Launching Into a Hurricane

Blackberry Books opened on Vancouver’s Granville Island in 1979 and seemed to be flourishing until February 5, 2014, when its owner dropped a gloom-laden tweet:

In my darker moments I see bookstores as elderly celebrities that people assumed died years ago."

Two months later, Blackberry closed its doors for good, and Granville Island, the pseudo-bohemian peninsular shopping district across False Creek from downtown Vancouver, was short a bookseller.

The midst of a coronavirus epidemic was probably the last time anyone expected that want to be addressed, but Ian Gill and Zoe Grams (top of page) opened Upstart & Crow Book Store & Literary Arts Studio on Railspur Alley ten weeks ago. Neither has retail experience. That could account for their courage, admits Ian.

“A lot of people have said, ‘what were you thinking?’” he laughs. “Which may attribute too much thinking to it.”

Ian is a journalist (CBC, The Tyee), social entrepreneur (Ecotrust Canada), and the author of several books including Haida Gwaii: Journeys Through the Queen Charlotte Islands and No News is Bad News: Canada’s Media Collapse and What Comes Next. Zoe runs ZG Stories, a Vancouver-based boutique marketing consultancy that works with authors, publishers, and non-profits.

As much as they wanted to open a bookstore, says Ian, they wanted it on Granville Island (below), a tricky ambition. The district is owned and operated by the Canadian Mortgage and Housing Corporation. When spaces come up for rent, prospective tenants apply and are judged by the landlord not only on commercial terms but for their contribution to the artisanal ethos of the community. The couple applied to lease a storefront between a blacksmith and a painter.

“We had to compete for the space,” says Ian. “We argued that sharing stories and creating a space for literary events and a writer-in-residence fills a creative function, an artisanal function. Fortunately, they agreed.”

He and Zoe were handed the keys last March 2. They were planning to get their fixtures installed and books ordered in advance of a May opening. They had just enough time to get a security system installed when the lockdown happened.

Fortunately, their landlord treated them charitably through the spring and summer. Zoe’s father, an architect and builder, helped outfit the space. They made the tables and shelves themselves, which kept costs down. They built a studio on the second floor intended for a writer-in-residence (top of stairs below).

Consulting other booksellers, who were generous with advice, they learned that they had to open accounts with publishers and distributors in order to stock their shelves. They acquired bookstore management software from Kelowna-based Bookmanager.

“It was quite laborious,” says Ian. “You have to open accounts with each publisher. It’s not just ‘add water’ and you’re open.”

Aiming for an inventory that would suit their own tastes and resonate with local clientele, they brought in the must-have bestsellers and prize-winners as well as a well-curated selection of books from independent publishers and small presses.

“We tried to choose books that you wouldn’t find, or at least wouldn’t find easily, in a big-box store,” he says. “For instance, we have a big dystopia section, because that seems to be something that’s going on right now.”

They went long on literary fiction and topical non-fiction, including BLM and BIPOC writers, climate change, strong women’s voices, and justice issues. Books were classified in an unorthodox fashion. “How We Got Here,” for instance, is the history section. And “Where To?” is journeys and discoveries.

By late summer, they decided they might as well unlock the doors for the retail part of the business, even if events and a writer-in-residence were, for the time being, non-starters. They opened on August 19.

“It was all desperately new,” says Ian. “Three days before we opened, I said to Zoe, ‘you know those little machines stores have that you put credit cards into? Should we have one of those?’ She said, ‘Oh shit, I ordered one but it didn’t come.’”

They didn’t have the machine for opening day but managed to survive regardless.

They had spent more than they could afford on their initial inventory and found that when the books they’d ordered came in, they didn’t have enough to make the store look full. They went home, emptied their own bookshelves and padded out the top shelves of the store with their own collection. “Just to make it look like we were real,” says Ian. “As we sold some books, we were able to buy more, and within a couple of weeks, we had enough. But it was a bit hair-raising.”

“We got some very friendly media, which was helpful,” he continues, “and we opened pretty strong. We don’t have any comparables. We can’t compare to last year because we weren’t here. But it’s making its way. It’s paying its way.”

There are now about 2,500 volumes in the store. “What’s been really gratifying is people come up to us, after spending a bit of time in the store and saying, ‘I really like the way you’ve curated these books.’ People appreciate that some care has gone into the choices and they aren’t just all piled on the table, which is gratifying to us.”

Along with books, Upstart & Crow is selling a small, well-chosen selection of artisanal gifts, including Somaj stationery (above) and Skwalwen Botanicals.

The store has the authentic, indie vibe that Heather Reisman dreams of for Chapters/Indigo. She hired Nathan Williams, co-founder of the nouveau-Amish Kinfolkmagazine, as her chief creative officer last year. You can read about Kinfolk, which the New York Times called “the Martha Stewart Living of the Portland set,” in this Vanity Fair article. How the slow-motion, hand-crafty Kinfolk ethos (below) is supposed to work at scale is as yet a mystery. It’s hard to imagine any big-box experience as cozy and personal as Upstart & Crow.

Ian says the pandemic has been something of a blessing for the store in that it allowed them to concentrate on learning the retail part of the business before they start hosting events, which are important to their mission but require a lot of effort and organization and may or may not make money.

What hasn’t been a blessing is the devastating effect of coronavirus on Granville Island’s street traffic. In August, it was 20% of the previous year. Ian and Zoe hope that things will improve with the approach of the Christmas season, usually an active time for the community. Fortunately for them, B.C. is managing its health better than Ontario or Quebec.

Meanwhile, Upstart & Crow is getting a regular flow of people whom Ian describes as refugees from “Zoom culture,” people spending full days online and desperate for the analog experience of a good book.

There are not nearly enough independent bookstores in Canada. They all need our support. Order a book from Upstart & Crow here.

Just how difficult are independent booksellers finding the current environment? I was flipping through the Los Angeles Times this week (it hosts an annual book festival every October) and learned that three of the city’s handful of booksellers are in trouble.

Diesel, A Bookstore, my favorite in LA, with locations in Del Mar and Brentwood, has launched a Go Fund Me page to pay its bills and keep the doors open.

Chevalier’s Books has been operating on Larchmont Boulevard for eighty years. Its business has been decimated by the pandemic and its landlord, pursuing a redevelopment, has forced it out of its space. It may not open again.

Vroman’s in Pasadena has been open since 1894 (history here). It emailed its customers urging them to step up their purchases through the upcoming holiday season. If the recipients don’t respond, the owners expect the store’s 126th year will be its last.