By McKinley M. Hellenes
Spartacus Books, Canada’s oldest collectively-run radical bookstore, was established in the early ’70s as a book-buying club at Simon Fraser University. In 1973, it opened a storefront on Hastings Street, and in 1974 it found itself a home at 311 West Hastings on the cusp of Vancouver’s Lower East Side. The space was a refuge for the radical-minded, the poor, the homeless, the queer and queer-allied, the feminist-for refugees of the status quo. On April 24, 2004, it burned to the ground, a casualty of arson. A century-old heritage building and a dusty old bookstore were lost in the blaze; an institution of the radical community was razed, seemingly without hope of ever being rebuilt. Insurance premiums and rising rent rates were just too much for the modest budget the store was surviving on; $125, 000 of merchandise was lost, along with over thirty years of leftist history in the form of vintage posters and leaflets and stacks of the journals volunteers had kept and contributed to over the years. Gone was the free access to computers and Internet which so many people relied on, and gone was access to reading material for those too poor to afford the cost of a book and with no address through which to obtain a library card. What used to be the largest collection of zines in the city was suddenly gone, and it was no longer possible for zinesters to distribute their work with the ease they had grown to rely on. Vancouver lost a space where all were welcome and accepted in a city where the gentrification of the Lower East Side is daily causing resources for the poor and radical to disappear without warning.
Happily, due to the leviathan efforts of the volunteers and supporters of Spartacus, the bookstore has risen again from the desolation of the fire. As of February 5, 2006, the new space is officially reopened at 319 West Hastings, right next door to the gaping hole that is the remains of the old space. The new store is bigger (by about another half-size), and is furnished with shelves and counter space rescued from the now sadly defunct Granville Book Company. It boasts its own bathroom, wheelchair accessibility, and free access to computers and Internet. A cushy assortment of donated couches and chairs are available for lounging, napping, gabbing, and reading. Interac is now available, as Spartacus has become fully automated. The space is large enough to hold functions of all descriptions, and in the past few months has hosted several readings, a book launch, an open house for the reopening, and performances by local musicians. The space is home to the new FreeSchool Vancouver, which offers free workshops and classes to the community. The zine section is steadily rebuilding itself, and a wide variety of independent Canadian magazines and small-press books are available. Spartacus is back, with the same fervor and passion that inspired its birth over thirty years ago. Its many volunteers continue to serve the independent, radical community as they always have, thanks to all who refused to stand down and let Spartacus die.
Visit www.spartacusbooks.org and www.freeschool.vcn.bc.ca for more information.