The Radical Bookstores
of New York

March 11, 2013 | Eugene Reznik

Blackout Books was the archetypical “radical bookstore,” a small project started in 1993 by a handful of people selling books from a table during punk shows at the activist center and gallery space ABC No Rio. After about a year of fundraising, they signed a lease for a storefront on Avenue B in the East Village and quickly climbed to the venerable rank of “probably the most professional of all the Anarchist bookstores,” Dan Sabater claims.

The store had standard hours — more or less — and it was cluttered with stacks of leftist literature, pamphlets and zines, much of it remaindered from Left Bank Distributors. There was a sofa and chairs occupied by an often-uneasy mix of neighborhood squatters, traveler kids and intellectuals. And, obviously, there was a do-your-heroin-elsewhere sign hanging over the bathroom door, Rachel Rinaldo noted in a zine called Temp Slave # 7, circa 1995.

Blackout emerged from a half-century legacy of Lower Manhattan radicalism and literature established in part by Ed Sander’s Peace Eye Bookstore in the 1960s. Like countless predecessors, Blackout closed down shop after a few years for want of money to pay the rent. The organization was later “rescued” by ABC No Rio, which is now undergoing its own city-managed renovation, and incorporated into what we know as their Zine Library.

This sounds a lot like the recurring fate of many a New York City radical bookstore: to go broke, become swarmed by a “mob of junkies,” and the usual “assortment of LES crazies,” as was the case with Anarchist Switchboard and Sabotage, or to descend into middle-of-the-road ‘indie’ irrelevance, becoming overrun by yuppies and academics.

If only they could resolve an inherent paradox: balancing political beliefs commonly anti-consumerist and anti-capitalist, with the demands of running a retail business in a storefront located on the increasingly gilded island of Manhattan. Indeed, when you think about the city today, these types of spaces and activism seem to belong to, if any place, the history books and museums. The opening of the Museum of Reclaimed Urban Space (MoRUS) last fall, which offers tours out of the infamous, now-legal C-Squat, might be proof that the genre of Manhattan anarchist space has become part of the past.

Despite all this, there are still a couple of stalwart radical bookstores left in this city, and while corporate foils like Barnes and Noble begin to shutter in today’s tough publishing economy, these haven’t.

Revolution Books, on 26th Street in north Chelsea, has been in business since 1978. Incorporated as not-for-profit, the Revolutionary Communist bookstore is entirely volunteer-run. It’s classically ideological, restrained in décor, lacking much of that stereotypical “political aesthetic,” and very earnest about notions of “the truth.”

“We’re an intellectual center for a building a movement for revolution in this country,” Clark Kissinger, a manager at the store tells ANIMAL, “But we’re also a place where people can meet the revolutionaries.”

In addition to book sales and a “sustainer program” of regular donors much like the one public radio has, one of the main things that allows them to operate is their well-attended events program where they solicit volunteer contributions. Theorist Slavoj Žižek, Kissinger says, should draw a decent crowd to a debate on April 15, 2013.

Online sales and ebooks have not wreaked as much havoc on them as other booksellers in part because of their international reputation for having a specific and unique area of focus presented with very tight curation. Along with Revolutionary Communist texts based on the work of party leader Bob Avakian, they have issue-based books, like Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow which deals with how policies like stop-and-frisk are criminalizing entire generations.

“We’re hit by the same things as businesses are, but we’re not put out of business in the same way,” Kissinger says, “we’re not just an entity that’s moving the money where the profit is, we’re more of an institution that’s on a mission.”

That’s one of the reason’s why they’ve stuck around in the same spot, mostly near Union Square since their opening, despite three decades of rapid gentrification and the fact that a big chunk of their clientele may have been displaced to the outer boroughs.

“We could have lower rent if we were out in a loft in Queens or way out in Brooklyn somewhere, but no one could find us,” he says, “We’ve always tried to find a space where there is a confluence of subway lines to be accessible to anyone.”

Many of these mission-based decisions, which might have been counterproductive if they were an ordinary business in it simply to meet the bottom line in the next quarter, end up being their saving grace, Kissinger says, fostering a “positive attraction to what we do here.”

“Being a revolutionary is not a lifestyle, it’s a political commitment, it’s about changing the world,” he says. It’s this earnestness that helps them attract “those people who are serious” about effecting change for “millions of struggling people,” not just small groups of activists. This is what also likely keeps the crusties — or “lifestyle anarchists,” — from setting up camp.

Bluestockings Books, on Allen Street on the Lower East Side, is where you’re more liable to find today anarchists of the sticker-pin-and-patch variety. In business since 1999, the shop was organized originally as a women’s studies and feminist bookstore. In 2001 when it was about to go under, it was taken over by a volunteer-run collective that expanded its focus to a broader range of radical topics.

“There are definite anarchist principals behind it now,” Janelle Kilmer, a collective member, tells ANIMAL, “but not everyone here identifies as anarchists. We have a lot of volunteers that approach the project from different backgrounds and interests.”

With no real overriding ideology, they stock a variety of radical issue-based books, many from AK Press and PM Press, a small selection of zines and more theoretical texts. Their openness and ability to adapt is a main reason for why they’ve been able to stay open while many others have not. They have nightly events, and strong sense of community, having become known as a “hub for different types of activists.”

“Sometimes we’re really anarchist, and sometimes it’ll be really queer, and sometimes there’ll be more people coming in that are not super-radical, like with the OWS thing,” Kilmer says. “It kind of ebbs and flows and it depends on who’s volunteering and what’s going on in the world.”

Though volunteers have been completely unpaid since 2008 when the economy tanked, they’re still getting more applications than they have openings.

“The most enjoyable and difficult thing,” Kilmer says, “is figuring out a way to run a project like this, which is basically figuring out how to pay rent for a retail space in Manhattan, while at the same time running it in a horizontal way that empowers everybody and respects everybody’s contributions and allows people the freedom to volunteer and focus on a different area of the project they want to develop.”

This strain of idealism has one more manifestation. Bluestockings is also one of the only places left in town that’ll let you hang out and use the bathroom with no intention of maybe buying anything.

“We only ever have issues when somebody is making people uncomfortable by yelling or being confrontational,” Kilmer says. “The biggest worry really is when traveler kids are coming though and they have all this stuff, and you’re, like, ‘Ah! Bed bugs!’ But usually, mostly, people are really respectful.”

(Photos: Aymann Ismail/ANIMAL New York)