed her mother expand an at-home kitchen service into a dedicated organization housed in a 12,000-square-foot building and employing a staff of 20. Picking up and learning from her mother, Gogia developed a similar knack for entrepreneurship. 

"From the time I was 14 until I was 20, I worked for my mother's business every Saturday, holiday and summer," she tells me. It's a warm day in March, and also her birthday. We are spending lunch in the back office of Another Story Bookshop as she reminisces on her adolescence in an immigrant household. "What she taught me was the value of hard work—how to run a successful business," Gogia says about her mother. 

Many of the core values Gogia learned from her mother's entrepreneurship would later be ingrained into her own work as a bookseller. One of those principles was customer care: "I would watch how she dealt with her customers, and there was a real warmth and generosity in her spirit. I learned a lot from that. Are you friendly? Are you warm? Are you responding to people right away? Are you getting them the information? A lot of the small nitty-gritty is key to running a successful business."

Gogia's mother obtained three degrees in Delhi and completed a master of arts in English literature before immigrating to Canada in 1966 and becoming a mother and businesswoman. It was her expertise and exemplar that prepared Gogia for the work she would later set out to do as an activist bookseller. 

Bombs, boycotts and bankruptcy

This background in business prepared Gogia for the pressing issues faced by independent bookstores today, including staff retention and budgets. Despite these hurdles, Gogia has continuously found solutions. When the Toronto Women's Bookstore was struggling with finances in the mid-2000s, she made universities their primary client. Slowly, she helped manage to grow the store's course orders from $10,000 to $800,000. 

In 1983, the Toronto Women's Bookstore was bombed. Although the intended target was the nearby Morgentaler Clinic, the firebomb — thrown by anti-abortion protestors — went through the windows of TWB. The result was a fire that ruined thousands of texts, burning down the shop. In response, the feminist community rallied to raise funds. The outcome was a relocation to 73 Harbord St. and a rejuvenated spirit to continue their mission. 

I always wanted it to be a place where people who are treated like crap everywhere else in the world can come into the women's bookshop and feel like they're safe and sane.- Anjula Gogia on her time running the Toronto Women's Bookstore

But more difficulties arose. In 2002, after hosting a book launch for Nahla Abdo and Ronit Lentin, the bookshop distributed buttons, which was a common practice during their community events. This time, the distributed button included the flag of Palestine marked with the Venus symbol and read: "Women Against the Occupation."

What followed was a slow boycott of the Toronto Women's Bookstore by those who saw the store's tacit support of Palestine as anti-Semitic. Even in the face of these detractions, the store remained committed to their Jewish and Palestinian feminist alliance.             

Despite all of these hurdles, Gogia has maintained her commitment to radical feminist politics, her community and to books.

"I remember when I was at Toronto Women's Bookstore, I always wanted it to be a place where people who are treated like crap everywhere else in the world can come into the women's bookshop and feel like they're safe and sane," she says. "I wanted it to be a place where Black men could come in and not feel like they've been profiled, where they're treated with love and respect because that is their home. I wanted queer and trans people to come in and feel like this is their home, and to have the books they want to read waiting for them."

"The goal for me has always been to make people feel they have a place in the world. Also, a place to revolutionise the world because it's always about change as well: how do we make the world a better place?"

Scene from bombing of Morgantaler clinic on Harbord Street, which wrecked the adjacent women's bookstore. Debris includes Michelle Landsberg's book, Women & Children First. (Toronto Star via Getty Images)

Using books to create community and conversations 

Long before she became a Giller Prize winner, writer Souvankham Thammavongsa had her first zine sold at the Toronto Women's Bookstore. Gogia was one of the first people to sell her work. 

"I knew what I was and what I could be when Anjula put my books on inventory and kept them there all these years," Thammavongsa wrote in a reflection on that special moment for her as a poet. "I am here because someone a long time ago said I could be and made it that way. A writer can write books anytime, but to have this solid and steady and encouraging presence is what we with the brilliance of our imagination cannot form and bring to make real ... I am thankful to Anjula for seeing me as I am before I ever was."

Before Toronto Women's Bookstore closed down in 2012, Gogia had moved on to Another Story Bookshop. Opened in 1987 by Sheila M. Koffman, the store amplifies diverse voices in Canadian literature, particularly queer, trans and women of colour authors, as did the TWB. Although the histories and missions of Toronto Women's Bookstore and Another Story Bookstore are different, Gogia is a major unifier between these establishments.

"My passion for social justice has been translated into the work that I've done both at the Toronto [Women's] Bookstore and Another Story," Gogia says. "It's a passion to see books as change, how books can change people's lives and how books can change the world. That's been my guiding principle."

Gogia has been deliberate about placing international authors in conversation with the right writers from both in and outside the literary world. "I think historically, in North American and Canadian literary circles, there has been a lack of representation," she says. "You might have a great author who's not being interviewed by someone who really understands their work." 

Through her event coordination and spirit for community, Gogia has brought a host of renowned authors to Toronto, including Gayatri Spivak, Dorothy Wilson and Arundhati Roy (a guest she pursued for 15 years). She's also hosted a wealth of local writers, including Rinaldo Walcott and Naomi Klein. 

As an activist bookseller, Gogia has hosted over 400 talks. These include two conversations with Black feminist cultural critic bell hooks; celebrated Canadian writer Nalo Hopkinson with Black feminist speculative fiction legend Octavia Butler (a year before her passing); and, in the early 2000s, she hosted Alice Walker in conversation with Dionne Brand — an author for whom she has now hosted five book launches. 

"The whole question of who was interviewing whom is really important to me," she says. "That generates what kinds of conversations happen."

"Writing and reading are solitary acts. But book events are a way to bring people together and have conversations with each other," she says. "It's the way that the energy gets built when you see people who are meeting their friends they haven't seen in some time, or they're hiding from their exes. They become community events by the fact of where you host it and the kind of energy you bring to it."