Upstart & Crow is a love letter to the ways independent bookstores create conversation

Owner Ian Gill explains how Upstart & Crow engages and challenges readers through uniquely curated book categories

Owners Ian Gill and Zoe Gram have goals of fostering an open, literary community within Upstart & Crow. Photo courtesy of Olivia Leigh Nowak

By: Kelly Chia, Peak Associate

Found within the thriving arts scene of Granville Island, Upstart & Crow was built with community and a love of literacy in mind. The first word that comes to mind upon entering the bookstore is comfort. Books line one wall, and a few tables had been set up with recommended selections. Above me, the staircase leads up to a lofty mezzanine that was currently closed off. 

I spoke with Ian Gill, one of the owners, about the store. According to Gill, the name “Upstart & Crow” references an old nickname that William Shakespeare received when he first started writing plays because people thought he was an amateur. The idea for the name came up between Gill and his mother for a bookstore in Australia. While the bookstore in Australia never came to fruition, when the idea came to open up a bookstore here, the name stuck.

Photo courtesy of Olivia Leigh Nowak

Gill and his partner, Zoe Gram, had been eyeing the space on Granville Island for a while. When they finally got the keys on March 2, the pandemic really hit and they had to close for a while. At the time I spoke with Gill, he said that Upstart & Crow had only been open for almost a month — just about a day shy. Despite this, Gill said that business was well because people seemed eager to support the local economy. “Ironically, through the pandemic, people are thinking about the global economy and all these big box stores, and [concluding], ‘You know what? Most of the [everyday solutions] are local, including to the economy.’” 

Despite Upstart & Crow’s classic namesake, you’re more inclined to find works by new authors here. “We tend to favor more independent presses [ . . . ] to [try and] help the voices of the margins be better heard, because we have a very diverse and complex society, and you go into a lot of conventional bookstores, and you don’t get a diverse choice of books to read about. We’re trying to elevate the conversation and diversify the conversation,” Gill explained. 

Another key concept that Upstart & Crow had in mind was to act as a literary hub and a community resource. Gill gestured to the currently closed off mezzanine area, which had been intended to host a more communal space in the bookstore, but is currently not in use due to the pandemic. He hopes that in the future, they can invite writers in residence, and generally create a communal space for discussion. 

To reflect this, Upstart & Crow lists various offerings on their website, from information on upcoming plans for communal activities (if COVID-19 doesn’t interfere) to products from small-batch producers meant to enhance the reading experience. Upstart & Crow also has a collaboration with Thistalalh Library which provides new books to a community of about 1,300 people in Bella Bella in the Haíɫzaqv (Heiltsuk) territory. Customers of Upstart & Crow can choose an amount to contribute for books of their choice, and Upstart & Crow will source and provide it. 

A carefully curated section at Upstart & Crow. Photo courtesy of Olivia Leigh Nowak

The books in this store have clearly been curated to provoke discussion. Instead of the genres I was used to seeing like fiction and non-fiction, books were categorized based on the ways that they can challenge and present new ideas to potential readers. “Boys & Men,” for example, isn’t necessarily a section intended for men, but is described as collections of books that reflect on masculinity. 

In particular, one section that is titled “Urgent Voices” with the caption reading “books that will surprise, enrage, galvanize and inspire you,” lingers on my mind. It was clear to me then that these books were curated lovingly with the intention to be shared and spoken about — these captions were indeed engaging, and I wanted to know more about the curation process.

“We’re hoping that people will come in and think about the experience they want from reading a book rather than just think about being entertained,” Gill said. Rather than being split into fiction or non-fiction, these books were curated for people who had questions about things like history, current affairs, how we got here, and where we’re headed — books meant to thoroughly immerse you in a sea of ideas. 

Gill is also trying to immerse readers in international literature by bringing more translated works to the store. “Disappointingly, Canadians don’t read much international [ . . . ] literature, so we’re trying to sell more of that because there are a lot of good stories out there and a lot of them aren’t written in English,” Gill explained. In bringing more translated works, he’s hoping that these books will inspire people to expand their perspective. 

Overall, the atmosphere of Upstart & Crow was exactly as Gill described: approachable, but slightly challenging. “We think of this as our living room. You know, like our literary living room.,” Gill claimed, smiling. “We like to entertain, and we get to entertain lots of people, including all the people we don’t know!”