I left my pot of black beans on the stove this afternoon and dropped in on the annual New Year’s open house at my neighborhood radical bookshop, People’s Books Coop. Refreshments, discounts, films in the basement, “Cats Against the Bomb” calendars, and great company were on offer.
With small niche bookstores disappearing at an alarming rate, it’s hard not to consider a Left Bookshop as something of a throwback. There are a scattering of good ones around the country- Left Bank in Seattle, Revolution Books in New York, and Rainbow Bookstore Coop in Madison come to mind- but the “movement bookstore” seems to have gone the way of….. well, the movement itself.
The good news is that stores like this have accomplished a key part of their mission: proving that there’s a market for alternative literature in mainstream bookstores. Like Gay and Lesbian bookshops, African-American Bookshops, and Feminist Bookshops, the political stores once served as the only outlet for people who wanted access to books that tell another story. Though there’s still a long way to go, Chomsky and Malcolm X are on the shelves of most good general booksellers these days, and Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States has sold several million copies. And of course the internet has improved access to books of every persuasion.
But there’s still something special about a bookstore with a mission. My first experience working in books was at the Solidarity Bookshop & Center on the west side of Milwaukee (a really long time ago.) Solidarity was one of a network of shops loosely affiliated with the Communist Party that operated in nearly every major city from the thirties through the seventies. More than an outlet for books, the stores served as meeting places, social venues, and as the public face of the socialist movement. Bulletin boards overflowed with flyers for upcoming events, and volunteers for actions of every sort signed up at the bookshop.
People’s Books traces its lineage to a more independent strain of the Left movement. In the sixties and early seventies, the Rhubarb Bookstore was a catch-all movement resource near the Marquette University campus. (Why the name? No idea.) Newspapers of every conceivable sect were welcome on its shelves, whereas you’d be less likely to find a Trotskyist journal at a CP store than you would an Islamist newspaper at the Vatican.
People’s Books carries on this egalitarian tradition. The inventory is refreshingly old school, and books are allowed lots of time on the shelves to find their readers. Sales are tracked via typed inventory cards. Labor/Economics is one of the largest sections in the shop, with History, Cultural Studies, Feminism and Literature (divided by region) also getting prominent display. Buttons, T-shirts, and movement ephemera make up the sidelines. Decisions are made collectively, and the staffing is largely done by volunteers.
I guess this is not a realistic model for successful general bookselling. But it did occur to me, as I perused the robust Marxism section, that the really important big thinking over the past many centuries has been transmitted via books. Marx and Engels launched their movement by putting their ideas on paper, and their followers spread these ideas via books.
So I hope that People’s Books and stores like it thrive. There’s no better reminder about the potential power of books. And there are precious few Left institutions around. A network of bookstores would be one worth having.