Surrounded by finger puppets, prayer candles and homemade self-care products, Zahra Dhanani is in her element.
She is the co-owner of Old’s Cool General Store in East York, which she calls a “Mom & Mom shop.” It’s a modern version of a corner store in every sense of the word, a place where books about feminism and lottery tickets are both in ready supply.
In a video interview hosted by the Toronto Observer, Dhanani shared story of how her diverse life led her to Old’s Cool at the corner of Westlake and Lumsden Avenues.
She knew she was destined to help people become the best version of themselves and be a voice for the unheard.
“From a very young age, I was an extremely sensitive person,” said Dhanani. “I’ve always had this really intense interest in justice, and that’s propelled everything I’ve ever wanted to do.”
A former social justice lawyer, not-for-profit organizer, drag bar DJ and community activist, Dhanani immigrated to Canada from South Asia when she was about three years old. She lived in Vancouver, Edmonton and Toronto growing up and says she experienced bullying, along with racial and gender harassment, which shaped her perspective on life.
“I’ve had a varied life up until now,” Dhanani said.
What started as a hunt for a warehouse space to live in turned into an expected opportunity for Dhanani and her partner, Mariko Nguyen-Dhanani. The couple never set out to be small business owners. They made a spontaneous decision to buy the the run-down corner store and reopen it about five years ago.
“There was one old lady, probably in her late 80s, walking down the street when I came to see the spot. And she was coming into the store to get her bread. And I got really excited by that,” Dhanani siad.
“It lit a fire under me that all things, all of a sudden, came together in terms of the community work I’ve been doing.”
Old’s Cool General Store has made its presence known within the East York community by laying out their mandate in hopes of better representation for minorities, inclusivity in gender identity, and sexual orientation.
The store holds all kinds of events that support Dhanani’s passion for social justice, such as hosting “Black Santa” before the winter holidays.
The store also sold shirts for Orange Shirt Day that benefitted an Indigenous organization.
“It just got me really excited about having a community hub where we could find our own social activism, our own community building, the kind of work we wanted to do without applying for government funding,” Dhanani said.
The store has been well received by neighbours, with many posting rave reviews on Facebook. Natalie Rebelo, who praised it as “the perfect one-stop-shop.”
Old’s Cool meets the definition of an essential service during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the end of another long day helping customers, Dhanani shared some of the touching ways that they have been able to give back to the community.
“When we know that there is an under-housed or struggling person, we try to support them with groceries or whatnot,” she said. “We also reach out to people through phone and email within the community to check-in and see how they are doing.”
No matter how someone may look or identify themselves, Old’s Cool General Store welcomes you just as you are as they too continue to be inspired by the community.
“Ultimately, it is the community that keeps us alive,” Dhanani said.