Along a downtown Toronto laneway (back alley) named after Canadian poet bpNichol, an eight-line poem is carved into the concrete: “A / Lake / A / Lane / A / Line / A / Lone.” This literal concrete poem leads you to a series of 19th-century coach houses that are home to Coach House Books, an independent publisher founded 50 years ago by artist Stan Bevington.
Coach House Books is a rare breed in that it still prints nearly all of its own books—specializing in innovative poetry and fiction—using two old Heidelberg presses. However, it’s also been a leader digitally, long offering print books bundled with e-books for customers.
In its infancy, Coach House published early works by prominent Canadian writers including Michael Ondaatje, Margaret Atwood, and the house’s “patron saint,” bpNichol. In 2001, Coach House published Christian Bök’s poetry book Eunoia, which went on to win the Griffin Poetry Prize (then worth C$40,000) and became the bestselling Canadian poetry book of all time.
Editorial director Alana Wilcox has been with the press for 15 years, and says it’s difficult to pin down a specific Coach House sensibility. “I hope that’s somewhat ineffable, but a particular sensibility that pervades this building is a little bit weird, strange, odd, irreverent; a little bit iconoclastic,” she says.
The upcoming title Pillow, by debut author Andrew Battershill, will be featured in the BEA Selects Literary Fiction program at the event’s Uptown Stage today, and it certainly embodies Wilcox’s description of a Coach House book. The publisher describes Pillow as “a playful literary debut about a boxer-turned-enforcer for a crime syndicate run by André Breton,” the late French writer and founder of surrealism. Battershill notes that Coach House is a “huge presence” for writers in Toronto. “The big thing with Coach House is that on top of the quality of the books in terms of the writing, they’re just such beautiful books,” he says.
In addition to the publisher’s time on the stage, Coach House can be found at BEA this year in Consortium Alley (booth 648) handing out galleys. It will be promoting some of this year’s titles, including André Alexis’s novel Fifteen Dogs (Apr.), which is already gaining traction in the U.S.; Jon Chan Simpson’s Chinkstar (June), a “graphicless graphic novel,” about second-generation Asian immigrants; and The Xenotext: Book 1 (Oct.), a long-awaited book of experimental poetry from Christian Bök.
“It’s a different world than it was 50 years ago, but it’s the same kind of energy,” says Wilcox of Coach House’s evolution. “We’re just going to keep trying to get better at what we do.”