The Literary Storefront: A Brief History
April 02nd, 2008
It was 1977. I was an idealistic young poet of 23 and my dream of The Literary Storefront, a salon-style literary center in downtown Vancouver began when my next door neighbour, poet Beth Jankola, came over one wet spring day when we lived next door to her in Burnaby, to lend me the library book; Shakespeare & Co. by Sylvia Beach published in 1956.
But the seeds of this idea had been planted three years earlier, when on October 6th, 1974, The Vancouver Poetry Co-op applied for a $17,780. L.I.P. grant (Local Initiatives Program from Manpower) to start a Vancouver Poetry Co-op Resource Center at #4 W. Pender St. The Vancouver Poetry Co-op had evolved from a weekly poets’ group held at the Vancouver Public Library downtown in the winter of 1972-73 until spring of 1974. This is where I first met poets such as Cathy Ford, Gwen Hauser, Tim Lander, Nellie McClung, Ed Varney and Eric Ivan Berg.
For the Poetry Co-op Resource Center, I was to be the Program Coordinator, Beth Jankola, Gwen Hauser, Tim Lander and Nellie McClung were to be the Poet Workers, plus there was to be a secretary/bookkeeper. “The Poetry Co-op Resource Center was to serve as an informal meeting place for poets and writers as well as an archive center and coordinating center to promote interaction between poets and the community.” The Vancouver Poetry-Co-op had a core of ten poets and a total membership of about 40 (said our grant application). We had letters of support from Ed Varney-Director of The Poem Company, D.M. Fraser – Pulp Press Ltd., Gregg Simpson – Intermedia Press, Dorothy Metcalfe – Special Events Coordinator V.A.G., and George Whiten – Director of Neighbourhood Services Assoc. Needless to say we didn’t get our grant.
In 1977 I was unemployed and trying to figure out which direction I should turn for work. I had organized readings in nearly every library and gallery in Vancouver as well as readings in Burnaby and Surrey. After reading Shakespeare & Co. (a famous bookstore/salon in Paris run by Sylvia Beach, who also published James Joyce’s Ulysses), I was so inspired that I sat down to imagine a modern day locale, a place for all writers, and apply for a Canada Council Explorations grant. I knew the idea couldn’t be a bookshop like Sylvia Beach’s, because the Canada Council would not fund a business, but it could be a nonprofit literary center, a hub for grass roots activity. The 70’s literary scene in Vancouver was fragmented by many different writing cliques, schools and university groups all rolling around in their own universe. I had experienced some of this exclusiveness and wanted to have a place where these walls were broken down and a common ground prevailed. To my delight many Vancouver writers, publishers, librarians, booksellers and editors were interested in my idea and sent in enthusiastic letters of support to The Canada Council.
In the fall of 1977, as I awaited the results of my grant application, I was hired by the Surrey Art Gallery as the Special Events and Education Coordinator. In the spring of 1978 I received the news that I had received an 8 month grant for $7,500 to open The Literary Storefront. I was ecstatic! My job at the S.A.G. was one I enjoyed, and it was soon to become a permanent position, but it didn’t take much contemplation to give my notice.
I immediately began my search for affordable rent in downtown Vancouver. The best deal came from Marathon Reality. They had unrented shops upstairs in Gaslight Square, so I approached them, on the advice of a friend, and asked if they would consider renting one to me at a discount. They agreed and let me rent a vacant dress shop, complete with change rooms at the top of the stairs. #213-131 Water St. I sent out a press release at the end of April for volunteers and a notice of the coming opening and many strangers turned up to paint and clean and get the place ready, as well as poets I knew. Some of those who came to help were Sheila McCarthy, John Warren, Cathy Ford, Jane Munro, Peter Goodchild, Jennifer Alley, as well as many others whose names I’ve forgotten but whose photos I still have. Peter Haase, my future husband, was my biggest supporter. We painted the bright orange walls cream, drank beer, put up shelves, ate chili, called up companies and groups for donations of office furniture and equipment and had a great time getting the place ready. Paul McLaughlin, an old high school friend and my sister Moana, helped prepare the food on opening night. My mother, Evelyn, also helped paint and set up things and my dad, George, would visit and watch. My parents were amazed at what I was doing. I commissioned Sima Elizabeth Shefrin to make a life-size soft sculpture of Sylvia Beach for the opening and Sylvia presided over the Storefront for years, until one day, I decided to wash her and she fell apart.
For the opening night invites I drew a drawing of the front window of the Storefront, used letraset for the type and had them printed on green paper, which we then folded and mailed to every writer that I could think of in Vancouver. The invitation read; “ in the tradition of the famous literary salons and bookshops of Paris, London, New York and San Francisco… You are invited to the Grand Opening of Canada’s first Literary Storefront. Bring your dancing shoes, and a book to contribute to our library.”
In my excitement I misspelled San Francisco and one well-known Vancouver poet circled the spelling mistake and returned the invite to The Canada Council with the comment; “ just thought you’d be glad to know that your money is well-spent in furtherance of Canada’s literate culture.” The Canada Council felt I should be made aware of this person and mailed me the comment. Needless to say I never invited this poet to read.
On opening night May 13th 1978, over 100 poets, writers, editors, publishers, booksellers and friends turned up to celebrate. I invited Geoff Hancock, who edited Canadian Fiction magazine, to officially open The Literary Storefront. He made a small speech and sliced open the uncut pages of a book. Then the party began. Peter ran the bar. He had 20 cases of Labatt’s Blue donated and delivered for free because he’d told them there was a big literary event taking place. Marathon Reality allowed us to use the empty upstairs space for dancing. You got there only by elevator. The large vacant room full of windows had an outside balcony and there we set up an Akai reel to reel with 3 hours of great music on each reel. There was lots of dancing and drinking and smoking. In those days people smoked joints openly at any and every occasion along with cigarettes.
In the ensuing weeks, I wrote a constitution and The Literary Storefront was registered as a nonprofit society. The name of the society was “The Literary Storefront Society” The objects included ;
“ a) To advance knowledge and appreciation of and to stimulate interest and development in the Canadian literary arts through workshops, readings, courses, lectures, exhibitions, symposiums, resource libraries, newsletters, competitions and otherwise.”
b) To educate the general public as to the importance of the literary arts and promote interaction and support between writers and the writer and community.”
In the first two years over 13,000 people visited the Literary Storefront which was open regular hours: Tue-Fri 10:00-5:30 and Sat.12:00-5:30. They attended various events such as readings, book sales, workshops, special performances and book publication parties. Membership, which was open to everyone, was $15 a year and it included receiving a monthly newsletter full of information, use of a lending library which had over 2,000 titles, many of them signed, use of the Storefront for meetings and in-store use of typewriters. We also had a Buy A Brick program, where for an extra donation you could have your name printed in gold on an old red brick on the Storefront wall.
Every morning when I went to work, I would drive in from Joyce Rd., where Peter and I lived, park my car in Japantown, and walk to work. I loved walking through the ( then) quiet city streets to open The Storefront. There would often be a poet or a budding writer waiting outside to come in. I loved the excitement of those days and found I had a natural intuition for connecting people and creating community.
In the first 4 years over 600 public readings were given by writers: Eldon Grier, Leona Gom, Britt Haggerty, Margaret Atwood, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Earle Birney, Dorothy Livesay, Colin Browne, Sandy Frances Duncan, Marya Fiamengo, Jon Furberg, Christie Harris, David Conn, Doug Beardsley, Robin Skelton, Daniel Halpern, Avron Hoffman, Tim Lander, Liz Lochead, David McFadden, Howard White, Mark Warrior, Sharon Thesen, Stan Persky, Susan Musgrave, Pat Lane, Tom Wayman, Dorothy Manning, Surjeet Kalsey, Rosalind MacPhee, George McWhirter, Peter Trower, Anne Szumigalski, Norm Sibum, Karl Siegler, Ann York, Anne Marriot, Helen Rosenthal, Carolyn Zonailo, Colin Morton, Erin Moure, Al Neil, Roy Kiyooka, Marguerite Pinney, Keith Maillard, P.K. Page, Rona Murray, Audrey Thomas, Carole Itter, Penny Kemp, Eileen Kernaghan, Mark Madoff, Phil Hall, Greg Gatenby, David Watmough, Brian Fawcett, Leona Gom, Reshard Gool, Marilyn Bowering, Daphne Marlatt, Jim Green, Joe Rosenblatt, Ann Blades, Kirsten Emmott, Anne Cameron, bill bissett, Judith Copithorne, Hope Anderson, Cathy Ford, Albert Moritz, David Uu, Ed Varney, Dale Zerioth, Dona Sturmanis, Rikki, Norbert Ruebsaat, Al Purdy, Helen Potrebenko, Jane Munro, Renee Rodin, Jean Mallinson, Scott Lawrance, John Mills, Sid Stephens and many many more. There were also open readings every month and we recorded nearly every reading on tape. Each season new writing workshops were held. They included: Autobiographical Writing with Jane Rule, Playwriting with Margaret Hollingsworth and John Lazarus, Short Fiction workshop with Jack Hodgins and Audrey Thomas, T.V. Drama Writing, Science Fiction Writing, Journalism with Andreas Schroeder, The Process of Poetry, Book Review Writing and many more.
We also featured exhibits that included: Writers’ rejection letters, ‘Boxed Words’ by Beth Jankola, Old reading posters, Talonbooks author posters, paintings by bill bissett, and Carole Itter’s ‘Alphabet’.
Membership rose, at its height, to about 500, and included the group membership of The League of Canadian Poets, who maintained office hours at The Storefront, as well as the first regional office of The Writers’ Union of Canada. Writer Joan Haggerty was the first TWUC office person and Ingrid Klassen later became the Executive Director of the BC & Yukon Branch of TWUC.
In 1980 my time of renting in Gaslight Square was up and I was forced to look elsewhere to house The Literary Storefront. So we packed up our library, the files, filing cabinet, framed Shakespeare & Co. photos of Ezra Pound, Djuna Barnes, T.S. Eliot, Janet Flanner, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Hilda Doolittle, plants, couches, coffee table, podium, desk, chairs, lit mags, large round table that Peter had build for workshops, and moved up the street. Our 2nd location opened March 1st upstairs at #1 – 314 West Cordova, just a stones throw away from the Triangle restaurant. Our reopening gala was a great success and it featured readings by: Graeme Gibson, Sylvia Fraser, Brian Moore, Susan Musgrave and Keith Maillard.
In May 1980 the BC & Yukon Branch of The Writers’ Union of Canada and The Literary Storefront put on a BC Writers’ Review at the Q.E. Playhouse that was a hit. Produced by Keith Maillard with stage director Roy Surette and coordinated by Ingrid Klassen and myself we lined up 12 BC writers and a singer to read and perform on stage in a scripted reading. It included: Sandy Frances Duncan, Robert Harlow, Robin Skelton, David Watmough, Maxine Gadd, Dorothy Livesay, Ferron, bill bissett, Earle Birney, Susan Musgrave, Christie Harris, Richard Wright standing in for Phyllis Webb and Carol Shields.
The Storefront continued to inspire and produce many readings and special events (Carole Itter & Al Neil’s wedding and broken glass performance, Fiona McKye’s costume strip performance, Roy Kiyooka playing a zither while a drunk poet sang, Peter Trower and Suzie Whiten singing with band). We also published our annual; The Birthday Book and had marathon Raise The Rent readings. People continued to drop in off the street, wandering up the stairs to discover, to their amazement, another world above the sidewalk, a world that was casual and literary and that welcomed them as writers and readers. There was often coffee and tea available in the day and someone at the desk answering the phone, or Ingrid Klassen offering publishing information, or Dona Sturmanis offering printing & editorial advice. I was usually busy organizing or applying for grants or typing up the monthly newsletter, and at night, if there was a reading, we always closed the door, turned on the mike while Peter Haase hosted the bar, sometimes sang a set of tunes, and occasionally turfed out the rowdies. $1.00 for beer, wine or a shot.
In our new large lofty space Dallas Peterson Associates rented a room in the back where they printed and published various books and offered editing and writing services. This business was run by Dona Sturmanis and the printing was done by Eric Nordholm. The TWUC office was across the hallway, presided over by Ingrid Klassen.
The Literary Storefront was also the birthplace of The Federation of BC Writers. As Sandy Duncan recalls:
“In the spring of 1980 I took over from Keith Maillard as BC & Yukon Representative of The Writers’ Union of Canada ( TWUC), inheriting the newly established BC & Yukon office; a desk in the back room of The Literary Storefront. Ingrid Klassen was the union’s first paid Administrator; she worked one day a week. Second to Ontario, BC had more Writers’ Union members than any other region in the country ( the argument for our own office) and some of us thought we needed a BC group to represent all writers–playwrights, poets, journalists and so on–in addition to trade book writing, the members of TWUC.In the fall I phoned the representatives of all the writers’ groups I could find and set up an exploratory meeting on the Storefront’s overstuffed chairs and sofas. Enough people came so we had to unseat Sylvia Beach. She accepted the corner of the floor with her usual patience and dignity and after the meeting I put her back in her chair. Fourteen months and many meetings later, the Federation of BC Writers started work.”
On March 20th, 1982, the Federation of BC Writers held their first AGM and I reported on it to the members. “Our grant prospects from the BC Cultural Fund look very good. We should hear by the middle of April and the money should arrive soon after. This is what was told to me by Tom Fielding, 1st on stage at the AGM, then afterwards. This is very exciting. We have made a break through…He suggests that the Fed of BC Writers become involved with us (see our proposal) and that we form an association with them similar to the BC Craftsman organization and their gallery. And that The Literary Storefront continue as the public arm, the meeting space, reading and information space for Vancouver, and the Federation of BC Writers become the outreach part, working on getting writers in schools, conferences, awards, gov. communications, reading tours, writers retreats, improving standards for writers and serving the province. Fielding says that we should apply separately for funding, but we should share similar costs, such as secretary/typist, mailing, rent, etc., and to make sure our services don’t overlap. Each group would remain autonomous but work together toward common goals. The Storefront would be the landlord if the Fed of BC Writers decides to rent. So it sounds very exciting and compatible. We have suggested that the best way to keep up communication is by inviting members from each Board or Executive to attend meetings. P.S. And they love our newsletter.” I also wrote: “Tom Fielding spoke about the Literary Storefront and clearly recognized it as a valuable organization that the Federation must work with. It was a wonderful moment and it has taken 4 years of hard work to get to this point.”
But by the 4th year of running the L.S. full time I was very exhausted. The struggle to find funding and volunteers was constant. I was also writing and publishing and had crossed Canada twice on two reading tours. So with great regret I decided it was time for me to leave the Storefront and let the members take over. I decided I would move to Montreal in April 1982 to recuperate, to do nothing, to throw away my watch and calendar. Once I’d made this decision I began the process, and it took me many months, of turning everything over to 5 committees and the Board of Directors (Gordon Cornwall, Cathy Ford, Dona Sturmanis, Jennifer Alley, El Jean Wilson, Tom Ilves). It was an enormous task. Days before I left the members held a wonderful going away party for me, presenting me with a dozen roses, one at a time, throughout the night, as well as gifts and poems.
The week I departed (April 13th), Wayne Holder and Tom Ilves,( who is now President of Estonia), two Americans who had joined The Storefront earlier that year, took over the reins. Our first funding from the BC Cultural Fund arrived. Wayne and Tom had the enthusiasm and time to run the place for a year, presenting a large Edward Albee festival, bringing in George Faludy, Elizabeth Smart, and other big names and increasing the Literary Storefront’s already established reputation as a literary center. The first in Canada.
But behind the scenes many members began to feel alienated from the new leadership. The committees began to dissolve. When I returned to Vancouver in the fall of 1982 I heard from disheartened members about the lack of inclusiveness, the autocracy, and even though I had no desire to step into the situation, I finally decided to write a letter on February 13, 1983 in defense of the constitution, of the membership, and of the spirit in which the Literary Storefront was founded, “My recent re-involvement is only as an Advisory Board member and believer in its egalitarian dream which is difficult in this egotistical age, but something that makes this place all the more valuable and worth working for…I created this place to break down walls, not to build them.” Later that month Peter and I removed our remaining personal belongings.
By 1983, the Literary Storefront was in debt, there was a great shortage of volunteers and energy, the doors were shut and the phone disconnected. Wayne and Tom had left the Storefront and a new Board was elected at the AGM. They were Sharon Barber, Francesca Newton-Moss, Richard Stevenson, Robert Bringhurst, Trish Hopkinson, Robert Stellmach and El Jean Wilson. The Board decided to vacate the premises at the end of November. “In spite of these changes, we have not thrown in the towel, the recent AGM led to the appointment of a new Board of Directors committed to reviving and revitalizing the Storefront.” The Newsletter had already evolved into the Vancouver Literary News, then The Calendar was produced during the crisis. L.S. events and readings were held at Duthie Books and elsewhere over the next few years when the Literary Storefront was no longer a place but a struggling spirit. But revitalizing was harder than expected with a decline in membership and with no center to work from.
Finally in January 1985, with few members attending the AGM, a vote was taken to dissolve the Literary Storefront Society. El Jean Wilson sent out the final letter which said, “ The Storefront played an important role in the development of Vancouver’s literary community, and we had hoped to keep it alive…Here’s to all the people who have worked for the Storefront over the years and to the writers and readers of B.C.”
In a Winter 1981/82 interview for Poetry Canada Review by Robert J. Rankin I said:
JR: “Are you going to leave The Literary Storefront?”
MF: “Yes. I’ll have a hand in it, do something…”
JR: “As a member, but not THE member?”
JR: “It is your baby. Will you be upset if…”
MF: “Of course! But its about time it walked and talked and took off on its own. It is like a child. Let me try and clarify this. My fantasy about the Literary Storefront was that it would grow and become a communication center for writers, that they would exchange ideas and it would become really stimulating; that we would transcend all the personal and political games and at some point could all come together and have one of those international festivals. That may be a few years away though…”
Some of the Literary Storefront material was disbursed to the UBC archives, part of the Literary Storefront library was donated to the Kootenay School of Writing. Various boxes of periodicals the L.S. had on consignment sat in El Jean’s basement for years. The Writers’ Union moved to a new office. The Federation of BC Writers was growing and K.O. Kane was working with them trying to find another writers’ space which could be shared by writers and writers’ groups. I have kept over 500 letters, postcards and copies of letters, 125 reading tapes, the autograph book as well as photographs, which I hope will soon find their way back to the UBC archives.
When the sad news of the Storefront’s demise arrived at my address in Beach Grove, Tsawwassen, my daughter, Sophia, was a year old and the L.S. days were a distant yet poignant memory amongst the diapers, sleepless nights and the wonder of motherhood.
Years later, in the 1990’s, while working at Volume Two Bookstore on Salt Spring Island, I attended the Vancouver CBA. ( Canadian Booksellers Association Conference, now called BookExpo) and ran into Ann Cowan of the new SFU Writing & Publishing Program and Alma Lee of the Vancouver International Writers’ Festival. I remember how surprised I was when they both told me that the Literary Storefront had been a source of inspiration for them and their work. Surprised and pleased that the trickle down effect was still happening.
The Literary Storefront, in the meantime, with the exception of Vancouver & Its Writers; a guide to Vancouver’s Literary Landmarks by Alan Twigg – Harbour Publishing-1986, was forgotten by the history-writers. There was no mention of it in the BC literary section of the Encyclopedia of British Columbia, edited by Daniel Frances- Harbour Publishing- 2000 (although when I phoned to tell him he said it would be added to the on-line version), nor in W.H. New’s Encyclopedia of Literature in Canada published by U of T Press, 2002. Nor was there mention of me as a poet. We had both disappeared.
As I look back on the life a book influenced, I wonder if there will ever be another writers’ center in Vancouver, not like The Literary Storefront, but inspired by the egalitarian qualities that made it strong, that made all welcome. Maybe the Joy Kogawa House will become such a place. A place that will also become the keeper of the literary history of BC, because it can so easily be forgotten, be unacknowledged, or disappear from the discourse, especially if it is not included in written or recorded history.
“yes th brillyant literaree storfront!”
– bill bissett
“The Literary Storefront was one of a kind. Mona, who ran the place, was never in anyone’s back pocket. She gave everyone–regardless of their affiliation, clique, or way of looking at the pavement–a chance to try something that was important to one’s love of writing and books. For many of us, it provided a kind of first contact with an actual literary world and an opportunity to meet others in the tribe who dwelt there. You could learn a lot. Organizers of readings and workshops from all branches of the tree of literature always found a welcome, and you learned how to run an event on a shoestring. I can’t remember Mona not smiling.”
– Trevor Carolan
“The Literary Storefront was both warm and cool, elevated above Powell St. when this route out of town was, as it always is, changing its small commercial models on the street front and but not yet the social centre for the brilliantly beautiful young from the suburbs that it often is today.
No, at night it was lofty over the dark and quiet unless the poetry parties were encamped by mona and peter to up and astound the local ghosts, who were always wandering about for a good time, as in any ancient part of the city of the world.
I remember attending the exhausted and disdainful Stephen Spender, who really didn’t like my query about past literary feuds. I totally missed “By the Waters of Babylon I sat down and wept” which i regret because i was living on Galiano Island and had long dawns in trafficless roads to hike to get to the ferry.
“Always after Literary wonders were conviviality, food and drink and music and dance. As if in the court of Eleanor of Aquitaine.”
– Maxine Gadd
“When Mona asked me, a young literary editor of a short story magazine, to make a little speech and cut the pages of a book as official opening of her new literary storefront, I was barely aware of narrative entanglement.
“Yet her combined drop in centre, non traditional nonprofit combo book and artshop, with an ambitious aside of newsletters, pamphlets about the art and business of writing and publishing, even birthday books, appealed to my sense of process, discovery, permeables, and variables.
“That rainy night in July 1978, I put on my best red and blue hand knitted artsy yarn necktie, headed out in the sluicing rain, (what some call the organic imagination) to Cordova St. I cut the pages of an old style book, foreshadowing Mona and Peter’s later career. I cant recall my speech, the first sign of lilterary amnesia, but I remember the significance of opening the field to something unexpressed.
“Mona through her experience in local art galleries and a profound understanding of various salons in Paris, New York, and San Francisco, had a romantic faith in the open ended possibilities of art and literature, not as static but flowing and dynamic. Though a small community, Vancouver literary publishing in the early 1970s included a diverse cluster of magazines and small presses, writing programs, mimeo, concrete poetry, irregular broadsheets, pamphlets, street scenes, poetry readings, sound poetry, tribal gatherings, intermedium art happenings challenged the idea of a literary text.
“Mona countered fragmentation and disintegration with focus, purpose, unifying synergy. You might not need a book, she might have said, but a book or writer might need you! This was restorative and integrating. And yes, entangling, in a lifelong way. A few years later Mona would introduce me to the love of my life, Gay Allison, and here we are, happily together, decades later. I was glad to be there opening night of her Literary Storefront.
– Geoff Hancock
“The Literary Storefront was a fine example of an idea that helped change the nascent world where a new generation of West Coast writers lived, and proof yet again that one person, armed with wide-eyed will and furious gumption, can make that change. In this a time of corporate predation, it deserves remembrance for its feisty spirit and its damn-the-torpedoes enterprise.”
– Robert Harlow
“An invitation to conduct a workshop at the Literary Storefront in Vancouver came at a time when I had been teaching highschool for many years but had little experience conducting workshops with adult writers. An opportunity for this small-town Islander to work with Vancouver writers, though intimidating, was irresistible. I remember a very informal setup where we sat on comfortable couches and armchairs to talk about writing. This took place in a large upper story room (I think) where we were surrounded by books and the office-like equipment for some mysterious business overseen by Mona and her mother, two rather exotic women of considerable energy and imagination. I’m sure the workshops were far less planned or structured than I later developed, but the opportunity to work with Vancouver writers I may not have met otherwise gave me the confidence to attend Writers Union meetings on the mainland in the following years. For me, the Literary Storefront was a welcome doorway to the world of Big City writers.”
– Jack Hodgins
“For a few good years you gave us what every city needs, an informal place where writerscan meet, read little mags, chapbooks and the latest award winning products, have coffee and be generally irreverent about what they have just read. Writers are less well served in space than are other artforms, given to fly by nite readings in coffee shops at the slack end of the week. We need lit store fronts, supported by the universities who see most of the money in the lit trade mostly squeezed from the bodies of long dead writers.”
– Tim Lander
“The Literary Storefront Days in the early ‘eighties were like something straight out of the kind of bohemia that one can only imagine must have surrounded the beat generation… a low budget high energy blast of an upstairs underground happening pad with an on the edge twist… It provided a much needed and fertile combination testing ground and home base for baby wayward poets to find themselves and for the experienced literati to turn up sometimes unexpectedly in an aura of excitement… a stimulating cauldron of poetry and performance that would sizzle and crackle sometimes long into the night Definitely the closest thing we had to a Paris boite or a San Francisco Speakeasy or a Cosmic New York Cafe! Where else could we mingle, melancholy or elated, delirious or blase, for the LOVE of WORDS? It was a place where one could go to witness or express pure unadulterated CREATIVITY in the midst of a city that could otherwise swallow you up with the mundane business of the everyday. Located in a characterful section of downtown Vancouver between exotic Chinatown and colourful Gastown, it was only a short hip hop around the corner to the venerable doors of Co-op Radio, and perhaps another reading or at least an inspiring listen. I used to love to wander, windowshopping with friends after a reading along old Cordova at night when everything else was closed. Cabbages and Kinks would gleam its funky jewels. Little shops came and went. The Storefront was unassuming… everyone was welcome. Pretensions were left outside. Here was a place for the Poets to gather. To mingle in a relaxed, non- competitive way and to share their work. To try things out, to get feedback and to experiment. The Literary Storefront brought LIFE into the heart of the city… it manufactured SOUL. With a respect for the INDIVIDUAL VOICE and a simply profound nurturing of ORIGINALITY and UNIQUENESS, the Literary Storefront can proudly take its place in history next to the other bastions of FREEDOM. Remembering those good old days keeps me ALIVE!!”
– Cat Majors
“From 1978 to 1983 The Vancouver Literary Storefront was a meeting place for people in Vancouver who were interested in literature, not just on the page but in the flesh. It was a romantic venture, linking the literary scene in Vancouver, on a fragment of the Pacific Rim, on the only recently settled edge of a new country, with a famous literary bookstore in Paris early in the 20th century, but it was also pragmatic: Vancouver lacked a gathering place for writers and readers, and the Literary Storefront invited, welcomed, and provided an audience for writers from across Canada. The Storefront was a network and a web before such metaphors became current for the ways in which people with common passions and ambitions come together. It was the fulfillment of the dream of its founder and creator, Mona Fertig, and lasted as long as her indefatigable but not infinite energies could keep weaving it and sustaining it. She was young, she dreamed on a large scale, she had a gift for practical detail, and it worked.
“The Storefront Newsletter, modest by the standards of today’s computer-produced publicity, printed news of markets, of editing services, of literary periodicals; printed reviews of new books of poetry and fiction; announced literary workshops, and published poems. I remember rainy afternoons spent with Mona, her mother Evelyn and other volunteers, putting the pages of the Newsletter together. The Storefront was in every way a hands-on institution. It was in the pages of the Storefront Newsletter on March 20, 1982 that the first annual general meeting of the Federation of British Columbia Writers was announced, among its members writers who went on to distinguished careers: Carolyn Zonailo, Tom Wayman, Fred Wah, George Payerle, Leona Gom and Jan Drabek. It stands to reason that the literary excitement created locally by the Storefront played a part in the creation of the still thriving Federation.
“It is well known that writing comes to life in two ways: in the solitude of composing, revising, researching, and in the exchange among the always varied and interesting people who are blessed with a passion for writing, for reading, for listening. Mona made this coming together possible when she rented an empty loft on Water Street and invited people to come and listen to and talk about poetry, to meet and mingle with writers. Just walk up those long stairs, open the door, and you would be part of it: literature embodied, on its feet, talking, drinking beer in the convivial atmosphere encouraged by Mona’s companion Peter Haase. I remember Elizabeth Smart, with her anguished prose and her school girl’s manners, Michael Ondaatje, still a romantic poet, Audrey Thomas reading from her novel Latakia. I remember above all the feeling of being where literature was happening, where poetry was what mattered.
“Were we all figments of Mona’s strong dream? No, because many who were part of that community – Jan Conn, Jane Munro, Susan Musgrave, and others — have gone on to sustained careers as writers, and after the Storefront closed, the (m)Other Tongue Press, a private literary press run by Mona and Peter on Salt Spring Island, developed out of another of Mona’s dreams and her dedication to local writers.
“In its wider cultural context, The Storefront was part of, near the end of, another time– “The Seventies”– and, changed as we may be, we are still living on the energies of that time, still sustained by its powerful wake, still singing the lyrics of its songs. Our skirts and our hair may be shorter, our technological reach may be wider, but our dreams don’t get much larger than the dream that Mona Fertig turned into the Literary Storefront in 1978.”
– Jean Mallinson
“The Literary Storefront brimmed with energy & hospitality: all those readings by diverse writers, all those small press books & plants & coffee (wine too i seem to remember), all that hum of conversation as we gathered to hear whoever was up for that evening. Mona’s uncontained enthusiasm & genuine approach to people, especially her unfailing support for women writers, set people at ease, cutting through the pretentiousness that often pervades literary gatherings. TLS didn’t pretend to be anything other than it was: a wonderfully open centre for people interested in what was new in a broad spectrum of writing to gather & hear each other out.”
– Daphne Marlatt
“The Literary Storefront felt like a cross between a public reading room and a writer’s clubhouse. It was our place. We painted it, stocked it, and used it. Mona was den-mother, welcoming and encouraging. She ran lots of readings. Gastown had the energy of an old place (for Vancouver) refreshed: promising but unpretentious. The fact that the writing community had a storefront on Gaslight Square wove us into the city’s fabric. It was great!”
– Jane Munro
“Coming from Montreal and being a writer myself I was hungry for literary life. As a single mother on welfare I was eligible to earn a little extra money if it were at an “approved” place. Mona was gracious enough to hire me to come in a couple of afternoons a week to help with the massive paperwork involved in running the Storefront. It felt great to be at such an exciting hub devoted entirely to literature and where you never knew which writers were going to drop by. But it was the evening readings that really stood out for me. One highlight was tough-talking, chain -smoking, sneaker- clad and totally vulnerable Elizabeth Smart. I could hardly believe we were in the same room breathing the same air.”
– Renee Rodin
“The Literary Storefront, founded by Mona Fertig, kept us alive for poetry during the late ’70’s, early ’80’s. Her generosity, warmth and commitment created a space where literature, especially women’s writing, was able to live.”
– Rhoda Rosenfeld
“The Literary Storefront was the liveliest, most versatile and best organized literary hangout in Vancouver’s cultural scene in the 1970’s.”
– Andreas Schroeder
“The Literary Storefront nurtured and challenged me as a poet and writer during a pivotal point in my life. At the time I had no confidence in my abilities and didn’t know where to begin. To be around poets and writers in an environment where it was okay to experiment helped me in ways I don’t think I have fully appreciated to this day. It was a place where I could go and be special even though I wasn’t accomplished or ready as a writer. I think people there recognized that the purpose was to support the will to write – which can so easily be crushed – as much as the actual writing. I have tried joining writer’s groups since, but have never found a replacement for the Literary Storefront.”
– Craig Spence
“I rented a room in the back of the Literary Storefront for editing under the imprint of Dallas Peterson & Associates, and printing under Orca Sound. Day in and day out, while I was working there, Mona Fertig of the Storefront and Ingrid Klassen of the Writers Union were there answering phones and talking to whomever came in the door. They cared fiercely about writers and literature. On a given day, there might also be Maxine Gadd preparing her next poetry manuscript or now bestselling novelist Douglas Coupland deciding to become a writer rather than an artist, as he was then. There has been no place like it since, nor will there ever be, for its spontaneous cultural centrifugal force.”
– Dona Sturmanis
“Mainly a cherished memory of socialization and happy faces, I also recall an angry Stephen Spender when, introducing him, I referred to the U.S. (anti-Cold War) origins of his lit. magazine Encounter in which I happened to make my critical debut. We were never friends after that! In fact he heaped calumny against me in his published memoirs. And all from walking in to The Literary Storefront and my trying on some literary bonhomie! But for those of us proud of the B.C. and Vancouver that gave us specific birth, The Storefront remains a lively locale that tied us to the planet – and will be forever associated with the likes of you its midwife.”
– David Watmough
“The Literary Storefront was our Paris in Vancouver–what excitement! It was the number one gathering place for local and visiting writers. Modeled after Sylvia Beach’s Shakespeare & Co., The Literary Storefront brought the feeling of Paris in the days of James Joyce, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Morley Callaghan, John Glassco and F. Scott Fitzgerald. This flavour was one of ideas in the air, of new avant garde writing, art and publishing.
“As Shakespeare & Co. was a springboard, where new approaches to literary art could take off, so did the Literary Storefront make a major contribution to the time in British Columbia when writing and publishing really came into its own. The L.S. was founded by a woman, Mona Fertig, who had a vision of Vancouver that was much more worldly in scope than the actual Vancouver of that time.
“Fertig founded The Literary Storefront at around the same time as a real growth spurt in literary and publishing and printing activities were initiated by women in Vancouver. Caitlin Press was founded by Carolyn Zonailo in 1977; The Literary Storefront in 1978;
Press Gang Printers & Publishers in 1975; and the literary mag, A Room Of Ones Own–founded by a collective of women in 1975. These new literary and publishing enterprises initiated by women complimented those literary small presses and endeavors begun a few years earlier by male literati such as; Very Stone House; founded by Pat Lane and Seymour Mayne; Blackfish Press founded by Allan Safarik and Brian Brett, among others.
“In addition to hosting poetry readings, organizing and putting on workshops, The Literary Storefront also published an annual anthology of writing. Those anthologies offer a wonderful ‘slice of writing life’ of Vancouver between 1978-1983. In fact some of the work in the anthologies give us a rare look at several of Vancouver’s young writers who unfortunately died too early in their lives. It is important to have some of their writing in these anthologies.
The energy and impetus for The Canada Council funded events hosted by the Literary Storefront, as well as all the other events that The Storefront put on, came mostly from its founder, Mona Fertig; however, members of the L.S. also contributed volunteer time and energy to the Storefront activities. The L.S. was special in that it was at once the ‘brainchild’ of an individual writer but it was also truly a community experience.
“For me, personally, The Literary Storefront came into existence at a perfect time. Since I was working hard to establish Caitlin Press and my own career as a poet, it was simply great to have the L.S. as a place that hosted readings and workshops of which I was one of the instructors. It meant that my work, both as a literary small press publisher and a writer did not disappear into a vacuum. There were, in fact, others of like mind, and there was an audience for my writing and for Caitlin Press publications.”
– Carolyn Zonailo
Essay Date: 2007