Indigenous-owned Massy Books is more than just a neighborhood bookstore

Culture

Store provides community spaces that work to disseminate Indigenous knowledge and forms of expression.

Massy Books, stock image of books
Stock photo via Pixabay

Massy Books is not your typical bookstore. As one of only a small number of Indigenous bookstores in British Columbia, it has taken on a role far above what would normally be expected from your local neighbourhood bookstore. 

Located in Vancouver’s Downtown core, the store is lined with the usual wood shelving and has the smell of new and old books that characterizes most bookshops. 

This, however, belies the fact that Massy Books is first and foremost a community centre. 

The 100 per cent Indigenous owned and operated bookstore is led by Patricia Massy, a member of the As’in’i’wa’chi Ni’yaw Cree nation, who decided to open her own used bookstore in 2017 after 17 years of experience with various bookstores and non-profits. Almost immediately, her vision for her business evolved from selling books with a focus on Indigenous literature to a community space with frequent events and initiatives spanning other mediums such as painting and poetry.

Besides selling books, the store houses and operates the Massy Arts Society — a group committed to supporting Indigenous and minority artists — and is involved in Indigenous Brilliance, an Indigenous, LGBTQ+, and Two Spirit poetry reading series. They also donate heavily to support organizations and advocacy groups such as Battered Women’s Support Services (BWSS) and Respecting Aboriginal Values and Environmental Needs (RAVEN). To date, the store has hosted or been involved in more than 282 community events. 

For Massy Books, the written word is simply a means to connect with the broader community.

“I think the way that Patricia views books in the world are really sort of a link between larger, social, political kind of activities, so books are just one sort of tether between us a sense of the world that is much, much larger,” said Massy Books’ Media Manager and Curator Emily Dundas Oke in an interview with the Martlet. “The value of those books and those stories happens when they’re shared together and that they propel the world forward in different ways.”

Dundas Oke, who is of Cree, Métis, English, and Scottish descent, says the central idea behind supporting programs such as the Indigenous Brilliance Program and the Massy Arts Society is to create cultural change and expand the horizons of those visiting their store or art gallery, or attending one of their numerous events. 

“I think, now, that the bookstore has become really a central catalyst for change and gathering in Vancouver and elsewhere,” said Oke. 

When asked about how people can inform themselves about Indigenous knowledge and cultural practices in a respectful manner, Oke explained that it is always best to learn alongside others and that listening is the most important tool in learning. 

“School is out of reach for many people because it is such a privileged endeavor to be able to study,” said Oke. “But I think finding a space to learn alongside other people and to learn from older storytellers who have been doing this and who have the skills of storytelling is a really wonderful way.”

Oke also cautioned that it is important to be mindful in one’s approach to learning new stories and ideas. She said that the initiative should be on the shoulders of those who want to learn to educate themselves, and not to ask questions which may go beyond what the teacher or storyteller is comfortable sharing.

As for learning through reading, Oke recommends An Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King and A Mind Spread out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott as works that impart what Indigenous people in Canada have experienced in the past as well as what they continue to experience. She also suggests Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, Lee Maracle’s I am Woman, and Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s Dancing on Our Turtle’s Back: Stories of Nishnaabeg Re‑creation, Resurgence and a New Emergence.

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced Massy Books to, at least temporarily, re-evaluate how it operates. The store was forced to close its doors in March, but has now reopened with stringent health measures in place. Despite the closure, Massy Arts Society was still able to host its events in a physically distant and online format. 

“We have shifted most of our events to online, which I think is a strange experience for many of us,” Oke explained. “I’m hoping that through these events, we [are] still building new connections and, you know, confirming those that were always already present.”

Regardless of the challenges, Massy Books has and always will be about community and collaboration. Oke says she is looking forward to seeing what the future holds.

“[We are thinking] creatively about how we can bring a gallery space into the home, or how we can bring an artistic practice home only through word or through video,” she said. “So I’m grateful for our collaborators’ patience, but also their willingness to try new things.”

Massy Books delivers across British Columbia and books can be ordered directly from their website. Massy Arts Society is also currently putting on an art exhibition titled ‘Away’ which can be viewed at the Massy Books Art Gallery located above Massy Books.