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On Bookish Pairings, Local Literary Leanings and “Growing Slow”, with Upstart & Crow

Zoe Grams and Ian Gill are the Co-Founders of Upstart & Crow, a cozy Granville Island community hub and escapist ‘getaway’ for book lovers of all ilks. The bookshop recently celebrated their three-year anniversary on August 26th, which seemed like the perfect opportunity to catch up with the bookish duo – along with Creative Operations Director, Robyn Smith – to reflect and chat (and get a bunch of book recommendations, of course)…

Three years is no small feat! Let us in on a few of the highlights of the past few years (and tell us about what you are excited about in the year ahead)… 

Robyn: My favourite was Top Shelf, our cocktail and book pairing evenings co-hosted with three brilliant women in the creative community: Lizzy Karp, Megan Lau and Michelle Cyca. We dimmed the lights, played some smooth tunes, and served up delicious drinks that matched with books of a similar ‘mood’ — for example, Jen Sookfong Lee’s ragey, coming-of-age memoir, Superfan, paired with a juicy, dark Gamay. It was great.

Ian: Three years, three highlights. One was when the late Harold R. Johnston (Peace and Good Order) came to visit, and we became instant friends. I miss him. Another was when Tuutahkʷiisnupšiƛ Joe Martin (Making a Chaputs) brought a canoe into the store to celebrate the importance of art in remembering and honouring Indigenous women. And I absolutely loved the conversation we had with Hugh Brody upon the launch of his brilliant remembrance, Landscapes of Silence.

Robyn: I also love every time an author comes into the studio to sign books or look around. They’re my rock stars. I get flustered. Two writers I was lucky to meet this year, Billy-Ray Belcourt and Stuart Ross, are incredible writers and people, and readers too. Gems!

Zoe: Yes! And, of course, opening Upstart Upstairs with the incredible folks at Persephone Brewing Company at The Beer Farm was such a special happening this year; a beautiful opportunity for us to expand our community to the Sunshine Coast. Although some of my most precious moments so far are small, almost invisible — interactions and meanings that don’t smack of achievement but do of human connection. Finding that perfect recommendation for someone; receiving a nod of understanding from someone you admire, hearing a young person exclaim excitement to their friends upon entering the space; all of that. As for next year… more art in the studio, more programming, more literature in translation, more surprises!

Autumn is traditionally the time for new books. What title are you most looking forward to digging into in the month ahead?

Zoe: Strandings, by Peter Riley, absolutely captivated me when I first found it in London’s Daunt Books earlier this year. Now, it releases in Canada this October and we couldn’t be more excited to hand sell it — or to host an online event with the author. It’s a strange, original, riveting exploration of mental health, ecological values and late-stage capitalism told through a deep obsession with stranded whales. Sound a bit different? Oh, it is, and so terrific for it. And Innards by Magogodi oaMphela Makhene is next on my list — a debut collection of linked stories about Soweto residents living through apartheid and beyond. It sounds marvelous and devastating.

Robyn: I’m trying to read more poetry, and there’s plenty of it dropping this fall — Jess Housty, a stunning writer from the Heiltsuk Nation, has her collection Crushed Wild Mint out in October. I also want to read Susan Musgrave’s Exculpatory Lilies, and Hana Shafi’s People You Know, Places You’ve Been.

Ian: I can’t wait to get my hands on Right Story, Wrong Story: Adventures in Indigenous Thinking. I just finished reading Tyson Yunkaporta’s Sand Talk for the third time, and I relish the opportunity to delve further into his new series of thought experiments that are, in his words, “crowd-sourced narratives where everybody’s contribution to the story, no matter how contradictory, is honored and included…the closest thing I can find in the world to the Aboriginal collective process of what we call ‘yarning’.” He’s a genius.

Do you have a local beer/wine/cocktail/beverage recommendation to accompany your book recommendation, that you suggest?

Robyn: Oh yes, you definitely need to drink while reading poetry. Well at least I do. I’ll drink a Strange Fellows Talisman with everything.

Zoe: I’m smitten with Persephone Brewing’s new honey seltzer—refreshing and different and, as the days draw in, possibly a lovely reminder of summer.

Ian: A cup of piping hot spearmint and watermint tea from the Willamette Valley in Washington State, courtesy of the Granville Island Tea Company.

What book has historically made the biggest impression on you?

Robyn: Yikes, what a question. Zoe, halp!

Zoe: It’s not necessarily the book that has influenced me most, but I remember reading the play Angels in America, by Tony Kushner, as a teenager and being utterly captivated by its audacious depiction of angels and God and humankind and suffering and the universe, and thinking, “You can do that with language?” And really, texts like that are my favourite works — often found in the “Literary Magic” section of our studio: works that not only immerse you in story but make you marvel at their form and technique.

Robyn: Nice. When I think about books that made a magical impression, I’m pulled back into my younger years when reading seemed the most vivid. Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy stands out. Still obsessed with daemons.

Ian: For books I read in my younger years that impacted me, it’s a toss up between The Tin Drum, by Günter Grass, and The Good Soldier Švejk, by Jaroslav Hašek.

What’s the book that, to you, best captures BC literature?

Robyn: I’m not sure there is a quintessential BC book, but when someone comes in asking about local writers, I generally steer them towards Eden Robinson and Brian Brett.

Zoe: I moved to BC about 13 years ago from Scotland. Some of the first books I read here, and which helped me begin to understand this place and continue to stay with me, include The Jade Peony, by Wayson Choy, Medicine Walk, by Richard Wagamese, and the poetry of Evelyn Lau, Daphne Marlatt and M A C Farrant. To Robyn’s point, the breadth of stories in this vast region consistently defy a perhaps previously-held sense of what “BC” means in terms of art. It’s a very exciting time for that reason.

Ian: The Curve of Time, M. Wylie Blanchet’s 1960s memoir of exploring BC’s inland waterways with her children, would probably be classified as quaint these days. I classify it as a classic.

Which local (Vancouver, BC or Canadian) author gets you most excited, that you recommend reading?

Robyn: As a journalist, I typically love everything John Vaillant writes. I also loved Kiss the Red Stairs, Marsha Lederman’s memoir about the Holocaust and intergenerational trauma. And Emi Sasagawa’s debut novel, Atomweight! There are so many great local writers, don’t make me do this!

Zoe: Ooft, this one’s so difficult I think I need to take a different tack. One of the most exciting parts of Vancouver, to me, is the community of writers it fosters. At a recent book launch it was a joy to see different generations of writers connect with each other; some building on each others’ work but never having met; others close friends and mentors whose creative lives are symbiotic if not intertwined. I think it’s that sense of collaboration that’s most exciting.

Ian: Richard Wagamese, for his beautiful mind. Eden Robinson for her daring. Edith Iglauer for her pluck. Yeah, and that Vaillant guy can craft the odd good sentence, but don’t tell him I said so.

“I see our job, not just as booksellers but as engaged citizens in a fractured world, is to push the imaginary boundaries of what is possible.”

Finally, let’s end with a heavier question: Book readers seem to be a rare, but resilient, breed these days. The interest in reading and purchasing of books experienced a resurgence during Covid times, when Upstart & Crow opened…How has engagement with readers (new and stalwart) evolved over the past three years? What challenges and changes do you foresee for the future – say, the next three years? How does Upstart & Crow intend to “roll with the punches”?

Robyn: It’s been a hard few years, and the painful times continue with the global climate meltdown well underway. What can a bookstore do? We try to be ethical and service-focused in our business — paying our staff a living wage, offering a paid writers’ residency in our upstairs mezzanine, and, this fall, organizing a climate writers series, with direct action being a core part of the program.

Zoe: I’d like to think we have big ambitions and realistic outlooks, and I think that helps to weather difficult times; focusing on a larger, bold vision while knowing that day to day, week to week, we do what we need to grow, or build, or weather.

Robyn: Yes, it feels like growing slow is the way to go these days. Mainly, we just want to make reading pleasurable and accessible, because it’s the greatest escape from reality that we’ve ever found.

Ian: I see our job, not just as booksellers but as engaged citizens in a fractured world, is to push the imaginary boundaries of what is possible. I actually don’t agree that book readers are a rare breed, although it’s true there is a lot of competition for people’s attention. I’m actually heartened by the curiosity of young people in particular, and their thirst for original ideas.

Zoe: I think we’ll continue to see a push towards further convenience, further information distillation, further distraction over depth. I see our role as reminding people of the benefits of pushing against these trends and, more than that, offering a place—physically and mentally—to revel in the joys of doing so. As for rolling with the punches… when we first opened, we weren’t sure what to expect. I’d like us to keep feeling that way.

Ian: What she said.

Upstart & Crow
Neighbourhood: False Creek
1387 Railspur Alley, Granville Island

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