I am of independent bookstore stock – in their day, my maternal grandparents owned and ran the largest bookstore in the city of Tainan, Taiwan. I remember visiting the bookstore as a child; the hush of people reading in the aisles, the exciting smell of new paper. Occasionally, I was allowed to run the till, a giant wedding cake of a machine, with its oversized buttons and hidden drawers of cash that rang with the ting of coins clashing when it opened. My grandmother’s bookstore was one of the most glamorous and peaceful places I could imagine. Tainan’s international claim to fame is as the childhood home of film director Ang Lee. With his gorgeous visual translations of literary originals in Brokeback Mountain, Pride and Prejudice, and Life of Pi, I’ve come to revere Lee as the writer’s director, so I can’t help feel a thrill of pride at the idea that he may well have picked up his first books at my family’s store.
As a teenager, my first job was at an activist bookstore tucked amongst the hutong alleys in Beijing, where I had the tasks of sweeping the store and maintaining the shelves. It was said that dissidents passed messages to each other at this store tucked in the pages of books. When I had spent enough time there, I was allowed to work sales, which were calculated by abacus. But I was pretty much hopeless at it, so the owners – already operating on a shoestring – probably lost a certain amount of cash on my miscalculations before I was relegated back to sweeping. My duties also expanded to working the teahouse upstairs, which was decorated with elegant empty wooden birdcages, their doors all open. The city’s cultural elite would come to the teahouse to sip goji berry tea and listen to jazz. To this day, the likes of notorious rebel artist Ai Weiwei can be found in that bookstore’s aisles. Now, though, it is no longer in a classic neighbourhood. The hutong have been swallowed by the march of concrete condos; the bookstore is the solitary classic building remaining, its sheer survival an act of defiance.
Here in Vancouver, we are blessed with a similarly punchy collection of survivor bookstores riding out the march of online and big-box retail: Kidsbooks, Pulp Fiction and Book Warehouse come to mind, as well as specialty bookstores like the leftist Spartacus Books or New Age’s Banyen Bookstore. When you know where to look for them, small-town bookstores stud the Canadian landscape like so many stars in a dark sky. Here in BC, we have some true brights: Marnie’s Book Store, Mermaids Tales, and Armchair Books to name just the few that I’ve been lucky enough to wander. These are the gathering places for their communities, where stories are shared on winter nights, where books are launched. They are also refuges for the wandering reader/writer. Even if I am in a town of complete strangers, at the independent bookstore, I always know I’m amongst my kind.
(c) 2016 Anna Ling Kaye
Anna Ling Kaye’s fiction has most recently been short-listed for the 2015 Journey Prize. A former editor at PRISM international and Ricepaper magazines, she is co-founder of Hapa-palooza Festival and sits on the board of Project Bookmark Canada.