New Star Blogs

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


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