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MacLeod's Books

Vancouver Bookstores: The Forbidden Five

Vancouver bookstores, just like the old books crammed onto their shelves, contain some strange stories of their own. It’s so much fun to wind through the nooks and crannies of these eccentric shops, to find their hidden secrets. Some of our favourite bookstores are listed below, in the latest installment of the Forbidden Five.

MacLeod’s Books: Piles of Books!

MacLeod's Books - Vancouver Bookstores
MacLeod’s Books, courtesy Vancouver Is Awesome

Whenever I lead a Forbidden Vancouver Tour past 455 W Pender Street, I hear gasps of shock and wonder from my guests. Just passing by its windows is sometimes enough to stop the group in its tracks.

It’s truly a sight to behold. Just look at the piles of books here! Piles on top of other piles, rising to the ceiling. Stacks of books on the floor, on the stairs, everywhere you look. Piles of books that are taller than you. You may have to pivot and shuffle sideways to get at that book you noticed.

This is not a hoarder’s nightmare, as it might seem at first glance. In fact, it’s a bibliophile’s dream. I’ve spent many afternoons exploring this literary labyrinth, and found some real treasures for my efforts. “I’ve sold books for $40,000,” says the owner of the shop, “and I sell books for a dollar.”

You’ll find every kind of book here. Local authors, early poets, beautifully bound editions of classical texts. But there is more hiding in this paper maze than books. There are precious antique photographs. Centuries-old maps. Historic sales agreements and invoices, including even purchase orders for slaves. Who knows what you might find?

Which is why I find it much more fun to come to McLeod’s Bookstore without a specific idea of what I’m looking for. Because to visit this bookstore is to be a treasure hunter. An archeologist, digging through piles of paper to find artifacts you didn’t know existed.

That’s not to say that you couldn’t find something specific here. Despite the appearance of chaos, the owner and staff know exactly what they have in their eclectic collection, and can help you find whatever it is you’re looking for.

Busting at the seams, this strange old bookstore sits in a weird old building, on a prominent corner in Vancouver’s oldest neighbourhood. Mclean’s magazine has dubbed it “Canada’s finest antiquarian bookstore.”

The Paper Hound: A Vintage Delight

The Paper Hound, on Pender Street - Vancouver Bookstores
The Paper Hound, courtesy FourSquare

At 344 W Pender Street, The Paper Hound is the exact opposite of the madness across the street at MacLeod’s. Here is a tidy and orderly space, with every book in its place.

This is a bookstore for the bibliophile who appreciates the book as a collectible, a vintage object – even a decor piece. Many of the books here are beautiful showpieces, and they are arranged and displayed accordingly. The celebration of vintage book covers and kitschy titles is augmented by the layout and music, to make for an elevated bookstore experience. Touring this bookstore is like walking through a carefully curated book museum, with thoughtfully arranged displays.

Its location in a historic building in the Victory Square neighbourhood certainly adds to the charm of this boutique bookstore. It’s located in the Victoria Block, an addition to the Victorian Hotel, added in 1912. The Victorian Hotel is Vancouver’s oldest operating hotel. As you might imagine, it has a few stories of its own, which we share on the Lost Souls of Gastown Tour. We think it’s fitting this old building is now full of old books, as well as old stories.

While it might be the opposite of McLeod’s across the street, these two bookstores, together with Albion Books and Criterion Books, are working together to form a “book row” on Pender Street.

The People’s Co-op: Vancouver’s Oldest Bookstore

The People's Co-op Bookstore - Vancouver Bookstores
The People’s Co-op Bookstore, courtesy Canadian Notes and Queries

Vancouver’s oldest bookstore, at 1391 Commercial Drive, has had a few close calls in recent years. Founded in 1945, it’s still going strong. But it may not be around forever, and shouldn’t be taken for granted. Make sure you pay it a visit while you still have the chance.

Being a co-op, it has no assets, and can’t apply for loans. It’s been in financial peril more than once, even formally announcing its impending closure in 2017. But time and again, donors have stepped in to save it.

This is not your normal, everyday bookstore. This is for the lover of more obscure writing, that might be hard to find elsewhere. Local authors, feminist literature, queer anthologies, Canadian poetry. It’s the kind of unconventional stuff you’d expect to find in a co-op. Which is precisely what makes it so valuable to its devoted followers.

The People’s Co-op is as strange and precious as the titles it carries. And despite formidable challenges, it has withstood the test of time. We’re very lucky to have it.

Little Sister’s: Vancouver’s Queerest Bookstore

Janine Fuller From Little Sister's - Vancouver Bookstores
Janine Fuller, one of the heroes of the Really Gay History Tour, at Little Sister’s Bookstore. Courtesy Vancouver Courier

The story of this pioneering bookstore is at least as dramatic as the stories on its shelves. The first shop of its kind in Western Canada was targeted simultaneously by terrorists, and by the Canadian government. While fighting off the censorship of Customs Canada with one hand, the other was needed to defend against bomb attacks. These brave heroes survived more than one explosion at this trailblazing bookstore. It’s a wild and inspiring story, which we cover in more detail on the Really Gay History Tour.

In its new and larger location, at 1238 Davie Street, Little Sister’s continues to provide access to queer information and materials. Queer fiction, fantasy, graphic novels, kid’s books, and travel books line the shelves, along with more academic offerings. You’ll also find t-shirts, hats, and fancy undies – not to mention dildos, lubes, and some other fun toys…!

Pulp Fiction Books: A Beloved Vancouver Bookstore

Chris Brayshaw of Pulp Fiction Books - Vancouver Bookstores
Chris Brayshaw of Pulp Fiction Books, courtesy Toronto Star

While big brand-name bookstores are shutting down, this little independent bookstore has done more than stay afloat. It’s been expanding. It now has three locations in Vancouver, at 2422 Main Street, 2754 West Broadway, and 1830 Commercial Drive. Its Commercial Drive location recently moved up the street to a new heritage building, doubling in size.

As larger chains have begun to rely on scented candles, designer blankets, and home decor items, Pulp Fiction Books, like the other stores on this list, has focused simply on books. With knowledgeable staff, this little bookshop has maintained a loyal following. And it’s easy to see why.

They have a good mix of old and new titles, a well-organized layout, good discounts and a top-notch special order system. Whenever I’m looking for a new release or a specific work of fiction, Pulp Fiction is always my first stop. It’s one of Vancouver’s most-loved bookstores, and has been part of Vancouver’s fabric for 20 years.