Jessica Westhead on Ottawa's Octopus Books

Jessica Westhead's latest book is the story collection And Also Sharks, and she is also author of the novel Pulpy & Midge. In her Canadian Bookshelf guest post, she celebrates Ottawa's Octopus Books and Lisa Greaves, the woman at its helm.

I first met Lisa Greaves in fall 2007, on a Coach House book tour stop at the Plan 99 Reading series at the Manx in Ottawa. After I read from my then-new first novel, Pulpy & Midge, a grinning blonde woman made my night by telling me how much she’d enjoyed the excerpt. She introduced herself and said she owned a bookstore in town, and would I like to read there some time? I said I’d love to.

Photo of Lisa Greaves, Octopus Books

Lisa Greaves, Octopus Books owner-of-amazingness

We hatched a plan for me to visit Octopus Books that spring, along with local author and Octo-pal Jennifer Whiteford. On Wednesday, March 19, 2008, embraced by crammed, colourful bookshelves and a small but very friendly crowd, Jennifer read from her awesome young adult novel grrrl, and I read from Pulpy. Then we launched into an impromptu Q&A session and animated literary gabfest, fuelled by Lisa’s wine and her giddy enthusiasm for both of our books.

I saw Lisa and Jennifer again at Octopus Books’ 40th birthday celebration the following year. That’s right—this independent bookselling gem is in its fourth decade! And it knows how to party—Ottawa’s Carleton Tavern was jam-packed with loud, rowdy, lit-loving revellers.

Then on March 5, 2011, soon after the publication of my second book, And Also Sharks, a short story collection with Cormorant Books, I received this Facebook message from Lisa:

Lisa Greaves March 5, 2011 at 10:43am

Subject: Look who wrote a book!!

I just met with the rep and saw it this week!! Congratulations! Do you have any Ottawa events planned? If not, let’s do one! Have a good weekend and let me know what you think!

I was beside myself. To get this note about my brand-new, barely-out-in-the-world book from a bookseller who was excited to put it on her shelves—how awesome is that??

We planned to mount an Octopus Books “Readux” (heehee), and not only did Lisa invite me back to her beautiful store, but she also very generously paid to fly me in from Toronto. I felt like a literary rock star.

On Thursday, June 23, 2011, I had the pleasure of meeting Octo-employees and fellow bookworms Cameron Anstee and Steve Bosworth, Lisa’s excellent co-hosts for the reading. Also on the bill were Jennifer Whiteford—double JW power reprised!—and special guest Iain Reid. (To help promote the event, Nadia Collins designed this delightful hoot of a poster!

I had a blast sharing the floor again with Jennifer, who read a sweet new story about two friends wreaking havoc with expired dairy products, and for the first time with Iain Reid, who read from his super-funny memoir One Bird’s Choice, recently published by House of Anansi.

Photo of Octopus Books

Octopus Books, photo by Nadia Collins

Another smallish but jovial audience cheered us on. Before and after, people bought books, mingled, and admired the store, which has an undeniable happy glow about it. It’s the kind of place where you feel instantly at home. Of course, in large part this feeling is because of Lisa. Throughout the evening, she was the hostess-with-the-mostess, welcoming each new arrival with a big smile and the tempting offer of “Red wine–white wine–cranberry juice with soda–cookies?”

Once we’d drained Octopus’s booze supply, we headed to a nearby Royal Oak for beers—and met up later with Stuart Ross and Robert Earl Stewart, who had also read in town with Mansfield Press! Lisa had us all giggling over her anecdotes, which were hilarious, and bought us fries, which were delicious.

I am a huge fan of this woman, with her boundless, book-loving energy and the way she passionately supports so many writers. And I am an even bigger fan after reading her answers to these questions I asked her recently, over email…

JW: Hello, Lisa! Can you tell us a bit about the history of Octopus Books, and how and when you got involved with the store?

LG: Octopus was originally a newspaper, which morphed into a bookstore because people felt there were books and ideas that needed to reach people. It was run as a collective with a board, and two or three paid staff, and staffed by many volunteers until 1996. I was a volunteer from 1994, and when the board decided to declare bankruptcy or sell it to buyers of a like mind who would assume the debt, I took it on with four other people. They moved on to other things and I stayed—partially because I had remortgaged my house to deal with the debt, and partially because I liked it!

JW: What are your favourite things about running Octopus Books?

LG: Every once in a while, I realize I live and work in a bubble where for the most part, I am not forced to compromise my values. I try to stay true to the nonprofit and collective principles that started the store. That means I don’t have to sell books I don’t believe in, I don’t have to deal with companies whose policies offend me, and I get to close on Buy Nothing Day. It is incredibly liberating and unusual to not always have to make decisions based on the bottom line. I get to organize events I believe in, stock books I think are important, raise funds for causes I want to support. I also work with wonderful people—the other staff in the store, book reps, other booksellers are really great. Oh, and the books, they’re pretty good too!

Photo of Octopus Books

Octopus Books, photo by Nadia Collins

JW: What are you reading these days?

LG: King Leary by Paul Quarrington, which is so funny and so well written, and also kind of bittersweet since he recently passed away. I try to remember the words of my daughter Sadie—you can still love something when it’s gone. She just turned five, and it seems like a profound sentiment for anyone, but also right on. I am also reading And Also Sharks (I really am, I didn’t just say that), and a book on borderline personality disorders, which is so interesting!

JW: Heehee, aww, thank you! So how do you choose what books to stock?

LG: Some authors we always have in stock—Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, Edward Said, Michel Foucault, Karl Marx. I choose books that are written by important authors, or are on topics I think are important or interesting. I choose fiction based on gut feeling, do I like the cover, is it a new Canadian author that I would like to support. I will bring in the Ondaatje book of course, but people tend to look for other titles—the ones that they don’t know they are looking for, I try to choose things that I would like to read, or be able to read. I also choose books that I don’t think will sell, but I am so happy they were written, I want to support them, and the presses who publish them. I also order ridiculous pop culture-y stuff just because it appeals to me. It’s a bit silly because people aren’t likely to buy a biography of John Travolta with prismatic lettering and two different photos on the back and front, but how could I resist???

JW: Do you have any advice for new writers who have their books in bookstores for the very first time?

LG: Call or drop by the stores, but do your research first. People will come by with self-help books, or diaries of their cat in the garden, which have their place, but Octopus is not it. Don’t call every store, unless you live in the neighbourhood, give the store a hook, something that will help them think they can sell the book. “I live in the area and have 75 brothers and sisters” is as good as a book that fits the niche that store is trying to fill. I have had several people bring cookbooks into the store—we sell cookbooks, but they have to be vegetarian, or local. Also, find out the person’s name that you need to speak to, and when you do speak to them, ask if there is a good time to talk to them. If you call and launch into your sales pitch while they are trying to ring through a sale, it’s not the ideal time. If they do stock your books, tell your friends to buy them there, not from you at a discount! Find out if there are any events you could tie a reading into. If you organize or suggest a reading, do what you can to get people out to it!

JW: What are some of your standout childhood book-related memories?

LG: When I was seven, I took my dog into the library. I was looking at the Encyclopedia Brown books, and the librarian told me I was too young for them, and then my dog peed on a book cart. Amazingly, it didn’t stop me from going back. I loved those books, and Harriet the Spy, Ramona Quimby, Mandy by Julie Edwards, and of course Judy Blume books. I also went through a crazy Helen Keller phase where I read everything I could get my hands on. My mom caught me walking down the street once with my eyes closed and told me to watch out or I was going to get hit by a car. Anyway, those stories, and the ones that were my favourites when I was four to seven, are still with me. I loved to read and then apply that to my world. I fantasized about a belt with a pad of paper and a flashlight attached to it!

JW: Thank you, Lisa (for everything)!

Beloved Canadian Bookshelf readers—the next time you’re in Ottawa, I highly recommend stopping by Octopus Books at 116 Third Avenue in The Glebe. Say hello, browse, and buy lots! Lisa might even offer you a cookie.

July 24, 2011
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