Patricia Massy and I have been trying to find a time for this interview, which has not been easy. She and I both have young children, it’s the holidays, and well, Omicron. On top of that, she’s the owner of the eponymous Massy Books, which means she’s also managing staff and stock during the busiest season for retailers.
“I do not know how I do it some days,” says Massy, trying to turn off her “possessed printer” as we talk. “It’s a juggling act.”
Reading books is the ideal COVID-19 hobby — solitary, sedate, no heavy breathing unless you’re reading Bear by Marian Engel or something — and Massy, like other booksellers, has experienced a pandemic-related bump in sales and support.
But even prior to the pandemic, Massy — who is of mixed Cree, Métis and English descent — had developed a loyal customer base by offering a rich array of Indigenous literature and a curated trove of rare books at her Vancouver bookshop, located in Chinatown.
It turns out bookselling is in her DNA: her father told her that their family tree includes seven generations of booksellers, including the proprietor of a Massey Books in 18th-century Cork, Ireland, and Stephen Massey, founder of the Christie’s Book Department. (After a family argument, Massy’s branch of the family tree dropped the “e”).
In 2016, Massy was just a few credits shy of a creative writing degree from the University of the Fraser Valley when she got caught up in opening her bookstore.
“I wrote a lot of stories around Indigenous identity, but I’m just not a good writer,” she says laughing. “And that’s OK. I’ve come to terms with that. I’m better at reading. I’m a really good reader.”
For Massy, books are more than diversions; they’re facilitators of connection and community. A co-founder of the Indigenous Brilliance reading series, which in partnership with Room Magazine spotlights Indigenous women and queer authors, she also created the Massy Arts Society in 2019 to provide space for arts programming and exhibitions.
“We’ve had over 100 events this year, online and in person,” she says. “It’s really wonderful to have a space that the community can use for book launches, fundraisers… all kinds of events.”
2022 looms as a year of uncertainty. But for Massy, no matter what happens, it will definitely include books: reading them, selling them and sharing them. She took some time in the final hours of 2021 to talk about a few of her favourites, how a ceremonial vision heralded her journey into entrepreneurship, and what makes Massy Books unique among local bookstores.
Michelle Cyca: I feel like every bookish kid dreams of opening a bookstore. Is that something you always wanted to do?
Patricia Massy: I worked at various bookstores before I opened my own and I never really thought it was possible. I didn’t feel as though I had the money or the capability to do it. But in 2013 or 2014, I was at a crossroads in life where I didn’t know what I wanted to do and I went to a ceremony to figure it out.
During the ceremony, I had a vision of opening up a bookstore. I wanted to live a life that was surrounded by stories and healing and live my days in a more peaceful environment.
I was working [in the Downtown Eastside] as a support worker and then an Indigenous outreach worker. One day I was walking to work, and I saw a fellow running toward me with a machete. I thought he was going to attack me, but he was actually running at a man behind me. I ran into the office and hid until the police came, and it was a violent scene, and at that moment I realized I needed a change.
How did you start that journey?
I started by finding books at garage and estate sales, and then selling them at flea markets. After eight months, I opened up a pop-up shop on Main and East Fifth Avenue and ran that for a year. By then, I felt confident that I could run a store. I knew I could pay the bills and make money, and I was ready to rent a permanent space in 2017.
It was pure happenstance that I acquired a large 10,000-book collection from a retired physics professor named Bill Dalby. He was going into a retirement home and needed to get rid of all his books. I didn’t have the budget to buy them all, but I offered him a set amount of money for part of his collection and he decided to give me the entire collection for that amount. It was very, very generous and I probably wouldn’t have been able to open up the store if it wasn’t for that donation.
I’m still selling some of his books today. He was an avid reader, a collector of everything. He had the whole gamut, including some rare items, like a first edition Stephen Hawking. They’ve really kept me going over the years.
What makes Massy Books unique among local bookstores?
When I opened the store, right from the get-go, I wanted to showcase and highlight the books where I could see my history, and the histories of others who had been overlooked and forgotten. I wanted to see those reflected on the shelves. I wanted books that reconcile, reconnect and transform what it means to be an Indigenous person, and so we’ve always had a really generous collection of Indigenous material from the very beginning.
Why was that significant to you?
As a mixed urban Indigenous person, it’s been hard to know where I come from and where I belong when I’m not immersed in the land or the culture. So opening the bookstore has been a huge part of my personal journey in reconnecting and reconciling as well.
Are there any books in particular that have a part of that journey?
There are some that are really foundational that have reflected my experience of being caught in two worlds: In Search of April Raintree by Beatrice Mosionier, Halfbreed by Maria Campbell, Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. Those are books that talk about being a mixed Indigenous person and finding your way. And then there are more contemporary authors that inspire me and shape my life: Billy-Ray Belcourt, Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, Alicia Elliott.
Is there anything you’ve read over the past year that you really love?
The last book I read, that I’m almost finished, is called The 1619 Project, put together by Nikole Hannah-Jones. It includes poems, essays and works of fiction that challenge and reframe U.S. history by putting enslavement and the continuum of racism at the forefront. It places the beginning of U.S. history in 1619 with the arrival of the first enslaved people, not with the American Revolution.
One interesting part that blew me away is that it argues the U.S. went to war with England so they could continue slavery, which is not something people are taught in schools. The British promise to the enslaved during the revolutionary war was a tactic to get those enslaved to rebel — the British were by no means abolitionists! It’s pretty captivating and engaging. I respect that it throws American history on its head and shows it for what it is, which is a country built on slavery.
I also read Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, which is also a great book on the topic of how racism is infused in every institution in the U.S., and in Canada too.
Do you keep a lot of books at home?
I do. But once I read a book, I tend not to keep it. I’ll bring it to the store. A lot of the books on my shelves are books I want to read, not ones I have already read. But there are some that I’m going to hold onto, which are rare or hard to find. I have a whole collection of signed books by Lee Maracle and Eden Robinson. I have a dictionary of the Cree language from the 18th century. And I have a limited-edition leather-bound edition of E. Pauline Johnson poems and a first-edition of one of her books that is bound in buckskin. Those are special items that I’ll keep — unless someone offers me a lot of money, then maybe I’ll think about it. But I’d never give up any of my Lee Maracles, that’s for sure.
What has the pandemic been like for Massy Books?
To give you an idea, at the beginning of 2020, we had two staff. We’re in Chinatown, so we felt the effects of COVID-19 before anyone else, because there was a lot of racism around the pandemic and people were avoiding the neighbourhood. In February, we announced that we were offering free shipping, and people just started flooding our store with orders. I think it was because it sent a message to the world that said, “Hey, our business is suffering, and we’re going to try whatever we can to keep our doors open and keep the sales coming through so that we survive.” From that moment on, we’ve been selling more than ever. In June 2020, we sold more books than we did in all of 2019. Now we have eight staff.
Most of our orders come from online, whether they’re picked up or shipped. We want to make it as easy to buy from us as from Amazon. From talking to other independent booksellers who have adapted and made their books available online, I think they’ve fared well too. That’s reassuring to hear. I like knowing that other bookstores are doing well.
As a bookseller, have you noticed a change in readers’ interests around Indigenous literature over the last few years?
I’ve only had my own store since 2015, but in that time, there’s definitely been a change in customers’ buying habits. Indigenous stories have always been here, but in the last two years there’s been a huge uptick in demand. There is definitely a desire now from non-Indigenous folks to learn more about residential schools. Schools are trying to bring Indigenous authors and books about residential schools into the curriculum.
In 2020, with the murder of George Floyd, we saw a lot of books being sold about Black history and racism, and that kind of overflowed into Indigenous topics as well. During COVID-19, there’s been a movement to support independent bookstores, but people also want to support Black and Indigenous businesses right now too.
But for Indigenous readers, there has also been a shift in desiring more books for and about Indigenous characters that don’t centre on addiction, or residential school, or suffering. There are some great books that have come out recently, like The Prairie Chicken Dance Tour by Dawn Dumont, Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley, a whole series of Indigenous horror novels. We’re starting to see more of that. It’s just so exciting to see all the Indigenous authors coming out with this work. And working in a bookstore, I get to buy all of them.
I love all the different genres Indigenous writers are working in — like Joshua Whitehead’s anthology Love at the End, which is like post-apocalyptic queer romance.
Oh, if you like that, Chelsea Vowel has a new book coming out in 2022, Buffalo Is the New Buffalo, which is an Indigenous science fiction anthology.
I always ask people what books they recommend to others and most authors are very reticent to answer this question. (“Book recommendations are so personal!”) But since this is part of your job, I’m curious how you approach it.
If someone comes up to me and wants a book, I don’t automatically recommend what I like. I need to know who I’m dealing with. So I ask them, “What do you read? What are the last three books you’ve read? What are you in the mood for?” I have very specific interests — Indigenous, non-fiction, history, cultural studies, psychology — but if my tastes don’t align, I pull from staff recommendations. And if those don’t work, I make recommendations based on general knowledge. I don’t consume a lot of sci-fi, or children’s books, or craft books for instance, so sometimes I just have to say, “Well, this is really popular.”
There are some books I always recommend. One is Ceremony by Leslie Marmon Silko. It’s a story of a Second World War vet who returns home after serving abroad and finds himself through healing and ceremony. It’s about struggling with the old ways and finding ways to bring ceremony into your contemporary life. It’s an extremely well-written classic novel that’s also infused with poems.
Also, anything by Richard Wagamese — his words feel like going to ceremony and they connect me to the land. My dad passed a few years ago, and Medicine Walk was one of his favourites, so reading it is a way to stay connected to him. Knowing that he read that book and those words, as I read them, is cathartic.
Medicine Walk is a story about a son and a father, their relationship, redemption, compassion and the power of the land to heal. It’s one of his best novels. And then One Native Life, too, is non-fiction essays and writing over the course of his life about reclaiming his Indigenous identity and the things he’s learned about being human. It’s one of those books where you can see his journey unfolding.
Any others that you recommend?
I know it’s not a very popular genre, but I’ve read a lot of books on mortality, death and dying. One of the books that I think everyone should read, because we all have an expiration date, is Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It’s one… I don’t want to say favourite, no one has a favourite book about dying (laughs). But it was really helpful and enlightening around when my dad died. It’s less about the science of dying, more about our humanity and what it means to have quality at the end of life. He’s a beautiful, beautiful writer. We don’t talk about death a lot, and we don’t celebrate death. It’s a book that’s been really important in my life.
Also, anything by Lee Maracle. I love Lee Maracle. I’ve read most of her non-fiction. Very fierce, and her book of poetry Talking to the Diaspora is really good too. I also love how it was put together graphically.
What books or book events are you most looking forward to reading in 2022?
Events! We’ve already got 30 events lined up for 2022. Let me look at the Massy Arts Calendar. We have Fire is Not a Country by Cynthia Dewi Oka coming. We’ll have a new art show every five weeks too. For books, I’m excited about so many. One is Bad Cree by Jessica Johns.
I think that’s coming out in 2023.
Oh! I’ll keep promoting it until then. I’m a big fan of her in general. Who wouldn’t want to read about supernatural dream worlds and the urban Indigenous experience in a novel? Have you read her poem "Kokum Is So Metal" in How Not to Spill? It’s such a cool poem.
Another book I’m excited about is Half-Bads in White Regalia by Cody Caetano. He’s the winner of the 2020 Indigenous Voices Award and it was written under the mentorship of Lee Maracle. It’s a coming-of-age story with humour, warmth and deep generosity. I’ve just received the ARC [Advanced Reader Copy] for it, so I hope to sit down with it and read it this week.
I’m also a huge fan of Gabor Maté. He’s written a book called The Myth of Normal. He writes a lot about trauma and stress, and childhood development, and this is similar, but he talks about these issues in relation to technology and dismantles commonly held beliefs about what makes us sick. His books were really instrumental for helping me overcome an addiction in my 20s, so I’ve been a huge fan ever since. I’ve read everything by him and I’m just really grateful for the work that he puts out there.