How a small Vancouver independent bookstore weathered the storm of a global pandemic
Wen Zhai // Contributor
A lot of corporations, big and small, shuttered in 2020 due to COVID-19. However, Massy Books, an Indigenous-owned independent bookstore situated in Vancouver’s Chinatown, didn’t just survive 2020, it thrived. Their sales even enabled the bookshop to give back to the community and hire five new staff members, including Emily Dundas Oke, curator and media manager of Massy Books and the associated Massy Art Society.
Massy Books started as a humble initiative with founder Patricia Massy selling books online from her home as a college student, but it always had the community in mind. Massy Books sees its role in the community beyond buying and selling books but including other ways to support creative practices and the community at large. The bookshop is active both as a venue and a catalyst for creativity through art exhibits and various events, including book launches and collaborative events.
“Our location is really important to […] guiding how we navigate in a community. […] We’d like to think of ourselves as a bookstore but also a community hub that brings the community together for a number of reasons,” said Oke of Massy Books, which has been in its Chinatown location since March 2018.
Apart from being Indigenous-owned, Oke believes several things set Massy Books apart from other bookstores. “We actually have a full aisle to Indigenous literature which includes fiction, non-fiction, poetry, but also nation-specific poetry. It’s a really robust section that we pride ourselves in and find really important to be doing.” Massy Books also organizes books outside what may be considered classic genres in bookstores. “Instead of always fiction and non-fiction, we have sections that are dedicated to anarchy, for example, or to gender studies,” Oke explained.
When COVID-19 hit in March 2020, the store was closed for two months for safety purposes, which only left phone and online purchasing available to customers. They installed plexiglass and limited the number of people in the store in mid-May, and Massy Books reopened. “We only [allow] about six customers in store, as well as pretty strict social distancing measures, and we required masks way before the provincial health authorities to require them,” Oke added.
Early to mid-March and April was an uncertain time. In June, because of the conversations and protests concerning George Floyd’s death, Massy Books saw their sales for books concerning antiracism work, Black history, and Black voices surge. Massy Books sold more books online than it had in the entire year of 2019. “It meant that, as booksellers, we were just drowned in orders. It also prompted us to make our ordering systems more smooth and effective for our customers as well as for ourselves,” said Oke.
Since then, Massy Books continues to receive way more online orders than ever before. They are grateful that people continue to buy from local businesses. “We really owe a lot of thanks to certain initiatives and organizations that have helped us, including Vancity [and] Support Local BC. Both organizations supported us really directly by offering their customers gift cards to visit us or to make our store more widely seen by British Columbians and Canadians,” said Oke. What also helped was media exposure, past customers, and people on social media who had highlighted independent bookstores, as well as Indigenous and Black-owned businesses.
Massy Books sold nearly 39,000 books in 2020, despite the uncertainties brought by the pandemic—and they didn’t take the community’s love lightly. With the revenue, they were able to give back to communities and donated to dozens of organizations and fundraisers such as Battered Women’s Support Services, Writers’ Exchange, RAVEN, WISH, Aboriginal Mothers Center, Hua Foundation, Vancouver Black Advocacy Fund and The Capilano Review.
Being a small and independent organization allows them to be really flexible in decision-making and being more responsive to customer needs. “There’s not a lot of bureaucratic red tape,” said Oke. In July, Massy Books started having exhibitions again. “Now more than ever we are able to collaborate with publishers, artists and authors from across the country as more events come online,” Oke said. “Although there had been some in-person art openings, they were only with bubble groups per the Provincial Health Order, and again with a limit of six people at a time.”
Oke seems confident for the future of Massy Books. “I’ve noticed […] there’s often a great sense of joy and celebration in those events … It’s so often just a joy to see people and to celebrate books with them,” said Oke. “But I get the sense that many customers[…]are buying books more than ever before and really appreciate what books can do for them. And we are just happy to be able to support that.”
Massy Books is located in Chinatown and is open every day of the week from 10:00am to 6:00pm.