The People’s Co-op Bookstore is a Commercial Drive gem that needs to be protected

By the people, for the people

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Nearing their 75th anniversary, the People’s Co-op Bookstore is fighting to save the space they’ve occupied on Commercial Drive for the last 36 years. PHOTO: Courtesy of Maxwell Gawlick.

By: Meera Eragoda, Arts & Culture Editor

Let me start by declaring that I love independent bookstores. They have always felt more personal than going into big-box stores like Indigo. Usually, there are only one or two people working — call me biased, but in my experience, they usually have more time to chat about books. So when I heard that The People’s Co-op Bookstore (TPCB), located on Commercial Drive, had started a GoFundMe in order to save their business, I was saddened because of TPCB’s unique nature. TPCB’s struggle not only highlights the precarity many businesses are facing during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the struggles independent bookstores face — even during non-pandemic times.

The GoFundMe was launched on May 1 (International Workers’ Day) with the goal of raising $75,000 by the end of June, in time for the 75th anniversary of the bookstore. TPCB is the oldest independent bookstore in Canada and one of the oldest in North America. It was founded by social, political, and labour activists. As board chair, Laurel McBride, explains to me over the phone, “progressive values and a strong connection to the labour movement has been a thread that’s been consistent through time [ . . . ] A real coalition effort [ . . . ] is still very much at the root of the Co-op.” This political spirit is certainly visible in the store which is filled with left-wing titles and vintage pamphlets, though it carries more mainstream titles as well. McBride is careful to emphasize that the store is a space for all readers.

TPCB is not just an independent bookstore, it is a co-op — a term that when used in relation to a business, makes me figuratively clap with glee. Co-op (short for cooperative) is a business model where people like you or I can buy a yearly membership fee, collectively own the business, and help inform the goals of the business. On the whole, it’s a more egalitarian and less exploitative model than traditional capitalist businesses.

When I ask McBride about the benefits of running TPCB as a co-op, she says, “What’s really unique about cooperatives is the democracy that’s inherent in that structure. The people who use the store have a say in how it’s run, and each year you get the opportunity to come out and participate in that democracy.”

Currently, the whole operation is volunteer-run. Prior to the pandemic, TPCB employed one full-time staff member, but had to let them go. One of the goals they have for the GoFundMe is to bring them back and to increase their paid labour. McBride elaborates, “We want to be able to pay our workers what’s a fair wage and [ . . . ] to be more responsive to what people’s requests of us are and be able to order the books that they want to be in the store. Sometimes we’re having to pick and choose what’s possible.”

McBride stresses that the goal of the GoFundMe is to be able to cover the costs of rent on Commercial Drive, and keep up with the “[changing] nature of the Drive” in order to provide a space for all readers to gather for another 75 years.

She goes on to explain the importance of preserving both independent bookstores and co-ops. “Independent bookstores play such a vital role in our community. In terms of who benefits, the community [does] when independent bookstores flourish.” McBride emphasizes that community mentalities are particularly beneficial for the Co-op, especially “in 2020 when we’re fighting tooth and nail to hold onto democratic principles and more egalitarian ways of organizing who holds the wealth.” On this, she stresses the importance of buying local and putting money back into the community, stating that this notion is something “we need more of.”

Speaking on the community value, McBride says, “It’s a place to buy books but it’s also a place to gather and discuss, and become exposed to new ideas and issues, to learn [ . . . ] we [provide] spaces for published and unpublished authors to read their work [ . . . ] We’ve had other [events] that are less directly connected to books but are more community oriented like jazz nights.” She expands, “It really just depends on who’s around, what ideas they have, and their capacity to carry them out. I think what’s interesting about the Co-op is that we’re open to people proposing events and ideas and it’s quite a collaborative place in that nature.”

Spaces like this are becoming rarer in a rapidly gentrifying city. Luckily, McBride seems quite heartened by the response to the GoFundMe. So far, TPCB has reached 20% of their goal. As McBride says, the response they’ve received “speaks to the role the bookstore plays in the community and the place it has in people’s hearts.”

If your values are the people and the free exchange of ideas, TPCB is definitely a business worth supporting. You can help in multiple ways: you can donate to their GoFundMe, buy a membership, buy a book, donate some books, and share their campaign on social media. Check out their GoFundMe page for more ways to help or just for an in-depth dive into their history. Additionally, TPCB is open Thursdays to Sundays from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. for in-person perusing.