RODIN, Renee




Author Tags: Literary Landmarks, Poetry

LITERARY LOCATION: 2742 West 4th Avenue, former site of R2B2 Books

Active in the literary community on a variety of fronts, Renee Rodin owned and operated R2B2 Books, a bookstore on West Fourth Avenue, from 1986 to 1994. During that period she solely ran a weekly reading series for eight years. Rodin and poet Billy Little first took charge of what had been known as Octopus Books West at 2250 West Fourth in 1986 but Little was involved only for the first two years. "Mainly because of the series’ reputation," says Rodin, "I was able to sell R2B2 in l994 to Denise and Trent Hignell who renamed it Black Sheep Books. They continued the readings for the next three years before they sold it to George Kroller who continued for another three years. So the weekly series went on for 14 years in all." There's a history of Octopus Books and R2B2 called "A Naif's Story" in Rodin's collection of memoirs, Subject to Change in which Rodin describes how Christmas fire forced her to move her store five blocks west, to West Fourth near MacDonald, in the same block as Margo Dunn's Ariel Books.

ENTRY:

Classified as fiction, the stories in Renee Rodin's Subject to Change (Talonbooks 2010) are self-portraits that recall the impact of ‘significant others’ on her life, whether they were a parent, lover, neighbour, child, friend, parent or politician.

She writes: "In the mid-Eighties I worked at Octopus West, a wonderful used bookstore in the 2100 block of West 4th in Kitsilano. “Brownie” (P.R. Brown) and her partner, the late Juils Comeault, had bought the store in the Seventies from Bill Fletcher.

"On my first day, when another staff person went for coffee, a customer came to buy some paperbacks in the window. Their prices, 25, 35 or 50 cents, were clearly marked on their covers. So that’s what I sold them for. I soon discovered I had sold someone’s private library of highly collectible pulp fiction, brought in for display purposes only, for next to nothing.

"When Brownie decided to sell Octopus West to concentrate on her other store, Octopus East, on Commercial Drive, near where she lived with her baby, Rosie, I wanted it. Brownie offered a generous installment plan for payments and I bought the store in the fall of l986 with poet Billy Little, who had been a close friend of Juils’ and had also worked at Octopus.

"We changed the name to R & B Books because of our names but we were open to interpretation about the initials. In December, just before the Christmas season, which we were depending on, a fire broke out in the apartment upstairs. I was alone in the store and had no idea the building was ablaze, though smoke could be seen across the city. Someone came in to get me out. The person upstairs was not so lucky. A pioneer recycler, Barry had piled masses of newspapers on top of what became a faulty extension cord. I learned later he had also been an ethical marijuana dealer and there were many high school kids, including mine, at his funeral.

"Most of our stock and the store were water-damaged. Our insurance just covered our move to a tiny spot at 2742 West 4th Avenue in January of l987, next to the Naam restaurant, and in the same block as Ariel Books, run by Margo Dunn.

"Billy, who remained involved in the store for its first couple of years, suggested changing our name to R2B2 Books to signify our second time around. Even though we carried little science fiction, the name stuck."

Renee Rodin was born in Montreal on August 15, 1945 and arrived in B.C. in 1968. Her essays and short stories have appeared in The Capilano Review and West Coast Line.

About her collection of poetry, Bread & Salt (Talonbooks, 1996), Gary Geddes wrote in BC BookWorld, "While she may eschew figurative language and refuse to count the syllables, Rodin definitely pays close attention to the world she inhabits, counting the injustices, cruelties and hypocrisies along with the little miracles, what Bronwen Wallace has called the 'stubborn particulars of grace.' Her sly, low-key poems are like prescriptions for sanity, full of wit and homely wisdom..."

Rodin's work of narrative prose, Ready for Freddy (Nomados Press, 2005), is a short memoir about moving back to Montreal to care for her 88-year-old father who is diagnosed with mesothelioma, a form of lung cancer caused by asbestos. When he declares he's 'ready for Freddy', ready to die, he is promised that he can die with dignity. The narrator and her sister Sandy monitor his decline as he stops eating and starts hallucinating. The aftermath of his death is at once surrealistic and all-too-real. Three of the pallbearers are women. "When it's time to life the coffin, though the women struggle valiantly to keep their side from dragging on the floor, it's considerably lower than the men's." Ready for Freddy is like a Norman Levine short story, strangely uplifting for its reportage of commonplace details.

Not to be taken lightly, Renee Rodin once approached Premier Gordon Campbell, took him aside and politely warned him that he was in danger of becoming a fascist.

BOOKS:

Bread & Salt (Talonbooks, 1996)

Ready for Freddy (Nomados Press, 2005)

Subject to Change (Talonbooks 2010) 978-0-88922-644-9 $18.95)

[BCBW 2010] "Poetry"

Remembering R2B2: A Naïf’s Story
Literary Essay (2007)


from Renee Rodin
In the mid-Eighties I worked at Octopus West, a wonderful used bookstore in the 2100 block of West 4th in Kitsilano. “Brownie” (P.R. Brown) and her partner, the late Jules Comeault, had bought the store in the Seventies from Bill Fletcher.
On my first day, when another staff person went for coffee, a customer came to buy some paperbacks in the window. Their prices, 25, 35 or 50 cents, were clearly marked on their covers. So that’s what I sold them for. I soon discovered I had sold someone’s private library of highly collectible pulp fiction, brought in for display purposes only, for next to nothing.
When Brownie decided to sell Octopus West to concentrate on her other store, Octopus East, on Commercial Drive, near where she lived with her baby, Rosie, I wanted it. Brownie offered a generous installment plan for payments and I bought the store in the fall of l986 with poet Billy Little, who had been a close friend of Jules’ and had also worked at Octopus. We changed the name to R & B Books because of our names but we were open to interpretation about the initials.
In December, just before the Christmas season, which we were depending on, a fire broke out in the apartment upstairs. I was alone in the store and had no idea the building was ablaze, though smoke could be seen across the city. Someone came in to get me out. The person upstairs was not so lucky. A pioneer recycler, Barry had piled masses of newspapers on top of what became a faulty extension cord. I learned later he had also been an ethical marijuana dealer and there were many high school kids, including mine, at his funeral.
Most of our stock and the store were water-damaged. Our insurance just covered our move to a tiny spot at 2742 West 4th Avenue in January of l987, next to the Naam restaurant, and in the same block as Ariel Books, run by Margo Dunn.
Billy, who remained involved in the store for its first couple of years, suggested changing our name to R2B2 Books to signify our second time around. Even though we carried little science fiction, the name stuck.

***

Poetry was as vital to my generation as music and movies. As a baby beatnik in Montreal in the early Sixties I’d loved going to readings in small bookstores and at coffee houses.
I’d visited Vancouver before but moved there in 68. In the sixties and seventies I attended memorable readings at Milton Acorn’s Advanced Mattress and at Intermedia. I also remember readings curated byTrudy Rubenfeld at See Site, the photography workshop she ran with Rhoda Rosenfeld. There were readings at Mona Fertig’s Literary Storefront, where I worked for a while. Jules and Brownie hosted events at their stores, too.
For me having readings was part and parcel of having a bookstore so I started a weekly series as soon as R & B Books opened. I have yet to unearth who gave the first reading in October 1986. But it was interrupted by P.X. Belinsky with whom I’d just ended a relationship.
P.X. Belinsky, a brilliant writer and also the enfant terrible of the Vancouver literary scene, had a compulsion to disrupt readings when he got drunk. He heckled many poets including Allen Ginsberg and Robert Creeley, who were part of a series organized by Warren Tallman at the Italian Cultural Centre.
The series at R2B2 kept attracting great writers because of the writers who read there. Some of the participants were bill bissett, George Bowering, Judith Copithorne, Margaret Dragu, Maxine Gadd, Gladys (Maria) Hindmarch, Avron Hoffman, jam Ismail, Carole Itter, SKY Lee, Billy Little, Dorothy Livesay, Lee Maracle, Daphne Marlatt, Al Neil, Miranda Pearson, Stan Persky, Helen Potrebenko, Jamie Reid, Lisa Robertson, Rhoda Rosenfeld, George Stanley, Goh Poh Seng, Sharon Thesen, Warren Tallman, Ed Varney, Victoria Walker, Betsy Warland, Charles Watts and Fred Wah.
As well, writers such as Dionne Brand, Di Brandt, Nicole Brossard and David McFadden came from different parts of Canada, and writers came from Australia, Britain and the United States, including Diane di Prima. The audiences were extremely attentive so it was a good place to try out new work.
The readings were often so crowded that on four separate occasions audience members fainted from lack of air. After the poor person who had passed out was attended to, sometimes by ambulance attendants, the reading would resume. For bp nichol, we sat out back on a patch of grass. bp read by candle, star and moonlight. It was magic.
The fantasy is that you can sit and read in a bookstore but there was always work to be done. If you think selling poetry books is hard, try selling used poetry. There were more requests for the music tapes I played at the store, which weren’t for sale, than for the books.
Still there were lovely interludes such as when Roy Kiyooka, who read at the store several times, dropped by once a week before he died. We’d talk and toke up. Browsers either enjoyed the sight and smell of the grass or fled.

***

In the Nineties the economy was very tight, I had no cushion to ride out the rough times and it was impossible to compete with the bigger stores. After I decided to pack it in, ten other small Vancouver bookstores, most of them run by women, folded.
Mainly because of the series’ reputation, I was able to sell R2B2 in l994 to Denise and Trent Hignel who renamed it Black Sheep Books. They continued the readings for the next three years before they sold it to George Kroller who continued for another three years.So the weekly series went on for 14 years in all. It was fabulous and I miss it.
My events were free but I sold beer at them, which helped pay the rent. After the readings, when lively literary discussions turned into lively parties, I’d end up giving the beer away because I didn’t like selling to friends and fellow partiers.
My greatest pleasure as a bookseller was when someone found an out-of-print book they’d been searching for or I turned someone onto a book I loved no matter how little it cost. Occasionally I had collectible items that could have fetched serious money but I had no idea of their value. Once Bill Hoffer, the late antiquarian book dealer, swooped in and got some great deals. Later he said if he found my mistakes it was his prerogative to buy the books no matter what. Fair enough.
The sign in my window said “Come On In. We’ve Raised Our Prices” but I never did.

- by Renee Rodin


Subject to Change (Talonbooks $18.95)
Book launch review


from Roxana Necsulescu

I enter the old Billy Bishop Legion Hall in Vancouver being somewhat uncertain as to where the book launch will take place, making my way towards the bar to ask an employee. Instead, I am greeted by Renee (pronounced ‘Ree-knee’) Rodin warmly shaking my hand and introducing herself, as if she is simply helping with the event rather than being the feature of it.

Born and raised in Montreal, where she gained a Bachelor of Arts degree from Sir George Williams University, Rodin moved to Vancouver during the 1960s, later operating R2B2 Bookstore in the ‘80s and ‘90s.

As much of her writing concerns family, it’s pertinent to note she is a mother of three. Her children are shown with her on the cover of her new book, Subject to Change, an autobiographical sampling that is dedicated to her sister.
Her previous books are Ready for Freddy (2005), a memoir reflecting the period of her life when she moved back to Montreal to care for her sick father, and Bread and Salt (1996), a collection of prose poems about her childhood experiences in Montreal.

With its intriguingly subtle title, Subject to Change has a much broader wing span. These are sophisticated reflections, without being showy about it. As Stan Persky puts it, “The intensity, care and wit that Renee Rodin brought to years of cultural and other activisms is now honed into a distinctive voice—funny, relaxed, passionately intelligent, deeply attentive to reality.”

The Billy Bishop Legion Hall is a past and present meeting ground for war veterans. Today it’s a meeting ground for literary veterans. At the legion, most of the attendees seem to know each other quite well. The atmosphere is cozy and familiar, like the bar itself.
I talk to poet Maxine Gadd, author of Subway Under Byzantium (2008), who tells me how Kitsilano is much different now than it once was, and how happy she is to see that the Billy Bishop Legion Hall is still up and running.

Before Renee starts reading excerpts from Subject to Change, she informs us that it is her dear friend Vera Slyomovics’ birthday, and there Vera is nodding and smiling back at her from her seat. Renee then reads us a poem titled “The Real Deal,” which is both dedicated to, and about, Vera and her husband Josef. Vera was awarded the Order of Canada in 2005 for travelling across the country conducting talks about her experiences during the Holocaust. Renee recalls that Vera came into her life as one of the few people that she remembers her mother giving instant respect to.

Renee demonstrates her affinity for Kitsilano through the poems she chooses to read. It’s refreshing to be able to mentally engage with the sights she is speaking of, even if it is the thrift store on Broadway and MacDonald.

She closes with “A Naif’s Story,” a poem that reflects upon the eight years (1986-1994) she spent running the R2B2 bookstore on West 4th avenue in Kits. That bookstore was dedicated to keeping the Vancouver literary scene both alive and personal. She admits to her audience that R2B2 was more about the books, and those who read the books, than the business itself.

As literary den mother, past and present, Renee Rodin has concluded Subject to Change with a list of more than one hundred writers and artists who participated in events at her bookstore. That list is preceded by an update on the lives of 31 infants who have, between 1968 and 2010, been raised in the same beautiful wicker basket that she bought for her daughter Joey, on Portobello Road, in London, in 1968. 9780889226449

[BCBW 2011]