IHO Site: Spartacus Books
Overview: Established in 1973, Spartacus Books is a non-profit, volunteer-run bookstore and resource centre located on the edge of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Stocking a diverse and up-to-date selection of hard-to-find publishers and providing a free space for community events, the store provides the information and tools for social change.
IHO Site Supervisor: Alexander Daughtry, Volunteer/Director
Q: What is your background?
A: “I graduated from Langara and then I did the nursing training at Langara. I’m an RN at St. Paul’s. Before being an RN I did first aid, I’ve worked in other book stories. I’ve been at Spartacus since 1976.”
Q: What is your mandate at Spartacus Books?
A: “My role, like everyone’s, is to keep the door open, to order and stock information that isn’t available elsewhere, and to get it out into people’s hands. We’ve been doing it for 35 years, getting magazines and books in that aren’t going to be otherwise available, and giving people the tools for social change.”
Q: Describe your typical day at Spartacus Books.
A: “A typical day is doing some routine bookstore things; receiving books that are coming in, shelving, finding books for people, taking requests, making orders, dealing with the boxes and boxes of donations that keep coming in. But it’s absolutely unpredictable.”
Q: What are some challenges that you face at Spartacus Books?
A: “We had built ourselves up to be the largest bookstore of its kind in the English-speaking world; a volunteer-run radical bookstore. It was huge. But, we burnt down in 2004. We lost everything in the fire, we weren’t insured, and we had to start everything from scratch. We opened up as a used bookstore with donated books, and then when we could afford it we started ordering in some new books. The challenge is selling enough to pay the expenses, to pay the rent, the utilities, and pay for the books from the publishers. After the fire we opened at a different location, a beautiful location, but they doubled our rent, left us broke again, and we moved here. The expenses are much lower here but there’s a lot less foot traffic. We’re selling less books. We only survive because we don’t pay wages; bookstores don’t survive as a business. The economics of it is definitely a challenge. Getting enough people to volunteer is another challenge. We have a constantly-changing roster of 20 or 30 volunteers, but people are always having to go to jobs, go back to school, give up their shifts. When somebody leaves the challenge is keeping the doors open. And we have the challenges of a bookstore with theft.”
Q: What are some challenges that the local community faces?
A: “All of the Downtown Eastside challenges. Lives in crisis, poverty, addiction, people really struggling, gentrification slowly creeping in and making it harder for people to afford rent. This building was saved for the housing above it. It was going to be torn down and there was a campaign to save this building and the two next to it as heritage buildings. Atira Women’s Housing bought it to maintain all of the SROs upstairs and the two houses next door. The battle to save affordable housing saved the building and saved our bookstore space too.”
Q: What successes have you had in addressing challenges at Spartacus Books and in the local community?
A: “Starting from nothing after the fire and re-building to what we were before, that was a terrific accomplishment. We were a viable enterprise that stocked almost anything in the English language that was relevant. Coming back from the fire, coming back from nothing was a huge success. We accomplished it through community support, people making donations, a lot of work by a lot of people. We support social change activity and the people support us.”
Q: What has been your experience working with VCN?
A: “They’ve enabled us to provide a lot more community services, by having the bank of computers and the people that help us keep them going.”
Q: How can a VCN intern help to address challenges at Spartacus Books and in the local community?
A: “They can get involved in a lot of the store processes, above and beyond the computer assistance that they give us and the people that come in. They can bring their own ideas.”
Q: What advice would you give to a VCN intern beginning work at Spartacus Books?
A: “It works better if you’re familiar with the site.”
Q: What do you believe a VCN intern could take away from working at Spartacus Books?
A: “They would learn a lot about organizing, about information, about politics and philosophy and history. They’d learn about the things that go on in the city. Maybe they’d learn a lot more about dealing with people in a deprived area coming in and needing help.”
Q: What has been one of your most memorable experiences working at Spartacus Books?
“The people that I’ve enjoyed working with, and seeing things accomplished, in the store or out of the store. When we had a bigger space in the last few locations we had big, mass meetings. It was really good to see.”
Q: What is one little-known fact about Spartacus Books?
A: “It was started by a man who worked at the SFU bookstore around 1972; he thought up the name as a way to order books at wholesale for himself, but it was quickly turned into a book table run by SFU students. In ’73 it had been so successful that they came down off the mountain and opened a site in the city as a bookstore.”
Q: What can someone who is interested in getting involved at Spartacus Books do to help?
A: “Come in, we have a volunteer application form.”