New Star Blogs

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