Fighting a Losing Battle



Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside is often seen as a neighbourhood fraught with poverty, crime, and violence. However, despite its socio-economic issues, it is also a central location for community building and social change in Vancouver. Many local businesses and organizations help to foster a sense of community and culture for the neighbourhood. Spartacus Books is among these organizations. A non-profit bookstore, it is run completely by volunteers and, until recently, stood at the edge of the Downtown Eastside.

The shop prides itself on carrying books and magazines from small independent publishers that would not be found on commercial bookstore shelves. They also provide access to academic and scholarly publications that are not available elsewhere. Over the years, Spartacus has been a community space for people living in the DTES to discuss and share radical ideas and join together in the name of inspiring social change and political activism.

Recently, however, Spartacus Books was evicted from their location on East Hastings Street so that the space could be renovated to reap higher commercial rents. After being part of the neighbourhood for more than 40 years, the bookstore has been forced to relocate in order to satisfy the interests of Vancouver’s real estate developers.

A Gladiator in the City

Spartacus was originally founded in 1973 at SFU by a man named Roger Perkins, who also worked at the SFU bookstore. Originally called the Spartacus Socialist Education Society, the bookstore soon expanded to accommodate the needs of those advocating for a diverse range of political views.

As one of the longest-running collectively run bookstores in North America, Spartacus has been one of the main sites for the promotion of alternative culture in Vancouver, addressing issues that mainstream media often gloss over. It has also been a valuable resource for a poverty stricken community to use as a safe space that they can call their own. Its eviction comes as a a huge blow to the community, who have come to rely on the bookstore as a crucial centre for community building and the exchange of ideas.

Spartacus Books’ story is nothing new in the aggressively gentrified Downtown Eastside.

Spartacus has also extended its reach beyond the DTES. For example, the bookstore has fostered connections with several SFU campus organizations, including Out on Campus and the Women’s Centre. The bookstore has, in the past, collaborated with these groups in the form of book buybacks to build up their respective libraries.

“[The Women’s Centre has] always appreciated Spartacus for providing social justice-oriented material, as we do in our Centre library,” says Natasha Sanders Key, the resource assistant for SFU’s Women’s Centre. “We have also appreciated them as a valuable resource to residents of the Downtown Eastside, and were very saddened to hear about their eviction from their Downtown Eastside location.”

Spartacus Books’ story is nothing new in the Downtown Eastside, an area that has been rapidly and aggressively gentrified in the past decade. The eviction of this bookstore is not just a physical loss, but also one that is keenly felt throughout the entire Downtown Eastside community.

A Long and Bitter History

The Downtown Eastside has long been a marginalized community, as it contains the regions of Chinatown and unceded First Nations territory. With the historical forces of colonialism and classism pressing their own interests against the community’s, it is no wonder that many of the Downtown Eastside’s residents are low-income First Nations peoples, displaced as a result of these colonial forces. This long and hurtful pattern of displacement is unfortunately still active today, as evidenced by the eviction of community hubs such as Spartacus Books.

Spartacus Books has faced its fair share of adversity throughout its over 40 years in the community. The bookstore and its members went through a devastating fire in 2004, which completely destroyed the building that was housing them at the time in Victory Square.

The fire started in the dumpster in the store’s back alleyway and quickly spread, consuming the entire building and around $100,000 worth of uninsured books from Spartacus’ stock. In spite of this, Spartacus was able to recuperate from its losses with the help of the community; DTES residents and fans from across Vancouver pitched in to donate books and resources to help get the store back on its feet.

The bookstore is no stranger to renovation-related eviction, facing this threat once before in 2013. Outrage and support for the bookstore poured in, and people took to the streets and protested on social media against the eviction. Their support definitely made an impact, as the owners of the building told Spartacus Books that their lease was being renewed for another year. However, it soon became clear that the landlord did not intend to renew the lease any further. 

The bookstore wasn’t so lucky this time around, and was forced to move from its current location in order to make room for a new café that will be taking its place. Collective member and media coordinator of Spartacus, Mike Mowbray, said of the eviction, “The landlord plans to renovate the space, along with the neighbouring storefronts, and reap commercial rents much higher than they were from businesses of a different character than was here before. They’ve made clear that Spartacus has no place in that plan, even if we’re willing to pay the higher rent.

“The landlord wants us gone,” he concluded.

A Community Worth Fighting For

Regular customers were disappointed to see the bookstore move, as it had become a valuable community space for many people living in the neighbourhood. Mowbray says of the Downtown Eastside, “This city treats a lot of poor folks, anybody who might look out of place in the businesses that fill up newly gentrified storefronts, badly, in a lot of ways.”

Mowbray cited a point made by one of his fellow collective members at Spartacus, saying, “While the café that will likely replace Spartacus might offer free wifi, that’s contingent on customers having five or six bucks for a latte and their own laptop to access the network. Spartacus has always provided computers and a connection so that folks in the neighbourhood could access the Internet at no cost anytime the shop was open.”

Mowbray also emphasized that the neighbourhood had become the bookstore’s identity, and that the services that the bookstore provided were given out of solidarity, rather than charity — as many had become attached to the spot and to the neighbourhood.

The bookstore also provided a “people’s phone,” a free phone that was maintained outside of Spartacus’ East Hastings location, accessible by anyone who needed to make a call, 24/7. According to Mowbray, the phone provided a literal connection for residents in a neighbourhood lacking public pay phones, and where many residents do not own a telephone.

“I remember one guy coming in a while back when the phone was out of commission,” Mowbray recalls, “telling us that it was the only phone freely available to folks between Commercial and the Carnegie. It may seem like a small thing, but folks come in all the time to say what a difference it makes.”

The Politics of Property

In a article on Vancouver’s DTES, authors Harsha Walia and Dave Diewert describe gentrification as “the social, economic, and cultural transformation of a predominantly low-income neighbourhood through the deliberate influx of upscale residential and commercial development.” It is a phenomenon that is all too common on the Downtown Eastside.

SFU geography professor Nicholas Blomley, whose research specializes on the organization of laws and property, calls the gentrification of the DTES “an issue of land.” He continued, “It is a question of how land is to be used and the relationship that the collective has with that land. Private property seems to dominate the conversation, either directly or indirectly.”

The increase of gentrification in the area is also partly due to the fluctuating changes in the economy. Around 18,000 people lived in the DTES in 2012, at which time the unemployment rate sat at 11.3 per cent and nearly two thirds of residents made low income salaries. According to a profile of the area conducted in 2006, the median household income was $13,691, in comparison to the median income of $48,000 for most other Vancouver residents.

“The general pattern that is happening in the Downtown Eastside is the riding of rents [in favour] of the so called ‘revitalization’ of commercial spaces,” Blomley says. “The stories and narratives of the Downtown Eastside are changing, and while it may look the same, the community is affected by the loss of resources from places such as Spartacus Books.

“It’s easy to see the love and support for Spartacus here in Vancouver.” – Mike Mowbray, collective member of Spartacus Bookstore

“In a city like Vancouver, increasingly unaffordable for most people,” Mowbray says, “folks need to stand in solidarity with the people of the Downtown Eastside against the developers and a developer-backed City Hall not only because it’s the right thing to do, but because the politics of property are not contained by neighbourhood boundaries. Renters in particular are at the mercy of a process that is only going to extend the range and force of its impacts if we don’t act together to challenge and subvert it.”

The Downtown Eastside also has a bitter history in terms of the division of First Nations territory. The city of Vancouver itself was built on unceded territory taken without the consent of First Nations people, who now make up a significant percentage of the DTES’ population. Many of these people now reside in the area as a result of their displacement from their original community.

Blomley says of this history, “First Nations people have always felt the results of gentrification the most acutely because of the historic need that dominant societies felt to marginalize them. Places like Spartacus Books are able to provide alternative histories and political resources. We lose something if we lose those, especially considering the current commercialization of media.”

For its part, Spartacus Books has been one of the foremost sources for alternative First Nations histories and sources in Vancouver. With the loss of the bookstore, First Nations people in the area have lost yet another space for cultural and community growth.

It is out love and support for this community that the collective members of Spartacus have continued to fight against the gentrification of the Downtown Eastside. “Gentrification is not a process without active agents,” Mowbray clarified; “It’s not a faultless process of organic urban change. Gentrification is something that happens because of the deliberate actions of profit-seeking real estate speculators and predatory property managers who have made a business of evicting residents and hiking the rents.”

Essentially, real estate agents want to create a profit margin that current residents cannot afford — residents, therefore, are forced to move out. Spartacus Books has, in solidarity with others, been an organization that firmly resists this process while endeavoring to be an open and free space for all to discuss and share their ideas.

A New Leaf

Though Spartacus is no longer a member of the DTES community, its days are far from over. On June 1, the bookstore settled into its new location on Findlay Street, in the Commercial Drive area. There, they will continue to connect with the community around them as they plan to host radical movie nights, book club meetings, and musical performances which everyone in the neighbourhood can enjoy.

“It’s easy to see the love and support for Spartacus here in Vancouver,” Mowbray says, “whether it’s 10 years ago when folks kicked in to help the store overcome the loss of $100,000 in uninsured books during the 2004 fire, [or] this past weekend when people offered their hands, their heads, their vehicles, boxes, food and collective energy to our move to the new location by the Drive.”

Though they’ve faced adversity, Spartacus remains a beacon of hope in inspiring social change. In their new location, the bookstore is sure to provide support for the community, and to continue to push forward their own narrative — and Vancouver’s.


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