Vancouver hookers run book club, wonder why people think that's strange


September 27, 2004

VANCOUVER (CP) - Between hustling, dates and standing in line at the food bank, some prostitutes are holing up in the city's' slum alleys and noisy shelters, turning pages rather than tricks.

Women in the Downtown Eastside devoured their latest book club selection before meeting the author for a debate Tuesday. "A lot of people think working women can't read or aren't interested in things like literature," said Beverley Ranger, a prostitute peer counsellor who has been making the flophouse rounds hooking girls up with books.

"It doesn't surprise me, that assumption. Nothing surprises me anymore, but it's not like they didn't go to school.

"A lot of them had normal jobs and normal lives before they ended up down here."

Life on the streets feeds people's desire to escape and books are as comforting to hookers, addicts and homeless people as they are to Oprah Winfrey.

"They have no privacy down here, they're so visible on the street, in the shelters. Everyone knows everyone and they are constantly under the microscope of the system," said Marika Sandrelli, an education co-ordinator with Prostitution Alternatives Counselling Education (PACE).

But just as Oprah would roll her eyes at the selection of cheap romance and other dog-eared throw-aways people donate to shelters, so do the people living in them.

"They have no choice in their lives," said Sandrelli.

"They aren't given a choice of where to sleep, who they sleep with, what they eat, when they eat. When it comes to something so personal as reading, they're going to want to pick a book that interests them."

That occurred to Mary Trentadue, owner of the independent 32 Books shop in posh Kerrisdale.

"For years I have wanted to do something to help the women on the Downtown Eastside. But I didn't know what I could do. I wanted to just drive down and give them books, but I didn't know if it would be welcome."

"It seems kind of silly when they are spending their days looking for food."

The scheme stayed on a shelf in the back of her mind for years, nagging her, until she met Maggie DeVries, who wrote a book about her sister.

Sarah DeVries sold herself in the slum and is one of the more than 60 women, almost all prostitutes, that disappeared from the Downtown Eastside.

Robert Pickton has been charged with killing 15 of them and the Crown has said it will lay seven more charges, making Pickton Canada's worst accused serial killer.

Women in the neighbourhood wanted to hear DeVries' story. It was something they could identify with, and they wanted to know how life in the Downtown Eastside, which is often sensationalized, was described.

The publisher donated some of the novels and 32 Books started a campaign encouraging people to sponsor other copies for the women. In total, 125 were distributed.

"Some of them hadn't read since childhood. They helped each other and got through it cover to cover," said Trentadue, who hosted the unwieldy discussion that erupted at the book club's first meeting.

It inspired her so much she intends to present the women with several books of their choice every year.

People from Northern B.C. to Seattle have been going to their local bookstore to buy some 100 copies of Billie Livingston's Going Down Swinging, the club's second selection, for the women.

It's about a Vancouver mother whose children are taken away by social services and sent to live in foster homes.

"The story is told from the perspective of three people involved in the case. Women who were taken from families and raised by the state and women who have themselves lost children to the system have completely different reactions to this one," said Sandrelli.

Livingston will be answering their questions and listening to their reviews Tuesday when they will choose a third selection.

The author's visit gives the women important validation of their passion for reading, Sandrelli said.

"They read what people write about them and they are offended that people have been shocked they are interested in something as civilized as reading.

"No one ever wants to hear what these women have to say or how they feel.

"Social workers, police, journalists all want them to spill their gruesome details and spit out the facts of their story, but no one really wants to listen to what they think."

The opportunity to pontificate about literature has sparked something of a creative renaissance in the community.

Some who think the books are unrealistic are writing their own stories, the ones that explain the salacious grit reporters hound them for and have made them who they are.

Others are coming to terms with a lifetime of abuse, always being called stupid by fathers and teachers, that left them with the impression they couldn't do anything other than have sex for a living.

"One woman got very upset when she was given this new, hardcover novel. It reminded her of being in school, failing and feeling dumb all the time."

"She reads, but only soft, romance type novels."

Ranger and the other members of the club pull together to offer comfort when the material triggers emotions and memories.

People laughed at the Harlequin lover who carted around Going Down Swinging from shelter to shelter, telling her to put it down because she'd never finish it.

But she did. For the first time in her life, she finished an entire book and will be at the meeting to debate it and vote on what she wants as the club's next selection.

Courtesy of

Billie Livingston - Going Down Swinging

NeWest Press: Snow Bodies: One Women's life on the streets
by: Elizabeth Hudson

Missing Sarah, A Vancouver women remembers her vanished sister-2003
by: Maggie de Vries

Young woman who flirted with danger left a 3,000-page journal-July 31, 2004

Hooked on reading-May 20, 2004



Missing Women Tip Line: 1-877-687-3377

Updated: August 21, 2016