Remembering the Bookstore on Bastion Street
April 02nd, 2008
“We celebrated almost every book published by a Nanaimo writer for 21 years.” – Thora Howell
When Jerry and I bought The Book Store (yes that was its name) in Nanaimo in 1978, order we didn’t know anyone in town so our lives were built out of that store that was established in 1962. Purchased from Michael and Margo Mann, decease it had 1, abortion 000 square feet of hand-made shelves and a well-established clientele.
It could not have been a better time to buy a book store. Although Nanaimo was a boom or bust town, heavily reliant on the pulp mill, it was home to Malaspina College and its splendid English and Creative Writing departments. It was also home to Jack Hodgins, who had published Spit Delaney’s Island(1976) and Invention of the World (1978), and Anne Cameron ( known to us as Anne Hubert in those days), who had just published Dreamspeaker and Tem Eyos Ki and the Land Claims Question (1978) with Clark-Irwin.
Cam’s typewriter gave out often from hard use and on the days when she had to visit Brian Ball’s stationery store to get it fixed, she would come by to share a cup of coffee and tell me the stories that later became her series of children’s books. I can still remember one of our first readings featured Cam, reading from poetry that later became Earth Witch. About twenty of us crowded together in the Children’s Section, captivated by her delivery.
Jerry and I knew very little about the business side of books, both having come from larger institutions. It was a long and steep and sometimes painful learning curve. Reps made the difference for us. Their regular calls, spring and fall, ensured that we knew what was being published. We experienced the over-enthusiastic reps as well as the realistic ones. Ian Cameron, one of the best, always took my order and cut it mercilessly. He had a good instinct for what we could sell well and I learned early on to pay great attention. In fact, the great reps were the ones who knew our store so well, they could do the orders. Kate Walker’s rep, Caroline Woodward, still keeps me abreast of new Canadian titles eight years after we closed the store.
One of the reps’ great gifts to us was making it possible for authors to read in Nanaimo, convincing publishers it would be worthwhile. Even though I constantly badgered reps and publishers for writers, it astonished me that such well-established writers would come to Nanaimo. Fortunately, the people of Nanaimo supported the readings—and us. In 1981, when our first store over the infamous bingo hall was to be demolished to make way for a multi-storied hotel, our customers came with shopping carts to help us fill the shelves of the new store, a heritage building across the street that was renovated by Boh Helliwell of Hornby Island. It was three times the size our first store, on two levels, so our opportunities for events multiplied. We converted the upper floor to an extensive children’s department and there among the picture books, we listened to poetry, and launched new books.
Through the efforts of McClelland Stewart, Harper Collins, Pengui, and a host of other publishers we heard from, among others, Margaret Atwood, Timothy Findley, Denise Chong, John Ralston Saul, Thomas Berger, Leon Rooke, Hugh Brody, Edith Iglauer, Wayson Choy, Michel Tremblay, Dennis Lee, Guy Vanderhaege, John Mortimer, Graham Swift, and Wade Davis. Imagine hearing Timothy Findley read from The Wars on November 11 at 11a.m.
Denise Chong brought her mother to Nanaimo when The Concubine’s Children was published. Winnie had grown up in the tea houses of old Nanaimo and had wonderful stories to share. And in addition she has the best chicken recipe in the world–it has something to do with a touch of Scotch. Graham Swift desperately wanted to catch salmon—in exchange for a reading—and he did. Jack Hodgins brought Alistar MacLeod and Ireland’s James McGahern. Louis deBernieres was visiting family when a writer friend made a connection for us.
CBC writers Stuart McLean, Arthur Black, Alan Maitlin and Peter Gzowski all read/spoke to us, and Bill Richardson came many times. It was very special to have him recite from memory several pieces of writing by Canadian authors that had been banned at one time or another.
Of all the wonderful experiences, the best by far was celebrating the work of our wonderful local writers. We celebrated almost every book published by a Nanaimo writer for 21 years. When Jack Hodgins published Broken Ground about Vancouver Island post-war pioneers at Merville, people brought in deeds and artifacts of all kinds with stories of family settlements on the Island. Anne Cameron’s Daughters of Copper Woman, an underground classic across the continent, was so important to people that at one reading a woman produced a photocopy that she wanted signed. This was not a smart move on her part and to this day I am sure she will remember Cam’s animated and stern lecture on the fundamentals of copyright.
Lynne Bowen, in writing Boss Whistle and Three Dollar Dreams, gave back the painful story of early coal-mining days and thus gave the community a history that had been largely ignored. A group of mature women who took a course from Kevin Roberts at Malaspina College in the ‘70s have stayed together as a writing group and have all published beautiful books of poetry. That group includes Haiku award-winning Winona Baker, the very funny and thought-provoking Mildred Tremblay, and newer members Alison Watt, Leanne McIntosh and Ursula Vaira, who is both a poet and a publisher of Leaf Press.
Randy Fred started Theytus Books in Nanaimo and it is now a flourishing press publishing First Nations work from Penticton. Ellen White, in her stories Kwulwasulwut has given us a look at the world of the Coast Salish. For a few years, in cooperation with Kate Braid in the Creative Writing Department at Malaspina, we hosted a Poetry festival that became a community event. The book launch we held last year for Carol Windley, a finalist for the 2006 Giller Award, was a far cry from one 28 years ago that we hosted for Elizabeth Norcross, local historian, when all the women wore hats and gloves. The talks with Sheila Watson, first over glasses of red wine and onion soup, and later over coffee and cinnamon toast, were treasured times.
One memorable afternoon, Howard White brought Robert Swanson to read his logging poetry. I realized how powerful poetry could be as I listened to the loggers sitting at the back of the room, reciting Swanson’s poems along with him as he read. On another occasion Al Purdy, Robert Swanson and Joe Garner had a wonderful time upstaging one another. Hearing deficits seemed to add to the general chaos. In the audience was Barry Broadfoot who had moved to Nanaimo and was still writing oral history. Possibly the funniest story I have heard was Howard White reading “Morts” from his book Writing in the Rain.
I learned about loyalty from our customers. It was not uncommon for someone to return from a trip to Victoria and ask us to order a book they had seen. Why they were willing to wait the weeks it took in those days, I will never know. It made such a difference to us. Many facets of the book publishing world have improved and a major step has been speeding up the shipping of books to the West. Book Express and Raincoast made life much easier.
Oolichan Books, the Lantzville publisher, has a remarkable record of publishing local work. There wasn’t a season that went by that Harbour, Douglas McIntyre, and Orca didn’t bring authors to talk about their new work. Orca, one of the great Canadian publishers of children’s books, got its start in Nanaimo when Bob Tyrrell published his Pub Guide to Vancouver Island.
Small booksellers had a difficult time accessing co-op book promotion money. It seemed to take more time that it was worth. We needed any and all promotion we could find. I was among many people who felt we needed to have more communication and cooperation among the principals: the publishers, their reps, the book sellers, and librarians. It was just over 20 years ago that a meeting was held in Nanaimo, facilitated by Marilyn Ross, to discuss ways of promoting BC books. Ventures like B.C. BookWorld and the B. C. Book Prizes have made an enormous difference in public knowledge of our writers.
A city the size of Nanaimo lends itself to cooperative efforts. In 1986, we hosted the first Children’s Book Festival in Nanaimo, co-supported by the Nanaimo Roundtable, School District 68, Vancouver Island Regional Library, Malaspina College and The Book Store. For 21 years we have been able, through the support of Canada Council, to bring the best Canadian childrens’ writers, illustrators and storytellers to Nanaimo Each year 11 14 guests come from all across Canada, to share their art with our children. Not only are they hosted by the community but many schools invite them to read.
The book business is a tough business. With all the ups of author readings and customer loyalty, there was always a fight to keep cash flowing. The GST was a devastating blow to the book industry. As predicted, the accountants took over the book world. Terms tightened. The breaks that Chapters has been able to insist on, could have made life much easier for the independent. Because we were so reliant on special orders we were always desperate to keep bills paid. Had we not had an astonishing staff in Kitty Bonham, Robin McKay and Deborah Ferens as well as a host of young people who worked part time, life would have been much more difficult.
We had very good times and some difficult ones. Jerry and I know that being part of the book business gave us an opportunity to have a great partnership with our community, our writers, publishers and their reps. Life doesn’t get much better than that. Meanwhile British Columbia publishers and writers have reflected our world back to us, not only with the West Coast books that they publish but also by their promotion. It’s essential that a community know its history and its stories. What a wealth of literature we have. The stories of fishing, logging, First Nations, poetry and novels have given us our place in the universe.
Essay Date: 2007