Lenny Johnston was born in 1918 in Toronto to Jamaican parents who had come to Canada in 1890. Gwen was born in Toronto in 1915, and married Lenny in 1937.
Lenny worked as a porter for the Canadian Pacific Railway for over 30 years, becoming an active member of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters led by Stanley Grizzle. Lenny was a supporter of Fidel Castro and a member of the Communist Party of Canada. After leaving the Communist Party, Lenny joined the Afro-American Progressive Association, the Malcolm X Tribute Committee, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association.
Lenny was a voracious reader, with a dream of opening a bookstore. So he set aside $16 each month from his pay for years and the Johnstons eventually saved enough to open Third Wold Books and Crafts in November 1968. Lenny kept his job as a porter but on his days off he was living his dream – he was the owner of a bookstore with books by Black people about Black people in the heart of downtown Toronto.
For Toronto's African Canadian community, Third World Books and Crafts was much more than a bookstore. There, on Walton Street and through successive moves to two locations on Bay Street and then to two locations on Bathurst Street, including its final home at 942 Bathurst Street, Third World Books became a critical centre for learning. There were the frequent gatherings at the bookstore, both planned and unplanned. Newcomers found the bookstore and, with it, the Black community. They also found an understanding of racism and how it operates in Canada. African Canadians came to understand the history of slavery, colonialism, and the long history of Blacks in Canada. The bookstore gave Black children access to books that included them at the centre of the story. Students and activists came to argue, discuss and, most of all, learn from each other and from Lenny who was always ready to give a lecture about the African diaspora, the history of Blacks in Toronto, as well as local and global events. Third World Books was a place for public meetings and classes on Afrocentricity and socialism.
The Johnstons helped to foster the start-up t-shirt business of Too Black Guys, which operated out of the bookstore's basement for some time. It also became an essential stop for Black celebrities who visited Toronto. The Johnstons hosted visits from Quincy Jones as well as Michael Jackson and some of his brothers.
Lenny passed away in 1998. Gwen kept the bookstore open until 2000. She passed away in 2009.