Trillium Book Award Author Readings June 16

Profile of Mother Tongue Books, with questions

 
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There probably aren?t that many around who recall Shirley Leishman Books, once known as Ottawa?s oldest and largest independent bookstore, where one could pick up William Hawkins titles all throughout the 1960s and 70s). Barely a dozen years ago, there were Books Canada on Sparks Street and Food for Thought Books in the Byward Market. Even earlier, Avenue Bookshop on Bank Street and the Ottawa Women?s Bookstore on Sparks, part of a growing list of Ottawa-based independent booksellers gone by the wayside, in part due to the changing demands of the book industry over the past 20 years. One of but a small handful of remaining independent bookstores left in Ottawa, Laura Rayner and Evelyn Huer?s Mother Tongue Books opened its doors on Bank Street in Old Ottawa South on December 3, 1994 and has managed to buck the trend, remaining active when others have fallen.

Part of what has kept the store open — alongside participation in the Ottawa International Writers Festival and various conferences and launches throughout the city and bringing in titles for various Carleton University courses — has been their engagement with the community around them, from supporting women?s shelters, independent film screenings and various GLB groups, to the literary community of the city, one with seemingly fewer venues willing to actually carry their titles. Over the years, they?ve hosted events by writers local and national including Janice Williamson, Stephanie Bolster, Anne Stone, Monty Reid, Elisabeth Harvor, Pearl Pirie, Michelle Desberats, Max Middle, Susan McMaster, Terry Ann Carter, Di Brandt, Christine McNair, Stephen Brockwell, Margaret Christakos, Ann Shin, Amanda Earl, Elizabeth Hay and dozens if not hundreds of others. Mother Tongue was recently acknowledged for their commitment to the literary community with an award last year by the League of Canadian Poets.

Owned and operated by former staff of the Ottawa Women?s Bookstore, Mother Tongue is committed to books by and for women, but as a healthy focus that doesn?t exclude any other groups, including prominent gay and lesbian selections of works, a section of critical theory and a well-stocked selection of children?s books, as well as limited-edition chapbooks and trade books by local writers, male and female alike. Given that another couple of independent booksellers in the city that have closed their recent doors, Mother Tongue Books currently makes up a strong part of a very short list of Ottawa bookstores (Collected Works Bookstore and Coffeebar on Wellington Street West is another). Co-owner/operator Evelyn Huer recently answered a few questions concerning the bookstore, and their history.

rob mclennan:

How did the bookstore first get started, and what were the challenges?

Evelyn Huer:

We all worked at OWB. Peggy Harriszz expressed an interest in selling the shop, but for various reasons that deal fell through. She closed her shop about a year after we opened. Peggy is a critical/ palliative care RN and returned to nursing full-time at Elizabeth Bruyere. We chose our location to be close to the university and a branch of the library. We wanted to have a meeting space and we accomplished that. Over the years we have had several established groups meet in the shop. The question of accomplishing what we set out to do is a tricky one. Several things shifted in the first few years of business. Chapters opened. Mike Harris invaded Ontario and many agencies that we had supplied could no longer afford to purchase resources for clients or libraries. Luckily, professors from both universities ordered course books through us. In the beginning we identified ourselves (and still do) as a feminist, queer positive space. We became community booksellers and began to take on the character of the community. Special orders are a large part of our business. We also act as booksellers for many professional conferences and stock materials for several professional groups.

rm:

How did it feel to receive official recognition from the League of Canadian Poets last year?

EH:

We were extremely pleased to receive honourary membership in the League of Canadian Poets. We were nominated for the award by some local poets, including Sue McMaster and Terri-Ann Carter. The poetry and writing communit(ies) have supported us since we opened. Poetry readings have been part of the life of mother tongue since the very beginning. The name of our shop was inspired by a poem by Daphne Marlatt. There is so much fine poetry being published that we often rely on our customers to keep us on top of things. So, I have to admit feeling a bit inadequate to living up to the reputation ascribed by membership in the league. We have one commitment. We never turn away first time chapbooks. For example, Stephanie Bolster, who hosted a reading series at our shop, brought us her chapbooks after we opened. She went on to win a GG. We often have quick access to the entire backlist of local poets. Poets, in particular, constantly strain to meet the horizon (hermeneutically speaking or otherwise). If they arrive at our shop with their backlist tucked under their arm we feel like the least we can do is waive our "cut". That way they have a little extra to spend at the local pub!

Of course, every business hopes to be financially successful — it had always been our intention to help other women start businesses. Perhaps that goal was a bit idealistic. Instead, we offer a discount to NGOs, agencies and groups that foster and promote egalitarian principles or work to end violence against women, children and vulnerable populations. Book-selling used to be a very civilized industry. Publishers suggested a price and everyone sold books for that price. There were no deep discounts (which actually drive the price point up). People didn't buy books at the same place they bought their groceries, toiletries or discount tires.

Now we describe bookselling as "extreme retail." People say they love small bookshops and express their concern about the future of "bricks and mortar" stores. That concern doesn't necessarily translate into sales. There is, however, something extremely satisfying about putting the right book in the right hands.

rm:

How are you able to engage with your local community, whether literary or in Old Ottawa South?

EH:

We've hosted many, many poetry and fiction readings — some small and intimate, some big events that have spilled out onto the street. Out of store events have included international conferences on breast cancer annual international conferences on PTSD and Trauma annual conferences on interpersonal violence in Renfrew County Lanark County and the Seaway. Whenever possible we provide resources for conferences and speakers in Ottawa and the surrounding area. We were the booksellers for the Dalai Lama's visit to Ottawa. Three different writing groups meet in our space. We launched a title that had been "workshopped" in our space. As a retail business it's hard to say what we have added if anything to the city. Old Ottawa South has always been a neighbourhood struggling with its retail identity. We have many committed customers but there are just as many in the community who want a vibrant streetscape but who don't patronize local businesses. I think all small businesses push back against the homogeneity of our current big box culture. I had a customer who summed it up by saying that she could almost imagine what we were like as people by the books on our shelves. Some of our neighbourhood customers are elderly — we have their birthdays in their customer profile and phone them every year and sing to them. One or two kids from the local public school who don't quite "fit in" sometimes sit in our shop during their lunch hour. One of my most memorable experiences has nothing to do with books at all. On the morning of September 11, 2001 we were preparing for the International Writers Festival. Three young women students from Carleton U who had purchased textbooks from us the week previous came into the store. One of them said "We didn't know where else to go!" It became clear to me at that moment that regardless of how successful we might be as a business a bookstore is always so much more than that. It's easy to lament the state of the "book industry" and it's anybody's guess what bookselling will look like in the next few years. There will always be a difference between those who consume books and those who have longstanding relationships with them. Booksellers are a bit like matchmakers in a world where everyone wants to meet online.


Born in Ottawa, Canada?s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of more than twenty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, his most recent titles are the poetry collections A (short) history of l. (BuschekBooks, 2011), grief notes: (BlazeVOX [books], 2011), Glengarry (Talonbooks, 2011), kate street (Moira, 2011) and 52 flowers (or, a perth edge) (Obvious Epiphanies, 2010), and a second novel, missing persons (2009). An editor and publisher, he runs above/ground press, Chaudiere Books (with Jennifer Mulligan), The Garneau Review (ottwater.com/garneaureview), seventeen seconds: a journal of poetry and poetics (ottawater.com/seventeenseconds) and the Ottawa poetry pdf annual ottawater (ottawater.com). He spent the 2007-8 academic year in Edmonton as writer-in-residence at the University of Alberta, and regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at robmclennan.blogspot.com

Photo of rob mclennan by Christine McNair


2 comments

I think every town/city should have one of these eclectic, amazing bookstores. These are the ones that create a intimate community inside a community.

Mother Tongue, Keep Up The Fantastic Work!!

What a great piece -- and accurate, a miracle in this time of approximate journalism...

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