When James Spyker and I founded the ottawa small press book fair in late 1994, we were patterning our event loosely on what we knew of the Toronto version, co-founded some seven years earlier by Toronto writers and small press enthusiasts Stuart Ross and Nicholas Power as an extension of their monthly ‘Meet the Presses.’ During the early 1990s in Ottawa, there was an emerging, albeit scattered, community of small press, all without a venue to properly display and sell their wares. Those interested in such were forced to look further afield for attention, whether Toronto or Montreal, or even Vancouver, and New York. There were certainly no outlets available to discuss chapbooks, or coherent bookstore space. As well, like little islands of production, most of these producers of poetry, fiction and/or non-fiction books, chapbooks, journals, comics, zines and pamphlets seemed to barely have any awareness of each other. The first thing we wanted was to help develop a community that was at least aware of themselves, even before introducing that community to the larger world. How can anything improve or develop when compared only to itself?
There is sometimes the misconception that small/micro press purely exists as some kind of farm team for larger publishers, as though the step from one to the other inevitable, and step solely in one direction, presumably up. It’s much like the idea, for some, that writing poetry is automatic precursor to fiction, but those inside know the difference (every poodle is a dog, but not every dog, a poodle). Certainly, some of those who have published poetry chapbooks with Leigh Nash and Andrew Faulkner’s The Emergency Response Unit or Cameron Anstee’s Apt. 9 Press might also engage with book publishers, whether currently or down that hopeful road, but jwcurry and the myriad publications that fill his table exist purely and deliberately along the margins of small publishing. His small items might never see the inside of a bookstore, and are predominantly experienced either through direct knowledge of his catalogue, or attending a small press book fair, otherwise his thirty-plus years of publishing become completely invisible.
One of the things that wasn’t really discussed during the whole Toronto Small Press Fair ugliness a couple of years ago was the real function that these fairs play within the community, whether the Toronto fair, Broken Pencil’s Canzine, Montreal’s Expozine or the ottawa small press book fair, going strong at twice a year since fall 1994. Over the years, other fairs have emerged and disappeared, one as suddenly as the other, including an Ottawa zine fair that happened twice in the mid-1990s, and our own Word On The Street that seemed to come and go without too much real fanfare. Other fairs across the country seem to appear and disappear as well, including those organized in Vancouver, Hamilton, Edmonton, Fredericton and St. Catharine’s, Ontario. Those of us who organize these small press fairs are predominantly volunteers, working unpaid positions of love, and do so as caretakers for inherently community-driven events; if the events don’t fulfill and anticipate the needs of the community they serve, what purposes do they actually fill?
There are still rumours of problems at the Toronto fair, despite a few coordinator shifts since the “struggles,” and despite everything the current organizers have accomplished. Meet the Presses, the original 1984 pre-cursor to the Toronto fair, has even returned, thanks to founders Ross and Power, along with a board of other small press creators. Ebbs and flows, any community knows. Things slow down as one others rise to fill their place, but it can take as many threads of consistency to hold a community together. The landscape was certainly different when we started our little fair in the capital. There were no Chapters, General Distribution still existed, Coach House was still known as “Press,” and we still enjoyed independent booksellers such as The Double Hook in Montreal, Books Canada and Food for Thought Books in Ottawa, and all those west coast Duthie’s locations. The next wave of small press hadn’t yet taken hold, still sullen from the hangovers of the past. Presses have since come and gone and others begun, and yet we are still here, working to support those that insist and persist, including AngelHousePress, Room 302 Books, BuschekBooks, the Ottawa Arts Review and other local ventures, as well as those who travel a bit further to engage in that conversation called literature. We have not only persevered, but thrived, a room of our own twice a year in Jack Purcell Community Centre on Elgin Street, a room we invite the whole world to be part of.