Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

30 Questions with This Ain't The Rosedale Library on their 30th Anniversary

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30 Questions with This Ain't The Rosedale Library on their 30th Anniversary

A veritable bookselling institution is celebrating it's 30th anniversary this week. This Ain't The Rosedale Library, in Toronto's Kensington Market, will be huffing out the candles and eating b.day cake (figuratively, at least) at the Harbourfront Centre on Wed, Sep 16. The tribute will feature readings and performances by a host of great writers and artists. You should go; it will be fun.

Meanwhile, to help them celebrate, OBTO blogger at large Shaun Smith sent This Ain't owners Charlie Huisken and his son Jesse Huisken 15 questions each (get it? 15 + 15 = 30) about books, reading, their store and their lives.

CHARLIE

1. What is the secret to longevity in running a bookstore?

The secret to longevity? No one single answer. But it helps if you have the support of family and friends both emotionally and financially during tough times. When times are tough, bills still have to be paid and payrolls have to be met. So that means we the owners have to draw even less than we ordinarily do from the bookstore. People assume that we're in it for the money or otherwise "why would you stick to it?" So one has to nod in agreement when people sound off about what we should do when they're assuming that we have deep pockets. We have tried to remain upbeat during even the most trying times. We possibly would be a better bookstore if we had more capital. But we've done the best we could with limited financial resources.

But creativity still flows during those tough times and we try to keep ourselves open to new ideas and creative thought. And for that we've depended on the creative and critical input from loyal customers and community activists. The best artists and writers know how to browse our shelves, and we'd be fools not to listen to their thoughts and feelings.

2. What is the thing you enjoy most about running a bookstore?

When I opened the bookstore I had given up on the idea of my working at a mainstream bookstore and having a floating bookstore on the side where I'd take stock to various artshow openings and literary readings, setting up a booktable and then packing it up and taking unsold stock back home. I wanted a store that would have the kinds of literary titles that I couldn't find at Britnell's or The Book Cellar. I had worked at the latter off and on for three years, but even when I was promoted to the position of buyer, I didn't have the leeway to feature the things I cared about which both clientele and store management thought freakish and weird. The Maya people have a concept of creatvity called "the beautiful and the dangerous" and Toronto has a quite conservative idea of what's beautiful because of a fear of "the dangerous." Every day when we open the shop we are surrounded by both.

3. What is the thing you enjoy least about running a bookstore?

The thing I least enjoy about the store is doing cultural work in a setting where dilettantism passes for professionalism, cash prizes pass for the creation of meritocracy, a star system passes for culture building, cliquishness passes for community maintenance. The infrastructures that are in place to support the arts and letters in places like Quebec and Europe and Latin America are just not here. Arts organizations have adopted a "don't rock the boat" attitude in the face of the rightwing troglodytes' attack on arts funding in particular and the arts in general. It's been years since I've been invited to sit on an arts council jury. Or for that matter have critical thoughts expressed to arts journalists see the light of day.

Booksellers are the ones who put the "public" in "publishing," and online sales and displays of pyramids of books in bigbox stores don't. When we open our doors to the public, we have to be ready for almost any kind of human behaviour and interaction. That is most often a joy, but some days it's just a steady grind of coaching people how to behave with respect for their neighbours and fellow book browsers and respect for the cultural product, the book. One example: When did libraries allow eating in the stacks? After a generation of snackers was allowed to eat their lunch in bigbox stores.

4. If not a bookseller, what would your alternate career have been?

My parents owned and operated a hardware store specializing in paints and sundries in a small town in a rural setting. So I grew up in retail. I could see myself working in an arts supply place such as Gwartzman's, but if that proved too tedious, in an art gallery.

5. What should be the unofficial motto of This Ain’t?

The splash page for the bookstore's website turns a quotation from Alexander Pope on its head: "Angels rush in where fools fear to tread." And then when one presses "enter" the word "tread" turns to a red "read." I've loved that turnaround but also our designer Kevin Chia's play on words - tread read. But another quotation from Dante(?) lettered above an entrance to the Catacombs in Paris can be stood on its head: "Abandon despair all ye who enter here."

6. What was the last truly great book you read?

2666 by Roberto Bolano

7. If you could be magically transported to live in one novel, which would it be and why?

After two marriages that ended in divorce I'd rather just read a novel rather than live in one. I was raised on the Bible and baseball so maybe I'd like to be written into the story of Jesus' miracle of the feeding of vast crowds with five loaves of bread and two fishes. Or the story of Mazerowski's homerun for the Pittsburgh Pirates against the hated Yankees in 1960. Or the story of Joe Carter's walkoff homerun for the Blue Jays' World Series Championship. In the Bible story make me a miracle server. In the baseball stories make me a wisecracking but loyal batboy.

8. Who are some of your favourite writers under the age of thirty?

I don't usually pay attention to a writer's age, but I'll do my best here: Joey Comeau, Kyle Buckley, my son Jesse Huisken. All three writers are good because they work at it by reading widely and intelligently. Give me a month and I could multiply that "three" by a factor of ten.

9. If you could have dinner with any author, alive or dead, who would it be and why?

I'll pass on dinner, but I'd love to go to the movies with Frank O'Hara and bill bissett. And to a baseball game with Gregory Corso and Jack Kerouac if Jack promised not to get drunk.

10. What is the most memorable author reading you’ve ever seen?

I can't narrow it down to one:

  • bill bissett at The Free Theatre in the early 70s
  • Victor Coleman reading from Terrific at Both Ends at A Space late 70s
  • John Giorno and William S. Burroughs at The Edge early 80s
  • Gerry Gilbert at the Underwhich offices early 80s
  • The Four Horsemen at a restaurant on Harbord in a benefit for Against
  • Cruise Testing accompanied by Bill Smith on reeds mid80s
  • Raymond Carver at IFOA not long before he died, with friendly direction from the balcony by Tess Gallagher which I first mistook for catcalling

11. What out-of-print books would you most like to see return to print and why?

There are too many titles to mention. Plus I have a pipedream of doing reprints of out-of-print goodies, and I don't want to give away any trade secrets. Print on demand systems are improving, but too often produce ugly things only charitably called books.

12. What are your top 15 desert island books?

  • Oh What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me by Edmund Carpenter
  • The Confidence-Man by Herman Melville
  • A Big Jewish Book edited by Jerome Rothenberg
  • Selected Poems by Frank O'Hara with the Larry Rivers cover
  • The Gift by Lewis Hyde
  • Howl by Allen Ginsberg
  • Cool for You by Eileen Myles
  • The Man Who Kept Cigars in His Cap by Jim Heynen
  • Visions of Cody by Jack Kerouac
  • Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs
  • Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga
  • Corrections: Rewriting Six of My First Nine Books by Victor Coleman
  • As They Were by Tuli Kupferberg and Sylvia Topp
  • By the Waters of Manhattan: Selected Verse by Charles Reznikoff
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain
  • The King James version of The Bible [OBTO: That's 16 Charlie, but who's counting?]

This kind of list is of course always in flux.

13. What forthcoming title are you most looking forward to reading this season and why?

I don't go through the catalogues anymore, so I'm not always aware of what's in the works. I'm as surprised as our clientele when a new book appears. But I'm very excited by a series of chapbooks soon to be published by Mark Goldstein, the author of After Rilke: To Forget You Sang. The series includes a chapbook by Erin Moure. Her work puzzles me and I think that's good.

14. What do you think the bookstore of 2039 will be like?

If things don't change systemically, if bookstores are not given charters, and if libraries and schools in Ontario continue to order books as they do now, if there is no legislation which will allow longtime tenants to go to arbitration and negotiate to buy the property which they so laboriously maintain as they rent, if there is no fairtrade legislation to prevent the denigration of literature by discounting books, my idea of a floating bookstore will be revived. Booksellers will operate in a black market situation in an underground economy with booksellers minding portable tables and stalls under bridges and overpasses looking over their shoulder constantly on alert for the police who will shut them down for lack of a proper vending permit. Gangs of buskers and squeegee people will protect them. The bigbox stores will be full of predictable predigested junk. All writing will be ghostwriting.

15. What is the best thing about working with Jesse?

Jesse has a wider range of experience than I do, with his having been mentored in the antiquarian trade by Robert at Contact Editions and by his having dealt with a hipster and critical-theory-reading clientele when he worked at Pages. The labels for our politics and religion may differ, but we share the same devotion to literature and want to share our enthusiasms, our passions. I get along well with his loyal mate, the artist Olia Mishchenko. We can make each other laugh.

JESSE

1. What was it like to grow up around the bookselling business?

I feel privileged to have met some of my own cultural heroes as they passed through Toronto, most of whom would probably be surprised to know that I remember them, as I would have had the cultivated disinterest of your average adolescent. More lastingly, through the medium of the store I've made friends with a few authors who I was originally just a fan of. Of course people forget that running a bookstore is really a compound of a whole variety of meticulously completed chores at the end of which comes meeting with writers and readers. I have vivid memories of staying late at the store when new shipments arrived just to uncover new releases or special orders.

2. What is the thing you enjoy most about running a bookstore?

Talking books with customers, both trashing them and enthusing about them, trading tips and gossiping. I think tastes are always being contested, revised and struggled over, and a bookshop like ours is one of the few places where debate and exchange take place more intensely and expediently than in a school, or a magazine. Debate around writers who won't appear on course lists for another fifty years, or who were always omitted from them in the first place, occurs here on a regular basis. In our shop staff and customers are free to proclaim their tastes, so reading becomes something passionate in an everyday fashion, rather than in the bogus quasi-romantic sense that is often used to market books and awards.

3. What is the thing you enjoy least about running a bookstore?

Seeing the power of marketing overwhelm the popular discourse around books. Seeing brilliant books written in a foreign language or at the turn of the century languish. Watching people with adventurous tastes in music, film and art stumble when it comes to literature. Luckily our store makes an extra effort to compensate for all these things, so we've managed to transmute a weakness into a strength.

4. If not a bookseller, what would your alternate career have been?

I think the reason I'm still selling books is that I was never able to answer that question. I studied zoology for a year at U of T, then dropped out when I started making money doing graphic design and image correction, then went to work at Contact Editions when I needed something steady. There I learned a little about the antiquarian trade. During all this I've continued to write poetry and paint, and I still have ambitions in both those areas. Being a bookseller allows me to pursue these things without being dependant on them as a source of income. Very typical of my generation, I throw myself with total enthusiasm and do-it-yourself spirit into everything that interests me, only to return to the thing that I'm actually best at: buying and selling books.

5. What should be the unofficial motto of This Ain’t?

It ain't what you think it is. Over the years the store has been regarded as the place to get gritty realist fiction, surrealist and decadent books, American postmoderns, Canadian small press, beat literature, queer literary fiction, music fiction, offbeat cultural theory, zines, on and on. A day doesn't go by that someone doesn't express shock that we carry a particular book.

6. What was the last truly great book you read?

Though I'm not quite done Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson. It took this much distance in time for the War & Peace of The Vietnam War to be written. Johnson shows it without preaching or being a jock, revealing it on all levels and its impact on every group caught up in it, instead of presenting it as the Island of Lost Boys that it usually gets treated as in fiction and film.

7. If you could be magically transported to live in one novel, which would it be and why?

Ada or Ardor, by Vladimir Nabokov. The subject of the book is itself happiness. It invites us to read an epic which has escaped the usual requirements of profundity, realism, etc... for a pure hedonism of narrative and linguistic play, only to hint constantly that this world can only be the product of language and the mind. If I were to transport myself into any other of my favorite books I would likely go mad in a few minutes.

8. Who are some of your favorite writers over the age of thirty?

This is really impossible for me to answer without serious qualification, like favorite micro-fiction writers (Gary Lutz), or epic/encyclopedic writers ( Alexander Theroux, Robert Coover), genre authors (James Ellroy, Jack Womack), or Canadian poets (Steve McAffrey, how old is Kevin Davies?), or Russian poets for that matter (Aleksander Skidan, Lev Rubinstein). I think part of our philosophy at This Ain't is that these lists are a barrier to discovery, because they exclude supposedly obscure categories, where all the really interesting stuff is actually located. In particular many of my favorite authors are deceased.

9. If you could have dinner with any author, alive or dead, who would it be and why?

Louis Aragon. In his fiction he explored so many essentially different worlds. Paris Peasant is the novel Walter Benjamin would have written, Manual of Style, if written in the 80, with its vogue for French theory, would have been embraced, and his later works are Balzacian social-realist epics. He was a surrealist, then a supporter of the Russian revolution and latterly a flamboyant supporter of gay liberation. I would lie to him and tell him that in my time he was read as often as Sartre or Orwell.

10. What is the most memorable author reading you’ve ever seen?

I saw a few hours of j.w. Curry reading the whole of bpNichol's Martyrology to promote the giant bibliography of bp's work that he's writing. Easily one of the more memorable.

11. What out-of-print books would you most like to see return to print?

Zukosfky's A; I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut UP, (or Social Romanticism) by Bruce Andrews; Manual of Style by Louis Aragon. Letting A go out of print is sort of like letting Ezra Pound's Cantos go out of print. On the whole, fiction suffers better, with New Directions, Dalkey Archive, Pushkin Press, Twisted Spoon, Hesperus all keeping the early modern stuff I love in print, however Smallcreeps Day and Joko's Anniversary are Kafkaesque books that I would love to make part of my Kafkaesque bookclub and both are out of print.

12. What are your top 15 dessert island books?

  • Kincerity by Laura Elrick
  • Momentary Songs by George Albon
  • The Big Something by Ron Padgett
  • All-American Poem by Matthew Dickman
  • Progress/Under Erasure by Barett Watten
  • Hole in the Wall by Tom Pickard
  • Take It by Joshua Beckman
  • What do You Want? By Marina Temkina
  • A Mouth in California by Graham Foust
  • The Sound Mirror by Andrew Joron
  • Clampdown by Jennifer Moxley
  • The Mandarin by Aaron Kunin
  • Action Kylie by Kevin Killian
  • Hello Failure by Kristen Kosmas
  • The Book of Frank by CA Conrad

These are all newish poetry titles I need to catch up on.

13. What forthcoming title are you most looking forward to reading this season and why?

I'm looking forward to 8 x 10 by Michael Turner, because I finally read American Wisky Bar and I was shocked at how great it is. With his work I always start skeptical and then end by being jealous.

14. What do you think the bookstore of 2039 will be like?

I think that the answer to that question will depend on the direction that different countries take with regard to small businesses of a cultural nature (and small businesses in general). People like to pretend that the answer to this question is one exclusively of technology, because that absolves them of the responsibility of looking at the more obvious realities of the retail landscape. If the now nearly universal neo-liberal style of disinterest in the social fate of our urban centers continues then the bookstores of the future will only have what is both easy to procure, and easy to sell, nothing for browsers or fanatical readers. Increasing rents will make this a necessity. On the other hand, if that future is protested, or is untenable then there are plenty of models that one can turn to for supporting specialist and indie bookstores, most of which have been used at other times with success: rent control, the promotion of bookstores in conjunction with support to art galleries, festivals and artist run centers, mandating that educational institutions buy their books through licensed booksellers, etc.... This type of support is currently never discussed (in Ontario), though the plight of indie bookstores is constantly bemoaned. I'm not expecting action on any of these things in the near future, so for now we can effect that future by getting out of Howard Hughes mode and shopping in our cities!

15. What is the best thing about working with Charlie?

Well one very important thing is that he sees with a kind of x-ray vision through a myriad literary trends into the things that will actually bear rereading. In any given conversation with him I'll find out about an author I cannot believe I hadn't heard of. Then I usually recall that he recommended this writer to me years ago.

Photo (L to R): Long-time staffer James Gunn, with owners Jesse Huisken and Charlie Huisken in front of their Kensington Market bookshop, This Ain't the Rosedale Library. Photo by Ritchie Doucet.

1 comment

great posting , I will share with my friends.

Michael,

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