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

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peoples_co-op_scale

The old postal scale, badly in need of calibration after serving the People’s Co-op for many years.

Hey, wait a minute (I hear you say). One moment you’re talking about the People’s Co-op Bookstore, and the next minute you’re going on about the Communist Party of Canada. Where did that come from? Time for another brief side trip to address the question of whether the People’s Co-op Bookstore is, or ever was, a “Communist Party bookstore”.

It is a question whose answer depends on the contingent circumstances. In an atmosphere of Cold War red-baiting for instance, calling the People’s Co-op Bookstore “Communist” could itself be an act of red-baiting, because “everyone knew” that the store was a co-operative, that the elected board members were all ordinary co-operative members elected by the annual general meeting, and that you too could join the co-op and run for a position on the board by buying a single share for $1. You certainly didn’t have to be a Communist (the presence on the board of the odd person like me was proof enough of that). The charge that the store was some sort of “Communist front” was just reactionary garbage.

An old chestnut of an anecdote was regularly produced in support of this line. A colourful and conservative judge of his day, a pillar of the establishment named Angelo Branca, was known to frequent the store. Why, if a crusty old bird like Angelo Branca — and nobody would accuse him of being soft on Communism — was a regular customer, how true could those pernicious rumours be?

At other times, however, the People’s Co-op was defended as a beachhead of Leninist thought within the city. A generation ago, the bookstore’s task was seen by many of its supporters as staking out a position: the People’s Co-op mandate, and inventory, was to set it and the Leninist beliefs it privileged apart from the other “false” anti-systemic movements as expressed in rival bookstores, which might be Spartacus Books, Vanguard Books, the Enver Hoxha Bookstore, Little Sister’s, or the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore. For a period in the 1960s and extending into the 1980s, the People’s Co-op Bookstore could be fairly described as being in the depths of the sectarian phase of its existence.

But the “Communist Party bookstore” position, whether inhabited by Party stalwarts or anti-Communists, simultaneously overstates the CP’s role in the store and understates the part played by others: social democrats, social gospel Christians, co-op movement mavens, trade unionists unaffiliated with any political party, ordinary members of the working class or lower middle class professions, Judge Branca. Nevertheless, there can be no doubt about the fact that the existence today, or in 1986, of the People’s Co-op Bookstore is owed to the commitment, generosity, and hard work of party members.

But by the 1990s, the store’s role within the city, and the larger community, was changing. A combination of political dynamics (the “fall of the Wall” in 1989 being a symbolically powerful moment in this process) and capitalism’s shift from dominance by producers and manufacturers (mines; factories), to dominance by the financial sector, was transforming the bookselling landscape throughout the western world. By the early 1990s, it was becoming apparent that if the People’s Co-op Bookstore was going to survive into the twenty-first century, it was going to have to reconnect with its deeper roots in the broader left-progressive community.

This was never going to be easy. And in the meantime, a catastrophe occured, one that would keep the store from grappling with these issues for another generation or so. The catastrophe came in the form of a windfall; or, rather, a series of windfalls, beginning with Expo 86.

Continue reading My Careen as a Bookseller (5) :: Wall Street Books

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