So there I was, a duly elect-ed direc-tor of the People’s Co-oper-a-tive Book-store Asso-ci-a-tion.
I did not take a par-tic-u-lar-ly active role dur-ing my first, ear-ly 1990s stint on the board. For one thing, I was new to the group. For anoth-er, I soon learned that it was a vol-un-teer board in more than one sense. You vol-un-tar-i-ly served on the board, that was the ordi-nary mean-ing. But with-in the store’s cul-ture, the board was viewed as a com-mit-tee of vol-un-teers who were putting them-selves at the dis-pos-al of the store’s paid staff to look after book tables, count inven-to-ry, keep the store clean, maybe even work relief shifts. With my own atten-tion large-ly tak-en up by my newish day job, pub-lish-er of New Star Books, I was not going to be able vol-un-teer that sort of time. So I became a board mem-ber of sec-ondary impor-tance and influ-ence; and after two years, I decid-ed not to seek a third term.
Nev-er-the-less, even with most of my atten-tion else-where, I soaked up a great deal. One thing I learned was the dif-fer-ence between a co-op, and the usu-al, strict-ly heirar-chi-cal orga-ni-za-tion-al log-ic of a pri-vate, for-prof-it cor-po-ra-tion. In the lat-ter, you’re con-stant-ly required to make deci-sions, and the com-pet-i-tive aspect has a lot to do with mak-ing more good deci-sions than bad, and mak-ing more good deci-sions than the busi-ness-es on either side of you.
As a men-tor / friend said to me many years ago, “Pub-lish-ing is easy; all you have to do is make deci-sions.” The same wis-dom applies across the spec-trum of work. But a busi-ness that is run along the lines of a co-op (for exam-ple, the East Van-cou-ver Food Co-oper-a-tive; cred-it unions; wheat pools; those old Co-op gas sta-tions and gen-er-al stores) has an addi-tion-al dynam-ic that it has to con-tend with: group deci-sion-mak-ing. That, as many of you read-ers already know, is a bit of an oxy-moron: groups seem reluc-tant to make deci-sions.
For instance: The board in the ear-ly 1990s was wrestling with the issue of the store’s wood-en sand-wich board sign. It had been cre-at-ed by a store vol-un-teer in the 1980s, a cre-ation of vinyl sheet-ing and Mac-Tac applied to half-inch ply-wood. The sign incor-po-rat-ed Angela Kenyon’s mid-1980s store logo, which incor-po-rat-ed a styl-ized book and dove of peace, and nice-ly evoked the clean graph-ic style asso-ci-at-ed with mid-cen-tu-ry East Ger-man design trends. But it was now aging and start-ing to look a bit tacky, and the board was much occu-pied with find-ing a vol-un-teer who could spruce up the sign: a task which turned out to be sur-pris-ing-ly dif-fi-cult, once the deci-sion had been made to com-mit to the vol-un-teer approach (rather than, say, hir-ing a sign painter). When I left the board, they were still talk-ing about that sign, not hav-ing man-aged, in two years, to knock the prob-lem on the head.
Believe it or not, when I rejoined the board in 2009, the very first item dis-cussed at the first meet-ing of the new board was an item aris-ing from the min-utes of the pre-vi-ous board meet-ing: what to do about the sign .. It took just two years after that to come up with the new sig-nage that now graces the store-front.
In addi-tion to a les-son on the scle-rot-ic process of deci-sion-mak-ing on the book-store board, I learned one oth-er thing: how “Moscow gold” works. The notion pro-mul-gat-ed by the right was that the local branch of the Com-mu-nist Par-ty was not mere-ly in thrall to the Com-mu-nist Par-ty of the Sovi-et Union, it accept-ed cash — “Moscow gold” — to pur-sue the ends dic-tat-ed by the Krem-lin, and pre-sum-ably involv-ing the sub-ver-sion and over-throw of demo-c-ra-t-ic cap-i-tal-ism in Cana-da,.
But this sce-nario could not be more wrong. It prob-a-bly went more like this. One of the big Moscow for-eign lan-guage pub-lish-ing hous-es — For-eign Lan-guages Pub-lish-ing House, Mir, Raduga, and a few oth-er imprints — would announce some titles, and the People’s Co-op would place orders for them, which would be paid for with cash, cash raised by work-ing-class, pro-gres-sive Cana-di-ans. The mem-bers would sup-port the store by buy-ing these books, although as any vis-i-tor to the store knows, they did not always sell. Many of these books are to this day still in the store’s inven-to-ry, decades after they were paid for.
So the ideas may have flowed west-ward, from Moscow. But the gold flowed east-ward, towards Moscow. It is cer-tain-ly all gone now.
Start from the begin-ning: My Careen as a Book-seller (1) :: Before It All Began