Remembering R2B2: A Naïf’s Story
March 13th, 2008
In the mid-Eighties I worked at Octopus West, a wonderful used bookstore in the 2100 block of West 4th in Kitsilano. “Brownie” (P.R. Brown) and her partner, the late Jules Comeault, had bought the store in the Seventies from Bill Fletcher.
On my first day, when another staff person went for coffee, a customer came to buy some paperbacks in the window. Their prices, 25, 35 or 50 cents, were clearly marked on their covers. So that’s what I sold them for. I soon discovered I had sold someone’s private library of highly collectible pulp fiction, brought in for display purposes only, for next to nothing.
When Brownie decided to sell Octopus West to concentrate on her other store, Octopus East, on Commercial Drive, near where she lived with her baby, Rosie, I wanted it. Brownie offered a generous installment plan for payments and I bought the store in the fall of l986 with poet Billy Little, who had been a close friend of Jules’ and had also worked at Octopus. We changed the name to R & B Books because of our names but we were open to interpretation about the initials.
In December, just before the Christmas season, which we were depending on, a fire broke out in the apartment upstairs. I was alone in the store and had no idea the building was ablaze, though smoke could be seen across the city. Someone came in to get me out. The person upstairs was not so lucky. A pioneer recycler, Barry had piled masses of newspapers on top of what became a faulty extension cord. I learned later he had also been an ethical marijuana dealer and there were many high school kids, including mine, at his funeral.
Most of our stock and the store were water-damaged. Our insurance just covered our move to a tiny spot at 2742 West 4th Avenue in January of l987, next to the Naam restaurant, and in the same block as Ariel Books, run by Margo Dunn.
Billy, who remained involved in the store for its first couple of years, suggested changing our name to R2B2 Books to signify our second time around. Even though we carried little science fiction, the name stuck.
Poetry was as vital to my generation as music and movies. As a baby beatnik in Montreal in the early Sixties I’d loved going to readings in small bookstores and at coffee houses.
I’d visited Vancouver before but moved there in 68. In the sixties and seventies I attended memorable readings at Milton Acorn’s Advanced Mattress and at Intermedia. I also remember readings curated byTrudy Rubenfeld at See Site, the photography workshop she ran with Rhoda Rosenfeld. There were readings at Mona Fertig’s Literary Storefront, where I worked for a while. Jules and Brownie hosted events at their stores, too.
For me having readings was part and parcel of having a bookstore so I started a weekly series as soon as R & B Books opened. I have yet to unearth who gave the first reading in October 1986. But it was interrupted by P.X. Belinsky with whom I’d just ended a relationship.
P.X. Belinsky, a brilliant writer and also the enfant terrible of the Vancouver literary scene, had a compulsion to disrupt readings when he got drunk. He heckled many poets including Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, who were part of a series organized by Warren Tallman at the Italian Cultural Centre.
The series at R2B2 kept attracting great writers because of the writers who read there. Some of the participants were bill bissett, George Bowering, Judith Copithorne, Margaret Dragu, Maxine Gadd, Gladys (Maria) Hindmarch, Avron Hoffman, jam Ismail, Carole Itter, SKY Lee, Billy Little, Dorothy Livesay, Lee Maracle, Daphne Marlatt, Al Neil, Miranda Pearson, Stan Persky, Helen Potrebenko, Jamie Reid, Lisa Robertson, Rhoda Rosenfeld, George Stanley, Goh Poh Seng, Sharon Thesen, Warren Tallman, Ed Varney, Victoria Walker, Betsy Warland, Charles Watts and Fred Wah.
As well, writers such as Dionne Brand, Di Brandt, Nicole Brossard and David McFadden came from different parts of Canada, and writers came from Australia, Britain and the United States, including Diane di Prima. The audiences were extremely attentive so it was a good place to try out new work.
The readings were often so crowded that on four separate occasions audience members fainted from lack of air. After the poor person who had passed out was attended to, sometimes by ambulance attendants, the reading would resume. For bp nichol, we sat out back on a patch of grass. bp read by candle, star and moonlight. It was magic.
The fantasy is that you can sit and read in a bookstore but there was always work to be done. If you think selling poetry books is hard, try selling used poetry. There were more requests for the music tapes I played at the store, which weren’t for sale, than for the books.
Still there were lovely interludes such as when Roy Kiyooka, who read at the store several times, dropped by once a week before he died. We’d talk and toke up. Browsers either enjoyed the sight and smell of the grass or fled.
In the Nineties the economy was very tight, I had no cushion to ride out the rough times and it was impossible to compete with the bigger stores. After I decided to pack it in, ten other small Vancouver bookstores, most of them run by women, folded.
Mainly because of the series’ reputation, I was able to sell R2B2 in l994 to Denise and Trent Hignel who renamed it Black Sheep Books. They continued the readings for the next three years before they sold it to George Kroller who continued for another three years. So the weekly series went on for 14 years in all. It was fabulous and I miss it.
My events were free but I sold beer at them, which helped pay the rent. After the readings, when lively literary discussions turned into lively parties, I’d end up giving the beer away because I didn’t like selling to friends and fellow partiers.
My greatest pleasure as a bookseller was when someone found an out-of-print book they’d been searching for or I turned someone onto a book I loved no matter how little it cost. Occasionally I had collectible items that could have fetched serious money but I had no idea of their value. Once Bill Hoffer, the late antiquarian book dealer, swooped in and got some great deals. Later he said if he found my mistakes it was his prerogative to buy the books no matter what. Fair enough.
The sign in my window said “Come On In. We’ve Raised Our Prices” but I never did.
[Renee Rodin has written a book of poetry, Bread and Salt (Talonbooks, l996), and a prose narrative, Ready for Freddy (Nomados, 2005).]
Essay Date: 2007