Don Wilson knows he has big shoes to fill and an important legacy to uphold as the co-owner and self-described captain of Little Sister’s Book & Art Emporium.
That’s because the retail store at 1238 Davie Street has been an anchor of Vancouver’s LGBT community since it opened in 1983 in the upstairs of a home at 1221 Thurlow Street.
“Little Sister’s is iconic in the Lower Mainland, for sure, and really all over B.C.,” Wilson told the Straight by phone. “It was always heavily involved in the Pride organization and any community projects.”
This year, the store is being honoured as part of the City of Vancouver's Year of the Queer proclamation because it's celebrating its 35th anniversary.
The cofounders of Little Sister's, Jim Deva and Bruce Smyth, turned it into a gathering place for the queer community by selling imported reading material that regularly drew the ire of Canadian customs officials.
That led to a long court fight in which David—i.e. the little shop—defeated Goliath (the feds), with the help of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association.
For Deva, this battle wasn't about money. It was about principle.
“The major impact, I think, if we are successful, is that gay and lesbian books will be imported into the country again with confidence, and they’ll be put on bookstore shelves with confidence," Deva told Straight contributor Mark Leiren-Young in 1994. "At the present time, there’s sort of this feeling I detect across Canada that mainstream bookstores are not carrying the books that they should be because they’re afraid they’re going to be stopped at the border. They’ve somehow got the concept that gay and lesbian books are obscene, which is repugnant.”
It was Little Sister’s that helped mobilize a strong police response after a gay photographer named Aaron Webster was beaten to death in Stanley Park in 2001. Deva attended the trial of the accused and ensured that community safety remained a high priority for the police and the city.
In 1990, Janine Fuller joined the staff and eventually became manager; six years later, the shop moved to its much larger location on Davie Street, where the irrepressibly cheerful Deva and the caring Fuller continued offering advice and support to the community.
In a 2009 profile in the Straight, Fuller described herself as an "accidental activist". She not only fought against censorship, she's also been an effective advocate for tenants and those living with Huntington's disease. She's now on medical leave from her job.
Deva, a former teacher, passed away in 2014. Considered a hero within the LGBT community, he's been honoured with a permanent plaza in the Davie Village not far from the store.
Wilson, who has extensive retail experience on Davie Street, stepped in to keep it going, and in October 2016 he bought Smyth’s share in the company.
Over the years, the LGBT community has dispersed from the West End to other neighbourhoods, which has led to Little Sister’s becoming a regional destination.
Wilson said he has diversified the product line with more clothing, gifts, and novelty items while still stocking a great deal of Pride-related content and adult products.
He also revealed that books are making a comeback.
“We carry a full range of flags, whether it be trans to bisexual to leather to bear,” Wilson said. “We probably have 20 different flags that are related to LGBTQ in all sizes and shapes.”