November 28, 2018
A Brief History of Turning the Tide on Our 15th Anniversary
15 years ago this week, we opened the doors of Turning the Tide bookstore in the tiny second floor of the house known as the “Merry Mansion” on 11th Street in Saskatoon’s Nutana neighbourhood. Turning the Tide started three years earlier in the spring of 2000 as a book-tabling project of mine that aimed to make books on topics of social justice, environment, and anti-authoritarian politics available to people in Saskatoon and beyond. I had just moved back to Saskatoon from Victoria where I spent 2 years in university studying labour history, cooperatives and women’s and gender studies. I had attended the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in the fall of 1999, witnessing firsthand the power of tens of thousands of people taking to the streets to protest using direct action tactics. I also saw the emergence of independent media and its power to challenge the narratives of the mainstream corporate media and was becoming passionate about understanding and resisting the power that corporations wielded around the globe.
I started the bookstore with no experience or training in running a small business, much less a bookstore. I had worked in record stores for several years before so had customer service experience and a passion for the material that I was selling. Fortunately, the rent was very cheap to begin with and the shop only depended on my labour. This was a very forgiving environment in which to open a new business and gave me time to learn the ropes. In the spring of 2004, the store “Stuff” that operated out of the main floor of the building ceased operations and I took over the lease on the whole building.
From there, the bookstore grew slowly but surely as people found and visited our location and as we continued to reach out into the community through organizing protests, film screenings, and other activist-related events and setting up book tables 2-3 times a month. The shop was not just a bookstore, it felt like it was becoming a hub for activism in the community. Friends initially helped out, volunteering for shifts when I couldn’t be at the store. I soon was making enough money to start paying them for their time. To help bring in other sources of revenue, we began to sell textbooks to university students by asking a handful of instructors to place their course orders through the shop. These textbook sales became and remain an integral part of our business to this day.
The bookstore opened during a time of political uncertainty. The global justice movement that had risen in the Global North through protests at summits like the WTO in Seattle and was shifting in focus as the “war on terror” got into full swing, and George W. Bush and Tony Blair led the invasion and occupation of Iraq. Models of resistance like the Zapatistas in southern Mexico were being discussed and debated and the issues of peak oil and climate change took greater seriousness. The way that people were organizing and whose issues were being prioritized was also being questioned and rethought as the politics of anti-oppression gained prominence. Throughout this time, more and more books were being written on the histories of colonization and movements of Indigenous resurgence. As these issues emerged, we carried the books on these topics and helped organize the speakers that could help people make sense of the debates.
Years passed and we continued to adapt to a changing environment where big box bookstores dominated and then gave way to online book giants like Amazon. We have survived by innovating - doing things like partnering with community organizing centres Seeds of Change and now The Stand to share space and with other independent businesses like Saskatoon’s The Better Good, Regina’s Bodhi Tree Yoga, and Waskesiu’s Friends of the Park Bookstore to provide books which they sell on consignment. In 2012 and 2013 we partnered with a group of friends, starting the worker’s cooperative café and catering business Root Down. In 2015, we launched an online store that displays everything that we carry in the store and allows customers to view and order over 10 million titles carried by our suppliers. In 2016 a group of friends in Regina approached us about starting a pop-up store which existed for a year as a bricks-and-mortar location and now operates as a book-tabling project, setting up in different locations around the city throughout the year.
In January 2015, we received our eviction notice after a new owner bought the property housing the Merry Mansion and the Farnam Block, home of Lydia’s Pub and slated them for demolition. In June of 2015, we relocated to 615 Main Street in a new partnership with The Stand Community Organizing Centre which seeks to connect the ideas in the literature on Turning the Tide’s shelves with community action to build a better world. The store operates alongside The Stand in this location to this day.
Throughout the years, hundreds of people of people including staff and volunteers have devoted their time and energy and thousands of customers purchasing books have contributed to the improbable survival of this little alternative bookstore. None have been more central than my partner Rachel and our two daughters Amélie and Spohie. Without these people, we would not be here after 15 years.
I want to finish by saying that I still love going to work every day at Turning the Tide. It is work that I believe in and feel is making a contribution in some small way to creating a better world. And like the vast majority of these projects, it is a struggle to make a living. Each time someone makes a choice to purchase books from a store like ours, it enables us to keep doing this work - making space for the exchange of critical ideas and community building while supporting our families.
Turning the Tide Bookstore
P.S. We are planning a party in the new year. Stay tuned...