New Star Blogs

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


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