Vanessa Brown is a bookseller and award-winning author in her hometown of London, Ontario, where she co-owns Brown & Dickson Booksellers on Richmond Row with her husband, Canadian poet Jason Dickson.
Together they wrote London: 150 Cultural Moments (Biblioasis), which won a 2017 Lieutenant Governor’s Ontario Heritage Award for Excellence in Conservation.
Writing Breakthroughs with Vanessa Brown
"The communal memory of the city is really what captures my imagination"
"Not having a strong sense of place contributes so much to apathy and ambivalence.... We have to take pride in the place we're from"
My previous books focused on the history and quirks of London. My current project is about an unsolved murder that happened here in the 1960s, which extends what I've done before but moves towards the subversive and unexpected. One of my favourite things is digging around in the archives, and I've gotten to do that a lot while researching the murder case. I love chatting with the staff at the London Room and reaching out to my fellow local history buffs. But really, the best part is going into the community and conducting interviews. People will say, "Oh, there isn't much I can tell you," and then, after I ask the right questions, all of a sudden have some insight and we'll uncover new information together. The communal memory of the city is really what captures my imagination.
My husband, Jason, is always a great editor and consultant, but I've also chatted with artist Ruth Skinner, lawyer John Lisowski, funeral director Joe O'Neill, and customers who come into the shop — all people not directly involved in the murder case — who give me great insights about what happened. One customer helped me track down an old post office. Another customer, who worked as a beat cop and was a rookie when the murder happened, had some great inside scoops. One guy told me about visiting a really significant location while he was a teenager. I have to know what London was really like in the 1960s, so I spend a lot of time reviewing photos that Colin Duck and Cindy Hartman post online, and chatting with people who grew up here and can speak to what was common knowledge and behaviour fifty years ago — like leaving an eleven-year-old to babysit four kids, which you would never do today. I ask my parents a lot of questions, especially my mom, about growing up in London and being a teenager here in the sixties.
This work connects me with my family, myself, and my home. I think Londoners, in general, need to know more about their city and get a sense of its history. Not having a strong sense of place contributes so much to apathy and ambivalence about things like improving downtown and handling the drug problem here. We have to take pride in the place we're from.