By NORMAN (OTIS) RICHMOND
As long as I have lived in Toronto, Bathurst Street has been a viable spot for Black life in this city.
The Trane Studio (which is named after the great saxophonist, John William Coltrane) is located at 964 Bathurst Street (North of Bloor St.). It celebrated its sixth anniversary recently at a splendid event with violinist Luca Ciarla live from Italy, backed by the Waleed Kush African Jazz Ensemble.
Another significant institution on this street is A Different Booklist which is located at 746 Bathurst St. Co-owners, Miguel San Vicente and Itah Sadu, celebrated the bookstore’s 10th anniversary earlier this year.
This essay on Bathurst Street is inspired by two books, one by Dionne Brand and another by former Torontonian, Odimumba Kwamdela (J. Ashton Brathwaite).
Brand’s “Bread out of Stone: Recollections sex recognitions race dreaming police”, which was published by Coach House Press in 1994 and Kwamdela’s Soul Surviving up in Canada, which was published by Kibo Books are must reads for anyone interested in the early African experience in Toronto.
When I arrived on the scene in 1967, Bathurst Street was, for lack of a better term, a “full service” street. Theo’s Record Shop is where lovers of R& B could get the latest releases from Philly International, Stax or Motown. R&B lovers could hear the latest and greatest Black music on WUFO-AM. WUFO was the station of choice for many music fans.
Later, Bathurst Street would be the home of Third World Books & Crafts.
I witnessed many comical things at Theo’s. One of the funniest was when Al Green released the song, “Belle”. Green was tuning his back on secular R&B and moving towards gospel. One brother from Jamaica was clearly upset because he said Green was gay. “Belle” was all the proof the brother needed. As far as he was concerned Green was singing about “Adam and Steve” not “Adam and Eve”.
Green sang, “It’s you I want but Him that I need.” I attempted, unsuccessfully, I might add, to explain that Green was singing about Jesus.
You could purchase Caribbean food from Joyce’s or eat cooked food at Wong’s. Women could get their hair dyed, fried and slicked to the side at Beverly Mascoll’s Beauty Shop and men could have the same treatment at Golden Boy’s.
The only difference I found in a barber shop in Los Angeles and Toronto was the accents. L.A. was rich with the Calabama accents and T.O. was a mixture of accents from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and other spots in the English speaking Caribbean.
While some of the businesses of those long gone days are no more, others remain. Apart from A Different Booklist, Golden’s and The Trane Studio, La Parisienne Hair Place and Lloyd’s Barber Shop where many of the 1992 and 1993 Toronto Blue Jays players got their haircuts, can still be found on Bathurst St.
Kwamdela and Brand both have their own recollections of Bathurst Street. The Barbados-born Kwamdela, who founded Spear magazine (Canada’s answer to Ebony), is the brother of Oscar Braithwaite and uncle of Wendy “Motion” Brathwaite. He captures the mood of Toronto’s African community in the late 60s and early 70s in his self published volume, “Soul Surviving up in Canada.”
Writes Kwamdela: “I had known Lenny (Johnston) now for about four years. We had first met at the Home Service and Negro Library building at 941 Bathurst Street in the late ’60s when a Black organization, referred to by the White press as a “Black power” organization, was being formed. To me, it was an organization of concerned, progressive Black people. It was a beautiful experience I shall never forget, especially because the Black people who gathered there on weekends were from Africa, the United States, Canada, the Caribbean and England.
“All was not peace and love; we sometimes had heated arguments and disagreements. But, importantly, we came back.”
It was at the Home Service on Bathurst Street where Josie Garcia, D.T. (a brother from the U.S.A.) and I founded the Afro-American Progressive Association (AAPA). The AAPA used the term Afro-American to refer to all Africans born in the Western Hemisphere.
The AAPA was Toronto’s first Black Power organization. Garcia, like the late former prime minister of Grenada, Maurice Bishop, was born in Aruba. However, he grew up in the Dominican Republic and spoke Spanish as well as Dutch, Papiamento and English. He was a major asset to the AAPA.
It was Garcia who arranged for Jan Carew to be the keynote speaker at our tribute to Malcolm X in February of 1968. Carew, who was born in Guyana, had recently returned from Ghana where he lived until Kwame Nkrumah was overthrown on February 24, 1966.
Home Service was also the home of Higher Marks Educational Institute Inc. which was run by Ron Blake. Higher Marks is the precursor of today’s Afrocentric School. It was a private tutoring school that helped thousands of African children survive and thrive in the Toronto public school system.
Brand wrote about Bathurst Street being like home: “Bathurst Subway. I say it like home. It’s an uneasy saying, as uneasy as the blue-grey walls, rattling trains, late, laden buses and shrieking streetcars. But when I first came to this country, this city, at 17, it was a sign of home.”
I remember walking down Bathurst Street with Delroy Lindo who was going to meet Brand. We walked from Honest Ed’s to Black Theatre Canada.
The next time I saw him was on the silver screen in Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X where he portrayed West Indian Archie.
Bathurst Street is what Central Avenue is to Los Angeles or Lennox Avenue is to New York City.
Norman Richmond can be contacted @ Norman.firstname.lastname@example.org