Vancouver’s Massy Books: Championing the Stories and Talent of BIPOC and LGBTQIA2S+ Authors

Walking into Massy Books in Chinatown is immediately calming. Shelves have been lovingly stacked with both new and used books from a variety of genres, such as literature, science fiction, critical race studies, and an entire aisle dedicated to Indigenous material. Friendly staff offer suggestions, as well as catch up with regulars who have dropped by to say hello and find their next read. It’s a distinctively Vancouver store for people who take pleasure in the written word.

Massy Books is Indigenous-owned and operated and belongs to the Stó:lō Business Association. In 2017, owner Patricia Massy got her start at a pop-up shop on Main and 5th after acquiring a wide selection of books from thrift stores, estate sales, and a 10,000 book collection from retired UBC physicist Bill Dalby.

Massy has enjoyed a multifarious professional life, including working as a landscaper, a travelling carnie, a support worker, and at one time, training to be an auctioneer. She also worked at bookstores before opening her own, falling in love with the environment and the joys of talking about books with others. “No other job has fulfilled me in the way bookselling does. There’s nothing like reading a book that changes your life and then being able to share that with somebody and do that on a regular basis,” she says.

Children’s and YA section of Massy Books

She moved to her Chinatown location in 2018 because it felt like the perfect fit for what she hoped to achieve. “Chinatown has a great community. Our neighbours are truly amazing. I feel at home here,” she says. Also, because she worked in the Downtown Eastside for many years, and has lived in the area for a long time, Massy has a personal affection for the historic neighbourhood.

Massy who is of Cree, Métis, and English descent and a member of the As’in’i’wa’chi Ni’yaw Nation, knew she wanted to do something different with her business—something she could take pride in. This year, the Living Wage for Families in B.C. certified Massy Books as the first bookstore in the province to be a living wage employer. Offering a living wage has long been a goal, one that required a stable level of business success. “We’ve built enough of a community and have enough of a following that it’s a step that we were able to take, and I’m thrilled to be able to provide our staff with a better wage,” Massy says. Employees who work over 20 hours get benefits as well.

While Massy Books sells a range of popular book and rare volumes, such as a first edition of Ulysses, what makes the store particularly special is its championing of works by Indigenous, racialized, Two Spirit, and queer writers. “We’ve always had a really large collection of books by Indigenous authors. It was always a priority from the get-go to sell books by typically over-excluded authors,” Massy says.

This priority is evident throughout the two floors of the store. At the front of the store is a curated selection of works pertaining to “Black histories, Black futures.” And, on the shelves, you’ll find an impressive array of works by Indigenous authors, like Islands of Decolonial Love, a collection of stories and songs by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, a writer of Mississauga Nishnaabeg ancestry, as well as It was Never Going to be Okay, a book of poetry by jaye simpson, an Oji-Cree Saulteaux Indigiqueer writer, who lives in Vancouver. In addition to prioritizing local authors, Massy also celebrates small publishers, such as Arsenal Pulp Press, which is based in Vancouver. “When you shop with us, you’re supporting local,” Massy says.

Massy has seen increased interest in her business during the pandemic, as people have sought comfort in the local. “People really want to support independent bookstores and make sure they survive,” she says. She’s also noticed a positive change in the types of books readers are gravitating towards, and correspondingly, the kinds of books being published and self-published.

“Over the last two years, there has been a massive shift in the desire to read books by Indigenous, Black, and racialized people that have typically been excluded from the mainstream and publishing houses. These stories have always been here, and it’s about time the world took notice of the phenomenal stories that exist,” she says. She also mentions the newly assembled Non-Fiction Indigenous Advisory Board by Coach House Books, an entirely Indigenous Board that has been given “full autonomy for acquisitions and all decision-making regarding a line of Indigenous non-fiction titles.” Massy says it’s “a great step towards reconciliation in the book industry.”

Massy recommends two works, the first being Buffalo Is the New Buffalo by Chelsea Vowel, a Métis writer from Manitou Sakahikan, Alberta. The collection of short stories will be released at the end of April and deals with Métis futurism and a speculative world free of colonialism and capitalism. Massy also is excited about Jessica Hernandez’s Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes through Indigenous Science. “It’s a blend of Indigenous environmental science with Indigenous stories and family histories that centres Latin American women and land protectors,” she says.

The bookstore is twinned with Patricia Massy’s greater advocacy for the local writing and artistic community. In partnership with Room Magazine, she co-founded Indigenous Brilliance, a reading series that raises the voices of Indigenous women and 2SQ storytellers, as well as forges community with other BIPOC creatives. In addition, she is the founder and director of Massy Arts Society, which provides support for multi-disciplinary Indigenous and over-excluded artists and space for them to showcase their work.

Last year, Massy Books held over 100 events, with 90% of them devoted to BIPOC, LGBTQIA2S+ artists. This month, they will be moving to in-person events, such as a book launch for Cynthia Dewi Oka’s work Fire Is Not a Country on March 10 at the Massy Arts Gallery and a poetry night on March 17 with D Fretter, a local poet and spoken word artist.

After just five years, Massy Books has accomplished so much in building cultural and artistic community and in spotlighting writers and other creatives who have been present, but not always recognized by the mainstream.

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