Monday, May 07, 2007

Vancouver Calling

For the last three days I have been in Vancouver for the LPG AGM. I've been staying at the Ramada -- formerly the Niagara Hotel -- on West Pender Street. Right beside the hotel is a wonderful antiquarian bookstore by the name of McLeod's, where I have been stockpiling a small cache of Canadian books and literary mags. Our conference sessions have been at the SFU campus a block away, and besides a few cab rides, I've seen about two blocks of this fair city. Even the mountains have only occasionally made their presences known.
What I have discovered, though, is that Biblioasis has a connection to this very block. When I walk out the Ramada's doors, directly across the street is a two or three storey building with lion heads decorating the front. In the mid-70's a group of young students started a press -- anarchist in vision -- on the top floor of this building and called it Pulp press. Within a couple of years, a young Windsorite, Dennis Priebe, was on a cross-country train trek, and hooked up with a writer by the name of D. M. Fraser in the train's bar car. They spent most of the ensuing trip -- through the prairies and Rockies, drunk and engaged in coversation. Fraser -- guru to Stephen and Tom Osborne and the rest of the Pulp Press gang -- told the young Priebe to come by one day, and he did.
At this time, Dennis has a stock of about 10,000 books in a warehouse in Calgary. He wanted to open a used bookstore. He came by one day to drink with Fraser, and met Osborne and company. He needed a job, and Fraser convinced Osborne to give him one. It was expected -- by both parties, I expect -- that this would be a temporary arrangement, but Priebe stayed on, with a few brief interludes, as a pressman and typesetter, for more than two decades.
Flash forward to the summer of 2003. A man I recognized as a customer at my used bookshop from a few years back came in with a couple of boxes of very good stock, and while I was looking through his wares he asked me for a job. His timing could not have been worse. Tracey Trudel, a retired school librarian, had just started working in the shop; if I remember correctly, it may well have been her first shift. But Dennis persisted: he could do many things. He could build me shelves in the basement, get it organized so that we could begin to keep track of what we had. He'd work full time, as long as it took. He thought he could do it for $200.00 a week. I talked it over with my wife, and then decided it would be worth giving a try.
Dennis proved himself invaluable. He worked hard, got the books organized, shelves built. We got to know each other over the following weeks. Went out for beers. I eventually learned that he'd always wanted to work in a bookshop, so that he thought this a dream come true. More interestingly, that he had spent most of his career working, in various capacities, in book and magazine publishing. As a pressman with Pulp's printing arm -- the name of which escapes me now -- a typesetter with Pulp, later Arsenal Pulp. Typesetting and doing other editorial jobs with Geist. Typesetting and book design with Vancouver Desktop Publishing, including freelance work for Douglas & McIntyre, among others.
I was very interested in publishing, but had no idea how to get into it. Like most people, I suspect, I had not thought it something one simply did. Surely you needed training, experience, access to a vast stock of specialized knowledge? At the very least, a long apprenticeship with an established publisher? Dennis assured me that was almost universally not the case (a fact I can certainly confirm now: most people who try an internship or apprenticeship in book publishing never return to it. It's a profession for ignorant fools and knaves, though they (or we) be all the more blessed for it.). I had the enthusiasm and he had the experience. Together we could turn Biblioasis into a literary press. His words vapours into an already addled brain, and Biblioasis Press was formed.
Without Dennis, Biblioasis would never have become a literary press. I would have continued selling my second hand wares at 519 Ouellette, or somewhere else, slowly turning into Steven Temple. What a fate! and thank heavens someone saved me from it. Many others have contributed to Biblioasis's rather rapid development since -- most notably my wife Alexis, who pays the bills, puts up with long hours and does not seem to mind too much that this business seems not to bring in a stitch of income (she's thinking of taking out an ad in the next issue of CNQ: 'AGE Financial: keeping Literary Publishing Alive in Emeryville, Ontario.'), John Metcalf, and a whole host of mentors and friends (Kitty Lewis, Tim Inkster, Jack David, Gary Dunfield...). But Biblioasis would never have tried to become a press if it had not been for Dennis Priebe walking in that day (Nicholson Baker's Size of Thoughts on the top of his pile of books) and making himself a job, making an offer I simply could not refuse. And that would not have happened had he not met D.M. Fraser on a train to Vancouver, had not Stephen Osborne given him a job. So I feel connected to this area, and if I see no more of Vancouver on this trip, I am very happy to have been able to wander through this small part of it.
It's been wonderful to get to know some of the people Dennis worked for in those days. Friday evening, Geist threw a party for the LPG publishers, and I met and talked with Stephen Osborne. It's been great to get to know Brian Kaufman of Anvil (who threw, with Karl Seigler of Talon Books, a barbecue for us Saturday evening) a little bit more, and Rolf Mauer of New Star. Dennis' friends and co-workers and peers, and now, I'm very happy to say, my own as well.
I also managed a signed copy of the first edition of Jarman's great hockey novel Salvage King, Ya! from Brian, so it looks like I'll be reading it soon after all.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

As someone who is generally media-shy and a blog "virgin", I'm surprised to find myself posting something here (or trying to: I'm also a klutz at all things online, so it remains to be seen if this actually gets posted) -- but finally I can't keep quiet any more about how enjoyable and instructive I have found Dan Wells' periodic entries about day-to-day life as a young publisher: the ups and downs, production cycle, landmark moments large and small, satisfactions, aspirations, sense of tradition and community, and contagious excitement in an enterprise that is clearly both avocation and vocation for him. Besides giving a intimate glimpse into a publisher's world, these entries convey such a vibrant, unjaded belief in literature -- something so different from the usual lip service that is just a mandatory part of market hype. One feels they are the expression of an absolutely genuine and unselfconscious love of books. How rare for a publisher to take such personal interest in each individual title -- not just as a title, but as a BOOK that has clearly been READ (not just proof-read) and appreciated for its qualities! And to share these thoughts, as well as his thoughts on the whole process of bringing new books into the world. I feel honoured and very lucky to have a title (no--a BOOK) with Biblioasis, and I look forward to watching this press grow and flourish and set an example to others of what publishing can be and should be.
Robyn Sarah