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

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So there I was, a duly elected director of the People’s Co-operative Bookstore Association.

I did not take a particularly active role during my first, early 1990s stint on the board. For one thing, I was new to the group. For another, I soon learned that it was a volunteer board in more than one sense. You voluntarily served on the board, that was the ordinary meaning. But within the store’s culture, the board was viewed as a committee of volunteers who were putting themselves at the disposal of the store’s paid staff to look after book tables, count inventory, keep the store clean, maybe even work relief shifts. With my own attention largely taken up by my newish day job, publisher of New Star Books, I was not going to be able volunteer that sort of time. So I became a board member of secondary importance and influence; and after two years, I decided not to seek a third term.

Nevertheless, even with most of my attention elsewhere, I soaked up a great deal. One thing I learned was the difference between a co-op, and the usual, strictly heirarchical organizational logic of a private, for-profit corporation. In the latter, you’re constantly required to make decisions, and the competitive aspect has a lot to do with making more good decisions than bad, and making more good decisions than the businesses on either side of you.

As a mentor / friend said to me many years ago, “Publishing is easy; all you have to do is make decisions.” The same wisdom applies across the spectrum of work. But a business that is run along the lines of a co-op (for example, the East Vancouver Food Co-operative; credit unions; wheat pools; those old Co-op gas stations and general stores) has an additional dynamic that it has to contend with: group decision-making. That, as many of you readers already know, is a bit of an oxymoron: groups seem reluctant to make decisions.

For instance: The board in the early 1990s was wrestling with the issue of the store’s wooden sandwich board sign. It had been created by a store volunteer in the 1980s, a creation of vinyl sheeting and Mac-Tac applied to half-inch plywood. The sign incorporated Angela Kenyon’s mid-1980s store logo, which incorporated a stylized book and dove of peace, and nicely evoked the clean graphic style associated with mid-century East German design trends. But it was now aging and starting to look a bit tacky, and the board was much occupied with finding a volunteer who could spruce up the sign: a task which turned out to be surprisingly difficult, once the decision had been made to commit to the volunteer approach (rather than, say, hiring a sign painter). When I left the board, they were still talking about that sign, not having managed, in two years, to knock the problem on the head.

Believe it or not, when I rejoined the board in 2009, the very first item discussed at the first meeting of the new board was an item arising from the minutes of the previous board meeting: what to do about the sign ..  It took just two years after that to come up with the new signage that now graces the storefront.

In addition to a lesson on the sclerotic process of decision-making on the bookstore board, I learned one other thing: how “Moscow gold” works. The notion promulgated by the right was that the local branch of the Communist Party was not merely in thrall to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, it accepted cash — “Moscow gold” — to pursue the ends dictated by the Kremlin, and presumably involving the subversion and overthrow of democratic capitalism in Canada,.

But this scenario could not be more wrong. It probably went more like this. One of the big Moscow foreign language publishing houses — Foreign Languages Publishing House, Mir, Raduga, and a few other imprints — would announce some titles, and the People’s Co-op would place orders for them, which would be paid for with cash, cash raised by working-class, progressive Canadians. The members would support the store by buying these books, although as any visitor to the store knows, they did not always sell. Many of these books are to this day still in the store’s inventory, decades after they were paid for.

So the ideas may have flowed westward, from Moscow. But the gold flowed eastward, towards Moscow. It is certainly all gone now.

Continue reading My Careen as a Bookseller (4) :: The People’s Cold War Bookstore

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