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Goodbye Octopii

August 07th, 2012

The first location of Octopus Books was opened in 1977 by P.R. Brown and her partner Jules Comeault. It quickly became a neighbourhood institution for reasons literary and social. A second store allowed a broadening of stock that focused on Canadian fiction and political works. Here, Bob Smith, former editor of New Directions magazine, reflects on the presence of the bookstore as a Vancouver institution at the time of its closing in 1994.

After seventeen years, Brownie (only her bank manager knows her as P.R. Brown) has had enough and is selling Vancouver’s East End community bookstore, Octopus Books.

She is not alone. Ten of Vancouver’s general, community-based bookstores closed or were sold in 1994. It seems your eccentric but knowledgeable neighbourhood bookseller is refusing to submit, or unable to adapt, to the book trade’s demands of computerized inventory, niche marketing or predatory retailing practices.

Brownie and her partner Jules Comeault bought Octopus Books from Bill Fletcher in 1977. “Juils was the entrepreneur,” Brownie remembers, though both had a love for books. “We lived and breathed the store in those early years. We would reluctantly leave for dinner right after the store closed but hirry back to excitedly go through the boxes of used books we bought that day.”

The book selection quickly changed in favour of Canadian fiction and an ever-changing stock of quality paperbacks. The store also offered the largest selection of art and literary journals in town. A sound system was installed, and browsers were treated to the owners’ favourite jazz and blues.

Three years after acquiring Octopus, Jules and Brownie expanded by opening Octopus East on Commercial Drive. “In some ways we were just following our customers when they left Kits for the cheaper rents of the East End,” said Brownie. The Kitsilano store began to specialize in fiction while Octopus East continued the political emphasis of the original store.

But at both locations, Octopus was always more than a bookstore. Each store has a popular community notice-board filled with vacancies for communes, lost pets, furniture for sale and benefit posters. The person behind the counter always had an ear for the rants of outraged politicos, or a couple of bucks for the temporarily destitute.

“Octopus has always been a kind of community centre,” Brownie says. Four or five times a year the store would rent a hall and sponsor “Sunday Fun” nights to showcase local rock bands. They also turned the store over for regular poetry readings and book launches. The emphasis over the years was always on Canadian writers and more than 80 writers displayed their wares to Octopus audiences.

In the late ‘70s there was a children’s writing workshop; then a playwright reading series ran I the early ‘80s. Brownie also edited and produced an events calendar, Literary Lapses, for four years in the late ‘80s.

For the last eleven years, however, the operation of the stores was Brownie’s job alone. Jules died of cancer in 1983, shortly after Brownie had given birth to a baby girl, Rosalie.

“As you can imagine,” said Brownie, “there was a big difference between running a bookstore in a partnership that lives and breathes books, and juggling single motherhood with the sole responsibility of two bookstores.”

The first store was sold in 1985 and became R2B2 Books, a store that changed hands again in 1994. “I always thought of Octopus as part of my living room,” said Brownie. “I just couldn’t get excited about computerization and tight inventory control.”

Some of the writers who have read their work at Octopus Books since 1977 are Sandy Shreve, Kate Braid, Gerry Shikatani, Carolyn Zonailo, Ak Neil, Cynthia Flood, Steve McCaffrey, Lionel Kearns, Daphne Marlatt, Margaret Hollingsworth, bp Nichol, Helen Portrebenko, Al Grierson, Mark Warrior, Ted Laturnus, Dennis Bolen, Kirsten Emmot, Tom Osborne, Stan Rogal, Heidi Greco, Catherine Bennet, Di Brandt, Zoe Landale, Phil Hall, Jill Mandrake, George Bowering, Bill Schermbrucker, Judith Fitzgerald, Carole Itter, Bill Richardson, Sharon Thesen, Scott Watson, Lillian Allen, Leonard Angel, Betty Lambert, John Lazarus, Carolyn Smart, Colin Browne, Dionne Brand, Marcia Toms, The Forbidden Fruits, Gay Allison, Brian Fawcett, Kate Van Dusen, Steve Smith, Richard Truhlar, Betsy Warland,Kristjana Gunnars, Ian Rashid, Maxine Gadd, George Stanley, Carole Chambers, Victoria Walker, Chrystos, Barbara Wilson, Joanne Yamaguchi, Avron Hoffman, Susan Crean, Cathy Ford, John Pass, Gerry Creede, Norm Sibum, Jon Furberg, Tim Lander, Cat Majors, Frank Davey, Fred Wah, Gladys Hindmarch, Kevin Davies, Paul Kelley, Myrna Kotash, Gayla Reid, Ashok Mathur, V.J. Vassanji, Gary Geddes, Ajmer Rode, David Homel, Surjeet Kalsey and Robert Creeley.

Essay Date: 1995

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