Monday, November 19, 2007



Few things could be more indicative of the growth of anarchism in Canada, and across the world for that matter, than the proliferation of anarchist bookstores, or "infoshops" as they are sometimes fashionably called, though the term "bookstore" is still much indicative of what they really are, in the past few years. When Molly was a tiny little baby anarchist kitten there were exactly three in Canada. Molly visited them all way back then. Erewhon Books in Edmonton, long a hotbed of anarchism, is long since dead, and is deeply lamented in my opinion.From what I saw it was the best,especially in regards to its selection of children's books. Librarie Alernatif in Montreal, perhaps the oldest of the lot, is now L'Insoumise after some particularly bitter internal battles a few years ago. Spartacus Books in Vancouver ended up burning down, but it has been resurrected near to its old location, an unfortunate choice if you ask me. More on this later, but it depends on who you want to reach. Perhaps it may be good to locate a bookstore downtown but not if you have to run a gauntlet of sleaze to reach it. Vancouver's lower east side has the distinction of being the poorest neighbourhood in Canada, slightly edging out Winnipeg's downtown on this "distinction". Molly can remember the comment of one fellow on a list serve that she belongs to about how he, being from New York, was never afraid to be in any neighbourhood until he walked through Vancouver's east side. It's very true. One of the privileges of travelling outside of Winnipeg is that I will rarely be in any place where you have to keep your guard up as much as you do in some neighbourhoods in this city. Aside, of course, from my annual Christmas pilgrimage to Regina to meet with family in Canada's most violent province. Nothing like a crowd of about 400 junkies around an abandoned city hall-Vancouver- to give you the willies. Seems like I never left Winnipeg, except that it is worse. Molly can walk through this nonsense with her usual "violate my personal space and I'll knife you" attitude, but I can't see how this is productive of reaching the "average person" that anarchism should be trying to reach. Yeah, rents are cheap down in such places, but not that much cheaper than in a more welcoming part of town. I don't ask that anarchists deliberately try to set up shop in some sort of "trendy town", nor that they try to set up shop with deliberation on a major thoroughfare in an ordinary middle working class neighbourhood-which is what I would like to see in the future but not now. I do, however, suspect that there is some sort of perverse "pride" in setting up in places where close to 90% of the population wouldn't want to go.

Anarchist bookstores came and went in the years intervening. Here in Winnipeg there was more than one that flourished and died, until Mondragon settled the matter with what may be the most inviting internal setup in the whole continent. I certainly felt more "at home" drinking wine in the CGT cafeteria way up overlooking downtown Barcelona being as a)the view was much better-beyond belief much better- and b)there was nothing about fashion anarchism about the place. Not a vegan dish to be seen. Merely good food at a cheap price. But Mondragon beats that cafeteria for "ambiance" ten thousand times over.

Nowadays there are anarchist bookstores/infoshops springing up all over the place. Even in the most inhospitable places, Calgary for instance. Saskatoon has one. Toronto has new ones. All of this is part of what may be an often unconscious impulse to give a practical form to the new anarchism, despite the lingering influence of some ideologies in the milieu that deride practicality for one reason or another. This is part of the "institutionalization" of the movement which has gotten over its juvenile phase of believing that there is some sort of revolution around the corner and now knows that there is still huge amounts of educational work to be done. It is realism, and a practical way to put anarchist ideas into reality, a reality that may often be "messy" (ala the dispute over Alternatif/Insoumise) but is still at least "on this planet" as compared to fantasizing about ending civilization, supporting baby terrorists who quickly go rat when caught, or losing fights against the police at various summits. Any "mess" in a bookstore/infoshop is light years less "messy" than the nonsense generated by these lingering failures.

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:



Werner said...

It's hard to imagine an anarchist bookshop in Regina as much as such a thing might be useful. In a lot of ways it is still 1970 out here. Or maybe worse. The effective identity between social democrats and the "(un)natural governing party" is pretty well complete. You still get "socialist" academics whining in the 'Prairie Dog' for more public money to be spent on their friends. There is an Indymedia site out which surprises me a little. They use "comment moderation" which around here is probably a good idea. At least there is no babble about Israel or 9/11. That's something I suppose.

Larry Gambone said...

I used to go to Insoumise on a regular basis when I lived in Mtl and found the folks there to be really friendly and helpful as well. They are doing a good job, methinks.
There is also a bookshop/Infoshop in Victoria now called the Camas Collective 2590 Quadra St. Victoria BC V8T 4E2
Web Site

mollymew said...

Hi Larry,
Yes, I personally found Insoumise much more personable than the old Alernatif, though I must admit that one visit is nothing to judge by.
Anyways I yhave added Camas to Molly's list of links under the 'Anarchist Publishers and Distributers' heading. What struck me on looking the site over was a curiousity about the source of the name. It seems to me that it was chosen from a botantical point of view to celebrate the Camas plant common in BC. This plant is part of the Camassia genus which botantists have recently reassigned to the family Agavaceae family. It is a perrenial which grows wild in moist meadows out ther in BC, with variable flower colour from pale lilac to deep purple. The plant is a bulb former, and the one species Camassia quamash was a traditional source of food for many native peoples in the west of Canada and the USA. Given the presentation of the website it is likely that the bookstore has deliberately chosen their symbol to be not just a local flower but also a symbol of their identification with the native cultures of BC. As an aside there is a plant, called "Death Canas" that is very toxic. It is extremely difficult to distinguish this plant from the ordinary Camus unless you can identify the flowers. The actual bulbs are very similar. One wonders if the people at Camas have considered this at all in their choice of symbolism ?