We were handed the keys five days before the 2020 pandemic lockdown began in Vancouver. Enough time to step inside, arrange insurance, and activate the alarm system. And then our rented space sat empty for months. It was about as inauspicious a beginning for a new venture as one could imagine. Our plan to open a literary arts studio—one funded by a bookstore, and home to original, heady, and joyful programming—was paused.
But in many ways, this time was a gift. We learned the basics of how to set up and run a bookstore. Through hours of sawing and sanding and welding and staining and painting, and buying yet another pack of Elastoplasts, we built our vision on a budget. Generous friends and lifelong booksellers showed us the ropes in their own stores and didn’t laugh at our many silly questions. Our sections devoured the books we ordered. Thousands of dollars and still, there were empty shelves, barren tables, just days before finally launching when the first full lockdown ended almost six months later. To pad our stock for opening we resorted to bringing books from home to fill the top shelves, a terrific strategy until a customer bought and then kindly returned a book with a personal inscription from an old lover on the title page. We ordered more stock that day—and figured out how to give a refund.
Business was slow but enlivening. And, like many other independent bookstores, we somehow survived. Remarkably, people began to emerge from their isolation, their curiosity intact and their support for independent bookstores undiminished—perhaps even cemented—by the shock of Covid-19. Small is beautiful. Local, not global. Community, connection, and above all, a hunger for new ideas of how to live well in a troubled world.
As the world reopened somewhat, so did our ability to act on our original vision, which was always to build a bookstore as a springboard for bringing art into the world.
But art is a complex, wriggling thing. As Jeannie Marshall writes in All Things Move (Biblioasis), “Now we mostly see art as something that has economic value. The artist is an entrepreneur churning out products for sale, or an entertainer providing spectacle for hire. Realistically, it’s impossible to separate art from money because the person creating the art needs money to live.”
How do we support a deep, holistic appreciation of stories for their own sake? How do we do that while wrestling with the fact that (note to selves), without revenue, ours risks being a good idea but ultimately a merely notional one?
In many ways, Upstart & Crow is an experiment to answer those questions as fully as we are able. An experiment that has begun, slowly, to prove our hypothesis: that there is an appetite to engage with stories at a deeper, almost visceral level, and to revel in the power of these artforms if we’re given space to do so.
If we could, we might have built a cathedral or adventure park for stories (although we’d have needed more Band-Aids for that). Within our modest square footage, we hope instead to create a place that clearly cherishes stories and their power. A place of reverence but also whimsy, a place of discovery . . . mainly of ideas you won’t find at the airport or at the bookselling behemoth up the hill.
In their own but related ways, The Independents—the capital letters are intended to make us feel collectively more important than we sometimes feel alone—the independent bookstores, and our co-conspirators, the independent publishers, serve as the antithesis of reading practices that uphold dominant ideas, or narratives that feel outdated or are actively harmful. We indies differentiate ourselves through values and specializations, and we exist to support those differences. The why of our existence and the how of our survival go hand in hand. This cannot be said for the large conglomerates.
For us, this means prioritizing literature in translation: books that were written originally in languages other than English, and in particular, books written outside Canada. As we say to our customers, read a sentence that wasn’t originally written in your primary language, and immediately your perspective shifts. Combine that with discovering voices from different countries and different cultures, and you begin to understand why Upstart & Crow is so passionate about fiction in translation. Translators of literature really are magicians: exceptionally present in the text and yet invisible, making creative, bold decisions that straddle perceptions and cultures.
Take Alindarka’s Children by Alhierd Bacherevic (New Directions), which offers “a kaleidoscopic picture of language as fairy-tale forest, as Gulag, as
monument, as tomb, as everlasting life” (New York Times). A bold and fascinating manifesto on the importance of Belarusian language and culture, it was written in both Russian and Belarusian to demonstrate the interplay between these two cultures. The closest translation is into English and Scots, respectively. Moving between Belarusian and Scots required multiple translations to bridge those two languages. It is not only an exceptional work of literature; it’s a feat of literary puzzle-solving.
Or Lisa Dillman’s translations of Yuri Hererra’s Three Novels, whose works include Signs Preceding the End of the World (And Other Stories), winner of the 2016 Best Translated Book Award. Reading her translator’s notes provides a window into the exceptional rhythmic, poetic nature of her work. “In addition to the mellifluous flow of the Spanish, there are other things going on [in this section of writing]:” she explains, “a conscious reflection on the musicality of language itself, an enumeration that serves as a rhythmic backbone, and a falling tone at the end which acts as a solemn proclamation and provides a sonic finality. In an attempt to carry across some of the sonic qualities of the original, I did a few things . . . ”
Thus begins a look into the creative effort required to translate just fifty words in one of the most remarkable books of modern literature.
Translated works are rarely bought in North America. Statistics are hard to come by and not too recent. Approximately three percent of all books published in the United States are translations, but the majority of these are technical manuals or other non-fiction texts. Barely 0.7 percent of books sold are literary fiction or poetry works translated into English. In Canada, 6,000 to 7,000 ISBNs were published every month in 2022. Just fifty-eight literature translation grants were awarded by Canada Council for the Arts in the 2021/2022 granting cycle, twenty-five of which went to French-to-English translations.
Independent publishing houses such as Coach House Books, Book*hug Press, Talonbooks, and Biblioasis are working to shift these numbers, and just some of the independent presses sharing remarkable and original works from Quebec and further afield. One wonders whether Because Venus Crossed an Alpine Violet on the Day that I Was Born by Mona Høvring (Book*hug Press) could have even been conceived of in English. Often described as “luminous,” the Norwegian language was translated by both Kari Dickson and Rachel Rankin and transcends both plot and characters.
There’s positive movement in other countries, too. In 2021, UK and Irish sales of translated fiction grew by 5.63 percent, and—according to The
Bookseller—translated short stories and anthologies sales grew by 90 percent in the last three years. These numbers are still low in comparison to other countries in Europe, where 15.9 percent of sales in France, and 19.7 percent of sales in Italy, are translated fiction. This suggests a fixation on own-language publications in primarily English-speaking countries rather than a lack of exceptional works elsewhere.
And so, to counter this, a quarter of Upstart & Crow’s collection is dedicated to works in translation. And it’s why the books we eagerly hand-sell—in the studio and via our in-translation book club—often have two names on the cover, the writer and the translator.
Our role as curators is key to our differentiation, and it’s interesting and not a little alarming to learn that the big boxes have cottoned on to what independents do.
As Fast Company shared from James Daunt—founder of the beloved and famous Daunt Books and now CEO of Barnes and Noble—“The general principle is whatever you choose to do, do it well,” he says. “If you haven’t got the space to do it well, don’t do it at all.” His strategy is, in many ways, to use the strengths of independents and apply them to large-scale stores.
The sine quo non of thoughtful curation, of course, is handselling, a remarkable tool that independent booksellers know all about, and that we at Upstart take great pride in. Our two biggest-selling books are Harold R. Johnson’s Peace and Good Order, and Wa’xaid (Cecil Paul) and Brionny Penn’s The Magic Canoe. We pressed these books into the hands of hundreds of visitors: it was a way not only to share knowledge but celebrate the exceptional humans who wrote such works. Every book taken from a table became another, albeit small, ode to the importance of these artists and their creations.
Then, of course, there is the desire to change how we perceive where stories lie and what their purpose can be—not only between the pages, not only for entertainment, but as intergenerational pathways, tools for fighting against persecution or dispossession, ways of asserting and exploring what it means to be human. Our three display tables in the studio regularly morph as we explore this.
First, for story as knowledge. Every few months, our three tables become one—The Long Table—around which we gather authors, thinkers, storytellers, and subject matter experts for a conversation about a particular topic. We talk over copious amounts of food, a little wine, of course, and we record four of the guests in discussion and a Q&A with our guests. Our goal is not only to host a joyous evening of ideas and camaraderie, but to encourage a depth of conversation that often occurs only between close friends and behind closed doors. We share what we record in a podcast of the same name.
Our tables have hosted books, food, wine, even a canoe. Tuutahkʷiisnupšiƛ Joe Martin, a Tla-oh-qui-aht canoe carver, old growth advocate and storyteller, brought a hand-carved canoe to Upstart that he carved to honour women’s resilience, and he shared stories of his craft and its role in shaping stories of his community and beyond. Visitors sat on the stairs and stood on the balcony, encircling this celebrated oral storyteller. Story as cultural connections.
There is, of course, story as magic, as pure pleasure. We host book pairings with cheese, cocktails, and donuts. We invite children to cozy up near Little Crows Corner and find the most picturesque kids’ books we can source. We fill a bank of antique postboxes in our space with literary treats, helping customers to surprise and delight their friends, or themselves, with a special code to unlock a box of literary wonders.
And there is story as activism, as when we paired with the publisher of wild salmon advocate Alexandra Morton’s Not on My Watch to send a copy of this book to every provincial MLA and federal MP in British Columbia, and hosted an online event with thousands of attendees, all looking for how to add their voices to the campaign to get open-net fish farms out of our waters for good.
So how does this all add up?
Our first iteration of a business plan—appropriately written as a chapbook, which we’d probably shelve today as magic surrealism—began with this quote from Susan Orlean: “Stories matter, and so does every effort to create something that connects us to one another, and to our past, and to what is still to come.”
For us, that every effort includes a constantly reinvented space that hosts and champions storytelling, and provokes a deeper relationship for anyone who enters the space. A place that helps others to explore how stories come into our lives and shape our societies. And, importantly, a place to revel in the making of art.
The Vancouver Sun dubbed us “Vancouver’s literary living room,” and in many ways this summarizes what we hope to achieve. The sense of possibility and excitement of old salons, a sense of luxurious rigour, and a place with—yes—very comfortable sofas. Two and a half years in, Upstart is an ongoing effort. A story of its own.
—From CNQ 113 (Spring/Summer 2023).
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