Tuesday, April 13, 2010
Interview With Robert Garfat - Bookstore owner,Radical thinker
For my second interview I choose Robert Garfat. I met Robert the old fashion way, I was living in the middle of no where in Washington state a few years back. I wanted to see the movie The Fountain in the theater and the closest place it was playing was across the water on Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The first place I go in a new town are the vegan restaurants and the second place are used book stores.
I was excited that two stores down from one of Victoria BC’s vegan restaurants Lotus Pond was an amazing used bookstore. It was the perfect bookstore for me. It had tons of used Science Fiction, horror and books on radical politics. Even better was the beautiful store dog Unity and the owner at the time was Robert.
Dark Horse became the highlights of my visits to Victoria. Not just because of the books. So here is Robert…
I first met you when you owned Dark horse bookstore in Victoria B.C.. It was a very cool store what was the concept behind it?
Victoria is a city of bookshops. When we founded the Dark Horse bookshop, there were eleven used book stores in Victoria, a city of just over one hundred thousand population. None of the bookshops offered much in the way of alternative subject matter. We set out to provide a venue for bibliophiles with a decidedly alternative bent a place to find something to tickle their fancy. We specialized in Science Fiction and Fantasy titles, but also carried Metaphysical and Occult books, books on alternative health, spirituality and lifestyles, et cetera. My philosophy in stocking inventory was simple: if I saw myself reading the book, I'd buy it for sale.
How did you did get into Science fiction as a genre?
My mother was an avid reader of Science Fiction. She had over five thousand titles at one time or another. I grew up reading Heinlein and Norton, Asimov and Clark. As I grew older, I read the 'newer' authors: Delany and Disch; Spinrad and le Guin; Joanna Russ was a particular favourite and, of course, PKD, Philip Kindred Dick.
It just seemed natural that I'd specialize in the genre I loved so well.
Having said that: When we founded DHB, I was reading mostly murder mysteries and playscripts, in addition to Theatre criticism and trade journals. Kids kept coming into the shop asking for SF and Fantasy writers that I'd never heard of, and I realized that a whole generation of writers had emerged that I hadn't read. I thought that I'd better start reading them so I could converse about the books I was selling. Imagine my surprise that some of these 'new' writers were every bit as good as the classic writers I grew up reading!
How were you inspired to get into radical politics?
I've never really been a joiner. I'm a doer, not a follower. That self-imposed 'outsider' status gave me a distanced perspective on the status quo. And I suppose that I just think too much to swallow whole what the media feeds us daily.
Activism became an avocation when I sat on the board of the Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance. Then, when I became President of that association, I took it as my job to advocate for theatre to funding agencies and community groups. I became comfortable rubbing elbows with politicos and bureaucrats.
As the Artistic Director of an emerging theatre company (Dark Horse Theatre), I had to fight for our place in the theatre community at large.
Then when my partner and I moved, with our young son, to Vancouver Island, and my community changed, it seemed natural to advocate on issues that affected the rural community in which we lived, the Cowichan Valley. Those issues have to do with preservation of agricultural lands and sustainable development.
On another front, my work in Victoria placed me in direct contact with the issues of the street in that city: homelessness and shelter, dignity and safety, youth empowerment and fair play and justice issues.
A great source of inspiration for me was Pot Activist and Trickster, the late Ian Hunter, who invited me to sit on Victoria's Downtown Neighbourhood Association. Ian was a humanist and radical thinker. He was a tireless activist and had boundless reserves of energy. He was also a great motivator and agitator. I think of him often when I get disheartened and his memory helps me carry on.
So, mentorship, I suppose, is what inspired, and continues to inspire me the most. The value of compassionate role models cannot be over stressed, in my opinion.
You seem to have had a connection to radical politics in Canada. How has the radical community in western Canada changed in the last say 20 years?
The designation 'Western Canada' usually includes Alberta as well as British Columbia, an association which has always made me somewhat uncomfortable. Alberta is the Texas of Canada, whereas BC is more like, well, let's say Washington, Oregon and California. We have more in common with those states, in many ways, than we do with our neighbouring province. So let's start with the designation, the "West Coast".
In BC, the past twenty years have seen a political move to the extreme right.
Electronic Social Networking has made getting information out a much faster proposition, rallies are brought together more expediently, protests get thrown up, often before there is time to plan them properly. While a fast response time is often a good thing, movements that are thrown together overnight often fall apart a day or two later, leaving the usual handful of stalwart, overworked organizers to pick up the pieces and move along the next leg of the journey toward justice.
It has been my observation that the radical element has become younger, but that is largely because I am becoming older.
I feel that the radical community, here on the Island are living the lives they propound in much the same way as ever. Living within the beast, chipping away internally on a daily basis while conserving personal energies for the next big push.
If you had asked me this question a year ago, I would have been much more optimistic in my answer.
Expo '86 (the 1986 Vancouver World's Fair) was a great radicalizing event on the West Coast. The fallout from that Roman Circus was a politicized populace. Over the next couple of decades, protests and rallies were well attended and, as often as not, got their point across and effected change that was faster, more extreme and more effective than proposed by government.
As I say, I was pretty optimistic about the way the West Coast was headed. We would de-elect this provincial right wing government, preserve our wilderness and animal habitat closer to populated areas, we would save our farms and green spaces through our Agricultural Land Reserve and our cities would become safe, just and sustainable. It would take time, but it would happen, change would come.
Then, several years ago, the province put its weight behind a bid to host the Winter Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler in 2010. No one saw that this was the first manoeuvre in what was to become a radical right wing social experiment.
Over the ensuing months, government ministries began making cuts in preparation for the 'Big Event' and IT JUST DIDN'T STOP. Cuts came, across the board and, seemingly, with neither rhyme nor reason.
As an organizer, I became charged. Here was a single event that surely would galvanize groups with separate specific agendas into one huge movement that would bring down this Neo-Com government.
Well, I couldn't have been more wrong.
The Olympics may have been the flagship of the fleet opposing the people of this province, but the rest of the bureaucratic navy cleared the way, devastating social programs, school programs, amateur athletics and the arts (which have undergone an astonishing ninety-two percent funding cut). The cuts have come so fast and furious that most British Columbians who care are shell-shocked.
Oh, yes, we have organized rallies and protests. There was a point, just six months ago, when two or three protests were happening per week. Well.
Unification did not occur. Each protesting group protected its autonomy, afraid of losing its purpose in the face of the mob. When the Olympics opened, the planned activist Anti-Olympic "Convergence" proved to be little more than a blip in the face of the Opening Ceremonies.
Black Blockers caused some damage around the city of Vancouver while the masses watched Bryan Adams and Nellie Furtato strut centre stage at BC Place. The response to the Black Block actions among the radical community was a rush to distance themselves from these 'destructive forces' and assure the people of the province that the majority of those opposed to the Olympics were not against the Games, per say, but against the economic totalitarianism of the blah blah blah blah blah.
The radical community rolled over and 'played nice' out of fear of distancing a populous that was infected with Olympic fever. And Canada won gold.
So, all in all. I am not optimistic regarding the future of radicalism in BC.
That won't stop me from becoming involved when there is a need for me to be there.
Sometimes the left in America think Canada is so much better and progressive how do you feel about it?
If by "left" you mean socialist forces, then I would agree that we have a history which is rife with social agendas. Most notable and noted is, of course, socialized medical system.
If by "left" you mean contemporary humanist and cultural forces, I would recommend a re-think.
Canada is a world leader in polluting the environment. Look at Northern Alberta, fuck, that abomination is visible from outer space! We are a strong supporter of NAFTA and MIA and our federal government has failed to sign beneficial international treaties on indigenous rights, global warming and animal protection, to name three of many. Our health care system, the envy of the world, is under constant attack by private interests (with government complicity through complacency) and seems to be undergoing a kind of death by a thousand cuts. Our Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the RCFP) have unrestrained authority and often resort to violence without clear motivation or threat.
You know, I could go on, but I won't.
Canada is progressive in some areas and regressive in others. We have a right wing government that wants us to become more like America. With the recent equalization of our currencies, one can't help but think that amalgamation is in the not so distant future. Goddess help us both if that happens. Best of both worlds? Nope. Lowest Common Denominator, more like.
Still and all, Canada is a great place to live at the moment. It could be better...
What are some of the most thought provoking Science fiction and fantasy novels you've read?
Books by Doris Lessing (Briefing for a Descent into Hell, Memoir of a Survivor), Samuel R. Delany (Grendel, Neveryon, Stars in My Pockets Like Grains of Sand), Ursula leGuin (The Dispossessed, all of her Hainish novels), Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita", David Scott Wallace's brilliant "Infinite Jest" and any of the last few Phillip K. Dick novels. These are all pretty standard 'thinking person's' Science Fiction. Some of the more unusual stuff is good also, books by Barry Malzberg, John Sladek, John Shirley, Joanna Russ, Nicola Griffith. And for a lark, try the Borribles trilogy (The Borribles, The Borribles Go for Broke and The Borribles: Across the Dark Metropolis), by Michael de Larrabeiti: good dirty crustypunk fun.
You sold Dark Horse what are you doing now?
I will still keep my hand in the book biz by finding and selling good books on-line and to select bookshops; scouting, in other words.
My three main focuses, personally, are:
Completing my long-neglected MFA in directing for the theatre (involves writing a ten thousand word paper, from which I am playing hooky to do this interview), carry on into an MA program on Theatre History and thence into a PhD program of some sort relating to the Arts; and secondly,
Finishing my pottery studio so I can carry on into working in clay; and lastly,
Tending the cider apple orchard my son and I are currently planning (and pressing and drinking the eventual product thereof).
5 books everyone should read:
Be Here Now - Ram Dass (Dr. Richard Alpert, Timothy Leary's cohort, post-psychedelic guru and a radically beautiful man)
From Chocolate to Morphine: Understanding Mind-Active Drugs - Andrew Weil, MD and Winifred Rosen (simple, extensive and positive)
The Velvet Monkey Wrench - John Muir (illustrated by Peter Aschwanden) "Mankind will learn to progress without contention and live in co-operation."
You are all Sanpaku - Sakurazawa Nyoiti (English version by William Dufty) The original macrobiotics book.
Journeys Out of the Body - Robert A. Monroe (I'm not afraid to die anymore.)
One Cheater Just for Fun: Good Omen by Pratchett and Gaimen: Angel and Demon conspire to save the world from destruction by the "Powers That Be". Huge fun.
What would you like the whole world to understand or learn from this interview?
The most important thing one can do is to mentor another. Be good to yourselves and each other. You are not alone.