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Review

The Literary Storefront: The Glory Years: Vancouver’s Literary Centre 1978-1985

By Trevor Carolan

April 24, 2016

Review By Nicholas Bradley

Few bookstores figure prominently in modern literary history. Shakespeare and Company in Paris, once frequented by Joyce, Stein, Fitzgerald, and Hemingway, and City Lights in San Francisco, made famous by Ginsberg and Kerouac, are shrines for bookish pilgrims. But Vancouver’s Literary Storefront, established in imitation of such venerable stores, was in its heyday relatively obscure, and unlike Munro’s Books of Victoria, which shares in the glory reflected by Alice Munro’s Nobel Prize, today it exists only in memory. In The Literary Storefront Trevor Carolan recounts the short history of what he terms “Vancouver’s first grassroots literary centre” (12), its “bohemian consular centre” (13), and “a society of friends” (13): the Storefront was significant not for commercial reasons but as a venue for literary performance, administration, and carousal. Founded by the young poet Mona Fertig, it operated from 1978 until 1985, and was first located at 131 Water Street in Gastown. As the book’s numerous photographs show, Vancouver before Expo 86 was a different world, a smaller and less cosmopolitan city than it is now. In her foreword, Jean Barman observes that in Vancouver during the early twentieth century, “To be ‘literary’ was to head elsewhere or, for the select few, almost wholly men, who were admitted into its ranks, to acquiesce to the closed world of the University of British Columbia” (8). A perceived division between UBC and “Downtown” persisted for decades. As an undistinguished author in Vancouver, Al Purdy found the campus at Point Grey culturally and geographically remote; he imagined Earle Birney, poet and professor of English, to be sequestered in academe, as if Acadia Camp might be mistaken for the Bodleian.

An essentially anecdotal work, The Literary Storefront draws on writers’ correspondence and interviews conducted by Carolan, who notes that his “book of oral history and archival research” (11) is intended to “serve as a necessary archival document for students of BC’s literary history” (12). The volume is impressively detailed: Carolan, it seems, mentions every writer to have passed through Vancouver in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of their names will be familiar to specialists in Canadian literature, yet most of them have never graced the pages of The New Yorker. Margaret Atwood, Margaret Laurence, and Michael Ondaatje appear, but Carolan focuses on unsung characters, Fertig foremost among them. The Literary Storefront thus suggests not only the diversity of Canadian literature but also the inherent difficulty of narrating the past comprehensively. At times Carolan is distinctly sanguine, describing the Storefront’s milieu for instance as a kind of Canadian North Beach: “Working-class, shake and shimmy, down at heel, creative and cheap, the Gastown-Downtown Eastside district was a natural magnet for the young and artistic with a dream, and for outsiders of every social hue” (18). And on occasion authors are portrayed in somewhat simple terms. Birney, who in 1978 gave one of the first readings at the Storefront, is “the dean of Canadian poetry” (56), Purdy is “a huge colloquial worker poet with a voice to wake the dead” (93), Robin Skelton is a “celebrated poet-witch” (75). But Carolan’s enthusiasm propels the narrative. A champion of the local literary sphere, he has produced with The Literary Storefront, as he did with Making Waves: Reading B.C. and Pacific Northwest Literature (2010), an important addition to the record of the province’s literary culture. A certain wistfulness accompanies his verve; it is hard to leaf through The Literary Storefront without nostalgia for a time before Amazon. Carolan demonstrates that one version of the writing life has disappeared, and his book is all the more valuable for its evocation of another time and another city.

The Literary Storefront: The Glory Years: Vancouver’s Literary Centre 1978-1985
Trevor Carolan
Salt Spring Island: Mother Tongue Publishing, 2015. 252 pp. $29.95