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My Careen as a Bookseller (1) :: Before It All Began

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Everybody needs a hobby. Mine is bookselling.

In the early 1990s, I was encouraged to volunteer as a member of the board of directors of the People’s Co-operative Bookstore Association, the co-operative that has run the People’s Co-op Bookstore since its establishment in 1945. This would have been around 1991 or 1992; I served two one-year terms as a member-at-large. I have some regrests that I did not pay as close attention as I might have, being somewhat pre-occupied by the demands of New Star Books, the publishing house that I had recently become proprietor of.  Still, joining the People’s Co-op board was one of the smartest moves I ever made. Thus began my real education in publishing.

A recap of the store’s history would be useful here. It was established at the end of World War II by a coalition of socialist-minded intellectuals. Founding members included Leninist members of the Communist Party of Canada, but also social democrats, rank-and-file trade unionists, community organizers and faith-based progressives. It was in fact one of the very few bookshops in a town where the book trade was dominated by the department stores (the “chains” of their own day). Up the street from where tthe Co-op set up shop was the venerable Pender Stationery & Books, and there was Ireland & Allan, a stuffy and venerable institution on Granville Street that was itself not much longer for the world. The People’s Co-op Bookstore was organized along the same principles as many other co-operative enterprises in the middle of the last century: the wheat pools, credit unions, dry goods stores, gas stations,  and the like that were springing up under the “co-op” banner around this time.

From 1945 to 1982, the bookstore was located at a series of downtown locations, the final one at the corner of Richards and Pender — the location today of a fancy-pants sandwhich shop called Finch’s. It was run by a series of managers, but the most noted are Binky Marks (for his energy and vision, as well as his abrasiveness and independent thinking, which result in Bill Duthie hiring him away in the late 1950s to manage his bookstore) and Osmo Lahti (for his dedication and longevity).  In 1983, with downtown rents having become a bit rich for the store’s blood, the People’s Co-op Bookstore headed for the near-suburbs and its current location at 1391 Commercial Drive. Ray Viaud, the longest-serving manager in the store’s history, had been appointed to the post a year before that.

The 1980s were, in retrospect for many of us in the trade, the last Golden Age of Books. It was the last time that the entire trade was not suffering from an identity crisis and wondering about its purpose in life; and it was certainly my lifetime’s Golden Age of the Independent Bookseller, when Duthie Books was in its climax stage, and book chains were no more than a small white cloud on the horizon, no bigger than a man’s hand.

The People’s Co-op Bookstore, however, had fallen on hard times. And to be fair, it had always had a bit of a struggle. The store in fact was dependant on contributions from volunteers, and ongoing fundraising efforts, to stay in business. At the same time, the proliferation of bookstores throughout the city in the decades after the People’s Co-op blazed the way — not just apolitical independents, but a plethora of progressive bookstores — afforded the luxury of sectarian bookselling. The People’s Co-op had moved some distance from its inclusive founding, and in fact had become a somewhat sectarian bookshop, forging a close identification with the Communist Party of Canada and its particular brand of Marxism-Leninism. This was to distinguish it from the various other manifestations of left-progressive thought as expressed in Vancouver bookstores. Spartacus Books, Vanguard Books, the Enver Hoxha Bookstore, the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore, and a few others staked out positions in many instances to distinguish themselves from the People’s Co-op, which many leftists thought had lost the plot.

In spite of the move to Commercial Drive and its cheaper rent (back in the 1980s; it’s not so much cheaper anymore), the store’s existence remained precarious, and the early 1980s saw some consideration being given to shuttering the People’s Co-op Bookstore.

Then, Expo 86 came along; and as every Vancouverite knows, Expo 86 changed everything.

Continue reading My Careen as a Bookseller (2) :: The Expo Years