City's oldest book haven Marx milestone

Binky Marks was a gruffly pleasant eccentric who managed the inventory of People's Co-op Bookstore in his head and conducted the store's business with receipts bulging out of one pocket, and rice pudding and chicken bones out of another. "Once a year, I have to tell some dignified gentleman or lady to go fuck themselves," he used to say.

Binky was the first manager at People's Co-op Books, a Vancouver institution that celebrates its 60th birthday this year, but the nominal founder of the bookstore was a rather different sort of person. The Rev. Alfred Stiernotte was a Unitarian Church leader and scholar, the bookstore's "frontman" in the days when Section 98 of Canada's Criminal Code left Communists like Binky in constant peril of arrest and prison.

Marks and Stiernotte were among a solid group of British Columbians who established the bookstore, now the city's oldest, as a means to carry on "the struggle against fascism" at the conclusion of the Second World War. The cooperative's charter members included a riveter, a seaman, a machinist, a housewife, a trapper, a conductress, a trade-union official, and a motorman. The point of the enterprise they established in 1945 was to be "more than just a bookselling business", as they declared in their first leaflet. It was also to "stimulate the circulation of books that are socially significant".

People's Co-op Books carried on that tradition for 38 years at 311 West Pender, and has continued in the same spirit for the last 22 years at 1391 Commercial Drive. The current manager is the notoriously mild-mannered and ever-cheerful Ray Viaud, who came to the job in 1994 from the Marineworkers Union. The current president of the board is John Taylor, a Unitarian.

It has been a tough slog.

It's hard enough to keep an independent bookstore running in an upscale, high-rent city like Vancouver, Taylor says. It's harder still, Viaud observes, in an age when alternatives to hard-line capitalism are not as easy to imagine as they once were.

For the "left", it is a dispiriting time, Viaud says. There's the CBC lockout, the Telus lockout, and public institutions are being sold out from under us one after another: BC Rail, chunks of B.?C. Hydro, BC Ferries. "It's a sad state of affairs," Viaud says.

But People's Co-op soldiers on anyway, in the long shadow of its founders.

In 1952, the U.S. government prevented the internationally renowned stage performer and singer Paul Robeson from performing at a Vancouver conference of the militant International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers. On May 18 that year, People's Co-op co-sponsored a live, free concert featuring Robeson singing from the back of a flatbed truck at the Canada?-U.S. border at Peace Arch Park. More than 40,000 people attended.

When publishers, booking agencies, record companies, and booksellers conformed with the McCarthy-era blacklist of American socialists such as folk-music legend Pete Seeger and novelist Howard Fast, author of Spartacus and The Establishment, People's Co-op bucked the trend. The bookstore stacked its shelves with hundreds of books and records that other Vancouver booksellers were afraid to touch.

In 1968, the bookstore was barred from operating a stall at the Pacific National Exhibition, but Vancouver alderman and civil-rights lawyer Harry Rankin took the PNE to court and had the ruling overturned. During the 1970s, People's Co-op developed a well-earned reputation as one of the few bookstores in the city to take Canadian literature seriously, and in 1986 the bookstore got one of its biggest and strangest breaks ever.

One of the highlights of the Expo 86 world's fair was the Soviet pavilion. People's Co-op won the contract to run the pavilion's bookstore, and the result was a profit of $90,000 for the summer's work. Viaud fondly remembers hordes of curious Americans scooping up limited-edition copies of the fabled Communist Manifesto. It was a beautiful edition with woodcuts, and he says he wishes he'd had the presence of mind to buy one for himself.

These days, the bookstore is a fixture at readings and public lectures in Vancouver. The list of speakers it has sponsored in recent years reads like a who's who of left-wing ora?tory: Tariq Ali, Maude Barlow, Linda McQuaig, Michael Parenti, David Suzuki, and on and on.

People's Co-op also distinguishes itself by providing Vancouverites with a broad selection from contemporary Canadian literature, environmentalist titles, poetry, and children's literature, along with a healthy British Columbia selection and a rack of books on globalization and its impacts.

On October 6, the bookstore is hosting a literary celebration at the WISE Hall, 1882 Adanac Street, featuring headlining novelists Lydia Kwa (The Walking Boy) and Anne Fleming (Anomaly). On October 20, at the Unitarian Church at 949 West 49th Avenue, People's Co-op is hosting an event with Medea Benjamin and Jodie Evans (Stop the Next War Now).

And pay tribute to a bookstore that has stuck with us all these years-drop in. Buy a book.

Raise a glass to the ghosts of Alfred Stiernotte and Binky Marks.