Independent bookstores in Vancouver are the foundation of our thriving community, not to mention places to while away hours browsing (and buying!). In this new series, we speak with some of the booksellers, owners and champions in stories across the city.
Profile: Massy Books
Address: 229 East Georgia Street
For those who haven’t visited Massy Books, tell us about it.
Massy Books is a gorgeous brick-and-mortar shop complete with a performance space, art gallery, and approx. 1500 square feet of floor-to-ceiling books. We also have a secret bookshelf door (if you can find it!). We take seriously the role of literature and reading in community betterment, connection, and understanding, and frequently host book launches, readings, musical performances, and other events. We are dedicated to supporting the community outside the bookstore through our work with a number of community-based, not-for-profit, and social justice organizations, including the Writers’ Exchange (WE), Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS), Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs (RAVEN), and more. As a retail shop located in the DTES, we are sensitive to providing a welcoming and low-barrier space for the local community, and always seeking to deepen our connections in the neighbourhood through partnerships with DTES Arts organizations and festivals, like Megaphone, Heart of the City, and Full Circle.
What vision did you have when you founded the store?
I didn’t expect we’d have the shop we have now at the outset. I started selling books online, which was much different from what I am doing today. When I decided to open a storefront, there were a few things I had my heart set on accomplishing – curating large Indigenous, LGBTQ2S+, and BIPOC sections; hosting various events; building a rare book room; and starting an Indigenous reading series. When we opened our second location, I wanted to make sure the store was accessible.
How do you curate the collection in store?
Overall, we try to carry a mix of everything: new, used and rare, academic, and the curious and unusual. We work to carry a large selection of literature, science-fiction, poetry, philosophy, cultural studies, politics, art, and children’s books. We have the largest Indigenous section within an operating storefront in Vancouver, and it’s one of our bestselling, so I’m constantly working to restock and increase its scope and size. At large book sales (VPL, Times Colonist, etc.), it’s the first place you’ll find me sprinting to. We are committed to shelving books by LGBTQ2S+, and BIPOC authors, and so I’m always keeping an eye out for new and interesting titles being published. I do this for other sections within the store as well; I rely on, and learn what to bring in the shop, based on what customers are requesting and what books people are excited about on social media.
In addition to the carefully chosen reads on your (floor to ceiling!) shelves, Massy Books runs a gallery space, too, in addition to hosting many local book launches. Can you tell us a little about your vision for the space being used in a multifaceted way—and in particular how books can connect with other elements of our creative communities in Vancouver?
I wanted the store to be used as a community hub/space for people to gather, connect, and organize. I didn’t initially have the intention of building a gallery upstairs. Previously the space on E. Georgia was Centre A, a contemporary Asian art gallery, and so I saw an opportunity to maintain part of its use with the gallery you see now. All forms of artistic expression are a type of storytelling, and so I feel books have a complementary and overlapping relationship with other forms of art. It just made sense that they could all exist in one space.
What makes a good bookseller?
Honestly, I’m not a very good bookseller, but I know what makes a good one. I absolutely love reading, but I don’t actually like trying to “upsell” anything – it makes me uncomfortable. That, and a fear of public speaking, makes me pretty terrible at it. I’m much more comfortable taking the time (when I have it) to write a review. That said, I’m learning to relax and become a bit more comfortable with my role in working with the public, and have hopes that in the coming years I may become a better one. My staff are incredibly good booksellers though, which is not only defined by a love of books, intelligence, and book knowledge, but having the ability to listen to what customers need, being willing to learn from others, and being kind. We get a lot of feedback from people saying we are friendly people, and I couldn’t be happier about that!
Massy Books is 100% Indigenous owned and operated, and you are a co-founder of the incredible (and growing!) Indigenous Brilliance reading series. Can you share, from your perspective, the change you are seeing in the literary community to respect and uphold Indigenous voices and storytelling?
I recommend everyone listen to episode #135 of Media Indigena with Rick Harp. On the show, Harp asks whether or not “Indigenous artists…succeed, not because of mainstream society, but despite it?” He then quotes Jeremy Dutcher when he won the Polaris award, “This record was not for Canada. This record was not for non-Indigenous people. This was for my nation, for my people.” In terms of the groundswell of Indigenous artists winning awards in the last few years, simply put, these stories have always been here, it’s only that mainstream society is now taking notice. And, as a bookseller, I see it happening within the literary world; earlier this year I had a literary agent from a big Canadian publishing company call me up and ask me to keep my eyes open for new Indigenous authors I could recommend be published. Despite mainstream society taking notice and purchasing up Indigenous books that appeal to a wide range of readers, the demand for Indigenous content is also driven by Indigenous people themselves – they want to see themselves, their stories, and their lives, reflected in what they are reading.