Red Herring Cooperative Books was a left/progressive bookstore founded in 1977 and closing in 1996.
It had several locations over the years, including 1652 Barrington Street, 1558 Argyle Street, and 1555 Granville Street. Although largely staffed by volunteers, off and on from 1979 the store had part-time paid staff funded either by the profits (generally slim) or by a variety of government grants. Besides the storefront, Red Herring maintained a presence at conferences and special events via its well-stocked book tables.
Gay and lesbian books soon became a staple. Over the years, sample titles included Lesbian Nuns Breaking Silence, Regulation of Desire - Sexuality in Canada, Someone Was Here: Profiles in the AIDS Epidemic, Other Side of the Closet: the Coming-Out Crisis for Straight Spouses, and Coming Out: an Act of Love. The store's services to the lesbian and gay community were recognized in 1989 when Red Herring was awarded Gay Alliance for Equality's Lavendar Diesel award, traditionally given "for services above and beyond the call of liberalism." By 1993, the coop recognized that the "greatest number of sales are, as usual, from the feminist and the gay/lesbian non-fiction sections."
The selection of up to one hundred progressive periodicals included many local titles: for example, Pandora, New Maritimes, and Cape Breton's Magazine.
The popular alternative music section featured artists like Ferron, Loreena McKennitt, Connie Kaldor, Holly Near, Rita MacNeill, and Stephen Fearing.
But the backbone of the store was the left-progressive selection, with books on Latin America, environment and sustainability, the rise of the new right, Canadian labour history, racism, feminist analysis, native resistance, peace, and much much more.
Local authors were strongly featured in the occasional launches and readings. Donna Smyth read from Subversive Elements in September 1986. Maxine Tynes launched her first book, Borrowed Beauty, in May, 1987. A writers' series funded by Canada Council in Spring 1990 included Judith Fingard reading from The Dark Side of Life in Victorian Halifax and Toni Laidlaw's launch of Healing Voices - a Feminist Approach to Therapy with Women. In 1992, film-maker Paul Donovan read from and autographed his novel, Paint Cans, and in 1993 Red Herring hosted the launch of The Westray Tragedy: a Miner's Story, by Sean Comish.
The Coop was well supplied with committees, which over the years included the Board of Directors, Membership, Publicity, Windows, Staffing, Financial, Bookkeeping, and Book Ordering. Mysteriously, the newsletter Ourshelves was published not by committee, but by ValerieMansour? (often suspected of doubling as popular columnist Zena Banana)
Scores, perhaps hundreds, of members and volunteers kept Red Herring going over the years. Among the regulars were Valerie Mansour, Jim Sharpe, Wynne Jordan, Doug Meggison, Paul Woodman, Michael Donovan, Ken Burke, Pat Kipping, Sue MacLeod, and Dan O'Connor
Ever optimistic that the customer base would grow and prosper, the newsletter editor might occasionally declare, "Red Herring out of the Red" (November, 1985), or "Fiscal year ending in style," (August, 1988). But all too often the news was depressing: "Sales down - what to do?"; "Red Herring robbed!!" - of about $600.00 in January, 1989. The new GST tax was protested, to no avail.
Despite its own almost constant appeals for financial support, Red Herring also donated to a variety of causes, including the NSCAD strike fund (1986); FourTheMoment?, to help finance their first recording; the Hiroshima Day Shadow Project, VeithHouse, the Persons with AIDS Coalition, and TakeBackTheNight.
Chief source for this writeup was a probably incomplete file of Red Herring's newsletter Ourshelves, dating between August, 1985 and March, 1996.
This article contributed by LynnMurphy in August, 2011.
Also see: Full page article, This Ain't the Spring Garden Library in the April 1995 issue of Wayves.