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Who decides what we read?

Arsenal Pulp Press: the little publisher that could

INDEPENDANT PUBLISHING: Taking risks to maintain diverse voices are the personalities of Arsenal Pulp Press: (from left) Brian Lam, Robert Ballantyne, Janice Beley, Shyla Seller and Nicole Marteinsson Credit: (Michael Harris photo)

The Sep 11 closure of Women in Print, preceded by the demise of the Granville Book Company, has left a void in Vancouver’s indie book scene. Do we blame the box stores exclusively? Is this razing of independents partially the fault of disinterested consumers? Will any new stores step up to bat? And, most importantly, who’s next on the hit list?

The dwindling selection of independent booksellers includes Little Sister’s, Sophia Books, White Dwarf and Oscar’s-each shop has eked out their rent money by focusing on niche markets. But the next generation of Vancouverites might happily patronize Chapters/Indigo for their “niche needs”. If so, what level of variety (and service) will those future readers inherit?

Brian Lam, publisher at Arsenal Pulp Press, is the exception to the crisis; Vancouver’s homegrown indie publisher just moved into an office space 40 percent larger than its previous encampment. Business is good.

In the board room at Arsenal’s new Gastown digs-which they share with the like-minded magazine Geist-Lam is quiet and confident. Out the window, a guy is picking his way across abandoned railway tracks. Lam is talking about Women in Print and the litany of woes besetting a once vibrant feminist literary movement. “That’s a real loss,” says Lam. “It mirrors the death of a lot of women’s presses. It’s kind of the end of an era.”

The indie bookstores that remain are ordering fewer and fewer copies of books, and they aren’t replacing the titles that sell out. Even when independents remain open, pressure from jumbo-stores keeps them from taking any risks on stock that might not move.

And without risks, there may not be a point to being independent. Arsenal Pulp has made a point, for example, of publishing books that get them into trouble. Scrambled Brains, an older foodie title that includes pot-filled recipes, was banned from BC Ferries bookshops. And the publication of an urban guerilla warfare manual in the 1970s was held up in the House of Commons as a shining example of what filthy publishers were being supported by government funding.

Then there’s the whole gay thing. The Canadian book market is a small one to begin with; narrow that down to the queer Canadian book market and you arrive at such a rarified prospect most publishers aren’t interested. Where most see minorities, Arsenal sees opportunities.

In 1992, Arsenal published the first gay anthology in Canada, Queeries (ed Dennis Denisoff). They never looked back. Since then, Arsenal has published numerous anthologies and novels by queer writers, including the famed Quickies series (ed James Johnstone) and the upcoming femme porn anthology With a Rough Tongue (eds Amber Dawn and Trish Kelly).

Their contemporary titles have been joined of late by vintage lit: the growing Little Sister’s Classics library (series ed Mark Macdonald). And Gay Art, an out of print text first published 35 years ago, will join Arsenal’s catalogue in 2006. Lam and his coworkers have made it their business to adopt the babies that others threw out with the bathwater. They have made it their business to safeguard the words that would otherwise be lost.

The strategy appears to be paying off. Arsenal’s humble beginnings as a small literary press (Pulp Press was mostly formed by a team of UBC grads in 1971) have grown so that now the press occupies the role of a medium-size trade publisher. More ambitious projects, with further social (and geographic) reach, begin to appear on their catalogue. And yet, says the ever-vigilant Lam, “we never want to betray who we are.”

Any parting words of advice to your fellow fringe literati, Mr. Lam?

“It’s about being yourself,” he says. “Arsenal has a personality.” The one constant road map Arsenal has employed for the past three decades is their unique enthusiasm; they make the books they want to read. And not necessarily the books on Big Brother’s nightstand: “We don’t feel like we have to appease people at Canada Customs,” says Lam.

“Hone your personality,” he says. “Little Sister’s is who they are because people know them.”

As a sea plane touches noisily down in the window over his shoulder, Lam glances out at the view. He gives the philosophy a more business-like turn: “There’s something to be said for branding.”