Zanzibar, Yonge St

I was lucky to meet an acquaintance when I was in Toronto.  She brought me to Remy’s in Yorkville, an area I hadn’t been to yet (unfortunately, I didn’t take any pictures).  She explained to me that this was the area where you could find literary cafés in the 60’s and 70’s, unfortunately these have disappeared.  As another friend in Toronto remarked, the only building (institution) remaining from these times in this area is the Zanzibar, a strip club on Yonge Street…  Sad…

Yorkville has now become a “hip” shopping area; certainly nice for its cafés with rooftop patios, but not what it must have been.  Back in the days, the area was the centre of the hippie generation (you can see a CBC feature on Yorkville and the hippie culture in the 60’s here)  and it saw the birth of literary cafés in the vein of the Bohemian Embassy, a place where many Canadian artists, such as Margaret Atwood or Gwendolyn McEwen, made their debuts in the early 60’s.  At the time, the Bohemian Embassy was located at 7 St. Nicholas Street, I passed not far from there but was not then aware of where it used to be located so I did not make the detour.  If you want to learn more about the Bohemian Embassy, you can read the book written by its founder, Don Cullen, and I’ve also just discovered that a documentary was made about it.

Atwood mentions the Bohemian Embassy in one of her short stories, “Isis in Darkness”.  The story, which is often thought to be a tribute to Gwendolyn MacEwen, is concerned with the rise and fall of a female poet discovered by the main character, Richard, at the Bohemian Embassy in the 60’s, when he was also trying to break through as a poet.  The description she makes of this coffee-house is faithful to the one she gives in interviews (that espresso machine seems to have been quite traumatic!).  Here is an extract of “Isis in Darkness”:

“He met her on a Tuesday night, at the coffee-house.  The coffee-house, because as far as Richard knew there was not another one like it in Toronto.  It was called The Bohemian Embassy, in reference to the anti-bourgeois things that were supposed to go on in there, and to a certain extent did go on.  It sometimes got mail from more innocent citizens who had seen the listing in the phone book and thought it was a real embassy, and were writing about travel visas.  This was a source of hilarity among the regulars, of whom Richard was not quite one.

The coffee-house was on a little cobbled side-street, up on the second floor of a disused warehouse.  It was reached by a treacherous flight of wooden stairs with no banister; inside, it was dimly lit, smoke-filled, and closed down at intervals by the fire department.  The walls had been painted black, and there were small tables with checked cloths and driping candles.  It also had an espresso machine, the first one Richard had ever seen.  This machine was practicaly an icon, pointing as it did to other, superior cultures, far from Toronto.  But ut had its drawbacks.  While you were reading your poetry out loud, as Richard sometimes did, Max behind the coffee bar might turn on the machine, adding a whooshing, gurgling sound effect, as of someone being pressure-cooked and strangled.”