By Tiffany Johnstone
Established in 1945, the People’s Co-op Bookstore (PCB) is a Vancouver landmark that epitomizes the ongoing value of independent bookstores in promoting grassroots activism, cultural literacy, and community. The small, independent PCB, which is owned and run by members of a co-op, is the oldest bookstore in the city and has outlived many others that have yielded to industry pressures (Kronbauer) such as box-stores, online stores, and e-books (Shore). The co-op, which sells a combination of used and new books, specializes in local authors and activism. It is committed to functioning as a community-based source of information by and for the people that counters the conservative political and corporate biases of the mainstream media. Nestled in the heart of the diverse and counter-cultural Commercial Drive neighbourhood (although on-going gentrification may threaten this), it also serves as an important venue for local arts events and a home for authors, activists, and residents.
The co-op was a product of post-World War Two Vancouver activists who contributed to the city’s growing reputation as a bastion of west-coast more liberal values. The original bookstore was established in the summer of 1945 at 353 West Pender in downtown Vancouver. An early brochure announces the “aim to stimulate the circulation of books that are socially significant” (Qtd. in People’s Co-op). Progressive and counter-cultural perspectives, including those of “trade unionists, Marxists, social democrats, [and] faith-based social justice activists” (People’s Co-op), animated the project. According to co-manager, Jane Bouey, the intent was always “to ensure that progressive literature was available” (Marchand D11). Acclaimed Vancouver poet and once Canada’s Parliamentary Poet Laureate, George Bowering (1935-), recalls plain-clothes police officers monitoring the premises during the height of the Cold War (Marchand). In 1983, in response to heightened costs and changing demographics, the store moved to its present location. On turning 65 in 2010, the co-op celebrated with a party and fundraiser for Haiti earthquake relief that highlighted local writers, musicians, and comedians (Marchand D11). So many artists volunteered that celebration spread out into multiple events throughout the year.
The PCB’s commitment to local authors and activists offers a critical alternative information source. Bouey asks, “[i]f the independent bookstores like ours disappear, where are people going to find those things? How are people going to know about the interesting new young writer [. . .] ?” (Qtd. in Marchand D11). For instance, the work of cutting edge young Vancouver authors such as Ivan Coyote (1969-) and Amber Dawn (1974-) is typically prominent in the shop. Such writers stand out not only for the critical acclaim earned by their writing, but also for their extensive involvement in social justice campaigns, particularly relating to LGBT and women’s rights. Independent bookstores help ensure that people on the margins find “safe spaces that nurture community, empower women, and provide a respite from mainstream culture” (Liddle 157). Local, diverse, and/or activist perspectives are relatively silenced in mainstream venues.
People from all walks of life browse the co-op’s two dollar street bin. An impressive list of book classifications hangs in the window, readily invoking the transgressive message presented in Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517. Categories such as “gender/sexuality,” “canadiana,” “environment,” “erotica,” “first nations,” “history,” “education,” “local authors,” “current events,” “queer,” “women’s studies” emphasize diversity and transformation. The front window’s array of books provides an alternative map to the city’s cultural landscape. Volumes about Wreck Beach and Commercial Drive sit next to beat poet Allen Ginsberg’s classic manifesto Howl (1956) and Noam Chomsky’s Class Warfare (1996). Inside the door chapbooks on one side and a community message board on the other tell more stories. Unlike the pilates flyers littering telephone poles on the more affluent and homogenous Westside, here posters advertise local festivals, classes, and organizations, flea markets, art workshops, and Pride events, revealing how progressive arts and politics interact with diverse and sometimes disenfranchised populations. In the summer, the door is especially likely to be open but in every season chairs in the back corner invite patrons whether university professors, activists, students, panhandlers, artists, mothers and children, teachers, or writers to read at their leisure.
The future of independent bookselling is uncertain in Canada and abroad. For instance, feminist bookstores, which began emerging in the 1970s, are a prime example of the important and tenuous role that independent bookstores play in advocacy, (counter-) cultural literacy, and community building (Hogan). Feminist bookstores are a prime example of independent bookstores that continue to struggle amidst economic and cultural pressures (Snowden). Vancouver lost two important women’s bookstores in the last few years including Kitsilano’s Women in Print and the Vancouver Women’s Bookstore in Gastown. In 2012, the legendary Toronto Women’s Bookstore also shut its doors. Other Vancouver independents such as Duthie’s Books and Ardea Books (both in Kitsilano) and downtown’s Sophia Books have suffered the same fate in a sweeping loss of literary landmarks in the city (Kronbauer; Adderson). As well, independent LGBT bookstores including Vancouver’s Little Sisters Book and Art Emporium and Toronto’s Glad Day Bookshop face legal threats due to Canada Customs’ attack on some of their offerings as ‘obscene.’ Forced to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees, Little Sisters went through a trial, an appeal, and a subsequent Supreme Court appeal in an attempt to prove that Canada Customs’ was discriminating against the LGBT community (Weiler 7; Atkins 246-247). A neo-conservative political climate in Canada is helping to force independent bookstores to the wall.
These pressures belie the fact that independent bookstores, much like Canada’s much-threatened small publishers (Francis), are essential to a healthy democracy. In an age when literacy and education remain the promise of individual and collective improvement, it is essential to encourage grassroots and community-based access to information. Reading in and about your community is the bulwark of freedom of speech and community identity, activism, and improvement. While Ray Bradbury warned about burning books in his classic dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 (1953), he might well have been equally disturbed by the loss of independent bookstores in the 21st century.
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Liddle, Kathleen. “More than a Bookstore: The Continuing Relevance of Feminist Bookstores for the Lesbian Community.” Journal of Lesbian Studies 9.1-2 (2005): 145-159.
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