Independent Camas Books thrives outside the mainstream

The mandate is to promote alternative knowledge and books

Camas Books volunteer and collective member Kim Croswell stands amid the store in the process of unpacking in its new location on Quadra Street.

If Camas Books adopted the corporate lingo of mainstream advertising, the store might be tagged “new and improved.”

Or that might make its collective members collectively cringe. Victoria’s non-hierarchical hub of anarchist, anti-capitalist, anti-colonial and radical literature has relocated to a space half a block north from its former home at the corner of Quadra Street and Kings Road.

Walls in the new space are splashed with grand, sweeping murals of nature – a humpback whale arches across the back wall, a cougar guards the cash register – while scattered boxes of books attest to the chaos of moving. A volunteer work party was expected to have the store in order and reopened by Wednesday.

“I’m interested in discovering what the culture on this side of the street is like,” jokes Kim Croswell, a volunteer and member of the Camas Books collective, referring to their relocation to the north side of Kings Road. “We’re fortunate that we don’t have to leave the neighbourhood. We like it here.”

Camas Books has survived for five years on a business model that matches the philosophy of its book inventory. It’s a non-profit society run by a collective, where 24 members come to consensus on decision making through discussion and debate.

“We have a broad base of community support. It’s reflected in the size of the collective, and volunteers give their time, skills and expertise to keep it going,” said Allan Antliff, one of the founding members of Camas Books and a University of Victoria professor of art history.

“The books we carry aren’t carried in any other book store in Victoria. We have a strong identity in the radical community, and a strong indigenous orientation. It all comes together to create a viable operation,” he says.

Camas Books will fundraise to help pay for the move, but Croswell said in general, the store is financially self-sustaining through book sales and community events, such as art shows, book readings and film launches. Its volunteer base is dedicated and loyal, and more than enough to staff the store seven days per week.

“We’re a mixture of teachers, high school and university students, writers, cab drivers, people who work two jobs and then come here and do shifts. It’s people from all walks of life,” says Croswell, who teaches distance learning.

Camas Books takes its name from the camas plant, a traditional aboriginal food source. In keeping with its mandate of promoting indigenous rights, the store makes a point of describing its location on traditional Lekwungen (Songhees and Esquimalt First Nation) territory.

“The mandate is to promote alternative knowledge and books. A huge element is the  indigenous section and the decolonization section,” Croswell noted.

Antliff, a Canada Research Chair and an expert in anarchist history, and others, started the bookstore by renting shelf space at Dark Horse Books in downtown Victoria, and eventually raised enough money to open a retail space in Quadra Village in 2007.

Despite being a founding member, these days Antliff takes a back seat helping guide the collective.

“I do a lot of grunt work. I mop the floor and clean up. I leave the leadership to others. There are very talented people in the collective,” Antliff says. “I’m interested in art and social change. For me, it’s a good fit.”

Camas Books is hosting a reopening celebration on Oct. 12, 6:30 p.m., featuring CBC Radio host and poet laureate Janet Rogers, at 2620 Quadra St.