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Zahra Dhanani never saw herself as a retail businessperson.
The co-owner of Old’s Cool General store, a beloved community hub and progressive one-stop-shop on the edge of East York, comes from a non-profit background and practiced as a lawyer once upon a time, but she never directly set out to start a business and make money from it.
She has, however, been an anti-oppression activist doing racial justice work for more than 30 years, and she’s experienced the struggle of securing funding for this kind of work in the non-profit sector firsthand.
Dhanani told blogTO she also came to Canada at the height of “Paki-bashing,” and was beat up in school regularly. “I understand what it means to not feel safe in the world,” she said.
It’s for these reasons, among others, that Dhanani and her partner Mariko Nguyen-Dhanani decided to open their cherished Toronto shop nearly six years ago.
“We didn’t open it to have a store,” said Dhanani, adding that whatever profits they make from the business go towards funding their social justice work.
“We’re businesspeople second. Our whole goal was to create a community hub out of which we could build a social justice-based community that would work on social justice issues together.”
The store — which is located at 250 Westlake Ave. in a little residential pocket surrounded by homes, low-income apartment buildings, seniors buildings, and four schools — first opened its doors in May of 2015, and in six short years has become a place of safety, community, and activism for the residents of the east end.
That mission is so ingrained in the store’s creation, in fact, that even the variety of merchandise sold at Old’s Cool reflects it.