Lunch with Harbour Publishing’s Howard White

Howard White | BCBusiness
Howard White looks back on four decades at Harbour Publishing.

Harbour Publishing co-founder Howard White looks back on 44 years in publishing—and toward the promise for a new chapter

A soupçon of regret is eating at Howard White this lunchtime. It’s certainly not over his co-founding the four-decade-old Harbour Publishing, the Sunshine Coast business that’s enjoyed almost quixotic longevity and success in an industry that’s been pummelled by e-readers and seen independent bookstores swallowed by conglomerates.

Since publishing its first book, Raincoast Chronicles, in 1972, Harbour has brought White a haul of accolades such as the Order of Canada and the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, along with the past year’s notable splicing together with Vancouver’s Douglas & McIntyre, a “much-envied” portion of D&M Publishers Inc. (White bought the imprint after the latter filed for bankruptcy protection, landing him a roster of classic First Nation and B.C. authors such as Bill Reid, Emily Carr and Hilary Stewart.)

No, the thing that troubles the avuncular 68-year-old is that the original motive for starting Harbour has yet to be entirely sated. “I was part of a bunch of frustrated writers who realized that we had to get publishing ourselves if we wanted to see any of our books in print,” he admits candidly as he tackles a mound of calamari at Kitsilano’s White Spot. And authoring 10 titles himself (A Hard Man to Beat, Spilsbury’s Coast, The Men There Were Then) is just not enough. “I regret that there haven’t been more,” White avers, clearly on a roll. “I haven’t totally ignored it but it would have been better to have been driving bulldozers so those synapses aren’t already burnt out at the end of the day and you can write.”

The bulldozer reference isn’t random. After being raised working with his “gyppo logger” father near Pender Harbour, White was a typical small-town kid desperate to escape his roots. He studied English at UBC—where he met his future wife, Mary, with whom he has two grown-up sons and co-owns Harbour—and worked in construction for five years in Alberta, B.C. and the Yukon. Then he returned to his hometown and took up the publishing game to “put on record” that fast-eroding rural way of being.

“It’s a huge surprise to me; growing up, the only thought in my mind was to get the hell out of there and never come back,” he says. “But there’s nothing to make you start appreciating something more than when it’s disappearing.”

White’s preternatural drive to reverse the “cultural amnesia” surrounding the history of B.C. has seen Harbour publish tomes such as the 10-years-in-the-making Encyclopedia of British Columbia, one of 600 titles under the company’s ‘Books of the Pacific Northwest’ tag. “I was starting to feel we were losing the battle with more people just living in B.C. with no sense at all of the history of the province,” he says.

So the man who himself once wanted to erase that rural, coastal life from his memory now epitomizes it. He heads to the big city only a few times a year (cramming myriad meetings into a Vancouver visit, this is his second lunch today), and time off sees him journeying— either by his powerboat or by climbing local mountains—around the B.C. immortalized by his authors.

All fuel, no doubt, for a business he’s still gung-ho about despite its challenges. The Harry Potter revolution is bringing in a new generation of readers, he proffers spiritedly, and despite the digital onslaught they’re finding “that the reading public still loves the physical artifact of the book. It’s one of the elements of our culture they’re not ready to give up on yet.”

Howard White’s Favourites

1. “I take authors and business associates to the upscale Rockwater Middle Secret Cove Resort (5356 Ole’s Cove Rd., Halfmoon Bay; rockwatersecret ”

2. “We’re virtually part of the family at the Sylvia Hotel (1154 Gilford St., Vancouver; It’s where we put all of our authors if they are staying in Vancouver.”

3. “For a light lunch or just a coffee, we go nearby to the Copper Sky Gallery and Cafe (12904 Madeira Park Rd., Madeira Park;”