Left Coast Poetry Beat: Massy Books

Column by Bill Arnott

Western Canada’s poetry scene teems with talent, from neophytes to award-laden laureates. Authors of every facet share spoken word, competitive slam, and rapier-sharp contemporary as writers and fans converge in person, print, online and on airwaves. This is not a list of writing/reading groups or events. It’s subjective, personal experience – people and places where poetry, prose and lyrical verse are created and performed. Here in The West the poetry presence is bedrock-solid but like the imminent big quake, my epicentre is BC’s southwest. For now.

Patricia Massy’s bookstore shouldn’t exist. Massy, a hardworking bibliophile with bricks and mortar adjacent to Canada’s priciest real estate, is a retail model waiting to be a business school case study, “Why This Can’t Work.” TV narcissi could bleat at length as to why they’d never invest in such a venture. But it does exist. It does work. And it works well.

With a diverse wall of new poetry and stacks of indigenous and LGBTQI2S authors, Massy showcases all that’s good in the world of print books. I like spending money here. It doesn’t feel like a handout to the guy in the mouldy used bookstore hoping to make the back rent before his kids need to haul his crap to a green bin.

Situated in downtown Vancouver’s Chinatown, Massy Books fits the neighbourhood. The scent of dry spice and fish hang, melding with organic coffee and hipster beard. It’s walkable and close to transit. There’s grass and trees nearby with peaceful pockets of tent towns. Inside, shelves are clean and high. A rolling ladder hangs at an invitingly steep, oblique angle, making me want to pretend I’m a firefighter, or cast in a musical. The stacks themselves move to create event space. There’s even a secret room, or there was until now. Upstairs, gallery space features regular rotations of art, with sitting space and more books.

Vancouver’s Poets Corner meets monthly in Massy’s main space, seating fifty comfortably. The reading series kicked off a new year showcasing emerging indigenous authors – five powerhouse poets reading a combination of published and unpublished work: Jules Koostachin, Larry Nicholson, Gunargie O’Sullivan, Wil George, and Tawahum Justin Peter Bige.

I became a fan of Bige at Vancouver’s Verses Festival (formerly Vancouver International Poetry Festival) and the Talking Stick/Full Circle Festival. At Massy he chuckled, sharing new pieces that surprise him in their lack of anger. I like the angry him too. Either way, his caliber continues to surpass his earthly experience.

George read with succinct insight and the raw truth of his peers. O’Sullivan’s reading was as much informative conversation as evocative, from-the-heart writing. Nicholson’s whimsical work was a passenger seat on an engaging fair ride, and Vancouver Public Library resident storyteller Koostachin read from her book Unearthing Secrets: Gathering Truths, spiritual dreams, sharing and healing, her warm presence as powerful as her film work.

Nearby, two outlets of long time independent bookseller Book Warehouse thrive. Over the years it’s grown, it’s shrunk, yet keeps its niche among the chains where I have to hunt to find a book among the houseware. Book Warehouse’s poetry selection is obvious, easily saleable, but respectable – a good place to buy a gift for a newbie. A short distance away are three outlets of Pulpfiction, a successful independent for nearly twenty years. Sales continue to grow. One outlet’s doubling in size. It’s a reader’s bookstore with a decent poetry section.

Back at the Massy event I was making my way to the wall of poetry. Getting through the crowd took time – hugs, smiles, stories, welcoming clumps of humanity. It felt good. If some PR rep were looking for a photo op, it was here. Optimism, truth, and caring, with poems. Tangibility of people and paper I can’t get through Amazon.

Vancouver author, poet, songwriter Bill Arnott is the bestselling author of Dromomania and Gone Viking. Sales generate donations to numerous charities. His poetry, articles and reviews are published in Canada, the US, UK, Europe and Asia. Bill’s column Left Coast Poetry Beat is published by the League of Canadian Poets and the Federation of BC Writers.