Bluestockings, Hakim’s, Red Emma’s: How Did These Bookstores Build Movements?

Bluestockings, Hakim’s, Red Emma’s: How Did These Bookstores Build Movements?

On a recent rainy Saturday morning, eight organizers from All Power Books, a volunteer-run bookstore cooperative, gathered at the Church of Christ to distribute the leftover produce they had procured from a food bank. The day’s haul was unusually large: Crates of mini potatoes, frozen meat, green beans, apples and nectarines were stacked alongside snacks like fried spring rolls and Sour Patch Kids.

The weekly food distribution network, one of several programs the bookstore offers, has become a lifeline for many residents of West Adams, a historically Black but rapidly gentrifying neighborhood in Los Angeles. More than a dozen elders, most of whom were Black and Latino, waited in the parking lot as volunteers packed their grocery bags.

For Rickey Powell, a disabled veteran who gets $23 in food stamps a month, the program was the only food drive within walking distance and often supplied a week’s worth of groceries for his wife and three grandchildren. With a cigarette in one hand and a rolling walker in the other, he requested a little extra meat for the kids. “This place is my go-to,” Powell, 64, said. “I’m usually the first in line.”

Counterculture bookstores such as All Power Books, which operate as a retail space and a public good, are not a new phenomenon in American culture. The latter half of the 20th century, a time of tremendous social unrest, fostered thriving bookshops by feminists, Black and queer activists in the United States.

But over the last half decade, a sustained, pandemic-driven boom in both independent book selling and social movements have increased demand for these businesses that function as sought-after sites of collective change. From Los Angeles to Baltimore, these cooperatives have become indispensable anchors in neighborhoods suffering from widening wealth gaps, housing insecurity and racial violence — a kind of mutual aid that some existing bookstores have long provided but has only gotten more popular during the pandemic.

All Power Books was founded in 2021 by organizers of various mutual aid groups who initially worked out of corporate spaces and cramped apartments, said Savannah Boyd, the bookstore’s co-founder. Without a physical space, she said, it was difficult to recruit new members, discuss strategy and consolidate resources, so the organizers expanded to a brick-and-mortar store.

Like many other counterculture bookstores, All Power Books leans far left, a position that’s reflected in its décor and business practices. Palestinian, Soviet Union and Cuban flags hang above prints of Che Guevara and anti-imperialist slogans. Shelves are stocked with tomes about communism and socialism. A fridge stocked with food and a storage room filled with menstrual products, contraceptives and toiletries are free and available to anybody.

The public-facing nature of bookstores makes them particularly powerful agents of social change, said Kimberley Kinder, an associate professor of urban planning at the University of Michigan and the author of “The Radical Bookstore: Counterspace for Social Movements.”

Curated events, window displays and book shelves can introduce a particular cause to a broad audience, serving as a bridge to more formal avenues of organizing. “These places proclaim political identity in signage and events that spill out into the streets,” she said, adding that they can provide greater visibility for issues affecting often marginalized groups like L.G.B.T.Q. or homeless people.

Charis Books & More in Decatur, Ga., an independent feminist bookstore founded in 1974, hosts monthly support groups for transgender youth and adults. Last April, the bookstore became a distribution point for Plan B emergency contraceptives; six months later, Georgia’s Supreme Court upheld the state’s six-week abortion ban. Firestorm Books in Asheville, N.C., a queer, feminist collective that opened in 2008, mails books and zines to L.G.B.T.Q. inmates and organizes monthly information sessions about building a union campaign.

Red Emma’s, a worker-owned bookstore and cafe that opened in Baltimore two decades ago, emerged from the “anti-globalization” movement in the late 1990s, which fought against free-trade policies and economic inequality, said Kate Khatib, one of its founders.

Protesters disrupted corporate summits around the world, culminating in the 1999 shutdown of the World Trade Organization in Seattle. These demonstrations were “effective but ephemeral,” Khatib said. Some of the organizers decided to create “an institution with an infrastructural component”: Red Emma’s, named after Emma Goldman, a labor organizer, was the result.

In a two-story building the workers bought in 2021, the cooperative hosts community programming and a core education program, the Baltimore Free School, with self-guided seminars and book clubs on topics like the climate crisis and prison abolition. Local organizers also use the downstairs cafe and event space to get petitions signed and hold meetings.

“We wanted to create an open space for people to share the work they’re doing and figure out ways to cross-pollinate,” Khatib said.

Joshua Clark Davis, a historian at the University of Baltimore, said “activist bookstores” often prioritize their cause over their business: They promote social movements through the products they sell; create free spaces for experienced activists, new recruits and the curious to congregate; and model their businesses, he said, after the “goals of liberation and equality promoted by organizers on the left.”

In the 1960s and 1970s, Davis said, Black-owned bookstores proliferated, carrying literature to support the then nascent Black Power movement. Hakim’s Bookstore in Philadelphia, founded in 1959 by Dawud Hakim, a young accountant, was a gathering place for young activists involved in Black nationalist groups.

Muhammad Ahmad, founder of the Black Power group Revolutionary Action Movement, recalls frequenting the store as a teenager. For $1 each, Hakim gave him books by J.A. Rogers and E. Franklin Frazier, books about the Nation of Islam — literature he couldn’t find anywhere else. Years later, he organized his own meetings at the bookstore. “Hakim’s had a major impact on my political awakening,” Ahmad, 82, said. “It was my community’s education.”

In December, the storied Bluestockings Cooperative in New York City’s Lower East Side received an eviction notice after some residents claimed that its opioid overdose prevention program — a state-led initiative allowing staff to distribute Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray to visitors — had led to violence and defecation on the streets. (New York’s Department of Health found that the store’s Narcan program was “not causing quality-of-life issues.”)

Raquel Espasande, one of several employees at the worker-owned Bluestockings, said the cooperative was still negotiating with the landlord. But suspending potentially lifesaving services during an opioid epidemic that disproportionately affects people of color is a nonstarter, said Espasande, noting that the store is run by queer and transgender people and sex workers.

“Bluestockings is meant to be a community space where people can feel safe and learn about marginalized folks,” Espasande said.

But resisting landlords can, sometimes, feel like a losing battle. In May, two years after surviving an eviction scare, All Power Books was forced to move after their landlord sold the building.

The new space, Boyd said, is blocks away and larger, but the renovations will take weeks and thousands of dollars. In the meantime, the cooperative has had to suspend many free events and services.

“We’re just eight people fighting against the system,” Boyd said.

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