This summer and fall Molly had the privilege of visiting two of the anarchist bookstores in Canada. One, Exile Books in Ottawa, is fairly new. It did, however, have the privilege of national publicity as one of its members hit the news when he got outed for releasing so-called privileged information that he obtained via his position as a minor internet reader for the federal government. As my faulty memory serves me the whole matter was about some environmental position of the Harper government. Full stop here. Molly might be wrong on this, but she won't look it up. Unlike 95% of the population Molly actually paid some attention to the matter. Unlike 99.99% of the population she still has some vague memory of what it was all about. The whole point, at least the political point, of the thing was whether whistleblowers were justified or not, and whether this particular whistleblower was justified. Ask the average person today about this affair, and in the vast,vast majority of cases you will get a puzzled stare. Few would remember as little as Molly does. This is sad but true, and things such as these should give pause to those who have a overblown sense of the importance of any particular moment,event or issue. The best they can be is publicity, and the publicity will be temporary at best. That's the nature of the world that we live in today.
When Molly visited Exile Books (256 Banks St, Ottawa, ON) this summer she had a little difficulty finding it. It sits on a rather depressed street some blocks north of the Parliament Buildings, well away from the trendy area of town. "Depressed" is a relative term, especially from a western Canadian point of view. Molly could hardly spot a boarded up shop in the whole neighbourhood. The area supports a number of Irish pubs, a great distraction to Molly for sure, and it is hard for her to imagine a "depressed" neighbourhood with an Irish pub, though they seem as common as fleas on a dog in Ottawa. The whole area seems like a battleground for how the university crowd is trying to push out some sort of an imitation of a skid row, a skid row that was never "serious" as compared to what we see out here. Molly missed the place on her first pass by. She stopped at one of the pubs, had a couple and came back and found it. The first thing that she saw, besides the fact that Exile Books shared the second floor with some sort of fuck-book shop, was the intimidating set of stairs. No granny ladies with three preschool grandkids is ever going to come up here. The climb was well worth the effort despite the fact that Molly complained to the staffer upon reaching the shop way up the stairs. Molly sometimes likes to bitch. Her comment that the place needed to be on ground level on a corner with doors open on two sides was met with the obvious rejoinder about rent. Very true, and Molly can hardly argue against reality.
The Ottawa comrades have done very well to open this place at all. Every city in Canada, no matter how small, should have one. Their hours of operation were actually more convenient than most such places. Their selection of books was small, though this is understandable given the youth of the place. Their selection of zines was even smaller, though I am sure this will be remedied in future. I was at the shop for almost three hours. Some of this was taken up by the fact that Exile Books, unlike many (almost all ???) such places actually has a public computer available ie it tries to be an "Infoshop" in reality rather than in just name. Not just books, but also other "info" in other media. Something I would recommend highly for other places. Molly got distracted for a considerable amount of time by showing off Molly's Blog to the staffer until another customer finally wandered in. The staff person was very pleasant once we got past the fact that Molly doesn't fit the stereotype of the modern anarchist and how I wasn't (son-of-a-bitch) allowed to take photographs for this blog. Actually we hit it off great. The young woman recovered from the shock of an old fart puffing up their stairs very well, and I can say that if there is one thing that should be a requirement for anybody manning such a place it would be that they could recover from a shock of something unusual as well as she did. There is an important point contained here. Not everyone is as willing as Molly is, especially after she has had a couple of beers, to cross subcultural barriers to make connections. Shake paw, shake paw,shake paw. I enjoy it beyond measure. The general public will be far more reticent. Maybe there can't be "personality tests" for those who work at such public outlets, but that is a shame. The whole point !!!! is to reach others not yet convinced, and very few will approach the matter with as little trepidation as Molly does. Most will be more than slightly nervous and stand-offish. The woman on staff did very well in recovering her balance, and many kudos to her. She is one of the people whom I hope sticks around as she will undoubtedly become a very valuable militant in years to come. I wonder if the other staffers are as good as she was. Exile Books also seems to want to be a lending library and a meeting place. For the life of her Molly couldn't see how you could jam more than 20 people (with crowding) into the facilities available. As for the lending library aspect it may be more an ambition than a realistic project. Too much ambition, and it is no wonder that the larger anarchist events in Ottawa are held elsewhere. Still, a beautiful and apparently good start. Four stars out of five. A very shitty location, but a good book selection and an intelligent staffer.
This fall(October/November) I also visited L'insoumise in Montreal. I have visited this bookstore twice before when it was Librarie Alternatif, and I have to say that this was the first time that I have encountered a truly friendly staffer there. This is despite the fact that we struggled to make ourselves understood across a language barrier, with my bad French and her slightly less bad English. One of the results of the great fights over the ownership/control of Librarie Alternatif was that the bookstore is now much more oriented to a francophone population. This seems to have improved their public presence as at least this staffer actually tried to be really helpful to this hapless anglophone.The conversation shifted back and forth from French to English and back again. Unlike Exile Books L'insoumise is a "specifically" anarchist bookstore, the sort of thing that could only exist today in a place like Montreal with a metropolitan population of close to 3 and 1/2 million. Not that there weren't "general lefty" books available, but the selection was far more specifically anarchist than Exile Books (or anything I have seen in North America for that matter). There was also a far better selection of books in Spanish as compared to anywhere else in Canada. I won't comment on the USA because it has been so many years since I have been there. The selection was hardly "colourful". It seemed rather drab on the shelves. But you don't come into such a bookstore to get grabbed by cover art. The selection was also far better, from an anarchist point of view, that anything that you can see elsewhere in Canada. The neighbourhood (2033 Boulevard St. Laurent) requires that you pass by a tiny,tiny,tiny itsy bit of sleaze that most of us out here in western Canada would hardly recognize as such. The greatest inhibition to reaching the place (0n a ground floor by the way) is a little climb up a rising street. Something a granny lady could do. There is a subway station very close to the bookstore, and Montreal has perhaps the best subway system in North America, or at least in Canada. My major complaint, which also applies to Exile Books by the way, is the almost total absence of books for children. Something that should be considered. Unlike steers anarchists do reproduce, and I think that future bookstores should be both more "child friendly" ie no steep stairs and also carry more material for an increasing number of anarchist parents (or grandparents in my case). Ground floors. Play structures. It's all something to consider for the future. Still...both Exile Books and L'insoumise are great places that I encourage anyone to visit.In both places I was priveged to meet welcoming people despite the fact that I don't pass muster as to my external appearance. This may be the most important point.That's it for Molly's latest travelogue.
To see the bookstores reviewed above on the web go to: