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

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The Expo 86 pass that enraged Vancouver

I owe my involvement in the People’s Co-op Bookstore to another historical factor: Expo 86. For if it wasn’t for Expo 86, there would have been no People’s Co-op Bookstore, and no board, for me to join five years later.

A “shibbolet” is just an ear of corn, but the Hebrews of the Biblical times found it was a useful too for sorting the human wheat from the chaff. In the twentieth century, shibboleths were refined for use to filter crypto-fascists, red-baiting cold-warriors, and weaklings and vacillators from People Like Us, who could be counted on in The Struggle.

Expo 86 was such a shibboleth. If it was clear to you that Expo 86 was merely a plaything for the rich and a tool for doubling down on the working class, that marked you for a good egg and a dependable progressive. If, on the other hand, you allowed that some good might come out of this Class 2 World’s Fair that was going to put Vancouver on the map as a world-class Rouen, well the only thing that separated you from the blackshirts of the 1930s was the lack of an openly fascist party to vote for. The 1980s were an interesting time in Vancouver. I was able to use the Expo 86 pass reproduced here to alienate just about everybody in town: my fellow revolutionaries at the barricades, most of whom never forgave me for using it; and my parents, from whom it was a gift, and who never for gave me for using it just a single time.

I could take comfort from the fact that another pillar of the left broke ranks, and embraced Expo 86: the People’s Co-op Bookstore. Because when Moscow called, wondering who was going to run the book concession at the Soviet Union’s pavilion, the progressives leading the bookstore found a way to reconcile their critique of Expo so that the People’s Co-op could answer the call.

The Soviet pavilion turned out to be one of the surprise hits of Expo 86. No wonder. Where else could you view Tom & Jerry cartoons where the cat always wins in the end? The book display too was massive, and thousands and thousands of books were sold that summer. Strange books, too. Odd single volumes of Molotov or Bukharin or Lenin. Travel guides to weird cities with bleak, massive squares and boulevards, dominated by giant Lenin statues and Marx busts, seemingly abandoned but for a couple of buses: cities that as a westerner you probably wouldn’t be allowed to visit anyway.

When Expo ended, while the giant fabric Swatch was being folded away, and the McDonald’s floating barge was being towed out of sight, and the giant hockey stick was on another barge carrying it up to Courtenay, the People’s Co-op Bookstore counted its surplus from the 165-day fair: around $125,000. Not bad: enough to underwrite the store’s operating losses for quite a few years, as it turned out.

Even as late as 1991-92, nobody on the board seemed to wonder much about the success of that Expo 86 bookstand, or to ponder the meaning of those American and European tourists carrying home those odd volumes of the works of Soviet thinkers. Expo 86 had given the city’s leading (or only, depending on your views) progressive bookstore in town a new lease on life, and that’s what was important.

Continue reading My Careen as a Bookseller (3) :: Moscow Gold

Start from the beginning: My Careen as a Bookseller (1) :: Before It All Began