I am tempted to say that Bluestockings is not just another independent bookshop, but I caught myself. In this day and age, is there any independent bookshop that is just a place to sell and buy books? Independent bookshops that survive are places where knowledge is exchanged, a place that can tell you why they decide to stock a book and why you might be interested to read it. A place that you can walk into with a book in mind or even not knowing what you want, and leave with a book you never knew you wanted. A place that stays alive precisely because they offer you what algorithms and best seller lists cannot. Character.
Bluestockings, an independent bookshop at Lower East Side in New York, definitely has character. And like any good characters in a novel, you get to know Bluestockings because it shows you who they are instead of telling you what they are like.
Bluestockings was alive. Not just alive with readers getting lost in books or hushed chatters, but alive with ruckus and rumpus. My greeting to the bookshop were screams and shouts from a corner by the window, where apparently a vicious game of monopoly were at its most heated point. Two tote bags were on display on the wall, one says “Read fucking books all damn day” and the other “Speak up, this isn’t a library.” One of the teenage girl monopoly player stood up and broke into a victory song and dance, her friends laughing. This definitely isn’t a quiet library.
The books on the shelves look like they like each other, that they are friends who see the world the same way. Feminist books and books about racism were bridged by books on black feminism. The section on queer studies have as many books on butch culture as on sexual fluidity. The travel section, tiny as it is, contains a gem called Radical Walking Tours of New York City. Teddy took the book and told me that he is going to get a cup of coffee – free trade and only for 1 dollar – and sit by the window. I walked around the shelves some more and found a book by my thesis adviser in grad school, a book on youth activism in Egypt during the Arab Spring that she started when I graduated. I grabbed the book and blurted to the nearest person I could see, a staff behind the counter, that I know the author. She smiled.
I felt a bit embarrassed for blurting off, so I asked whether she has any other books to recommend. She said that she is an environmentalist and feel particularly proud of their animal rights section. I told her that I thought Bluestockings is a feminist bookshop, so she corrected me.
“Bluestockings did start as a feminist bookshop and we still are, but we’ve expanded our collection to include books about any kind of oppression, community organizing, activism, and stories of marginalized people. Feminism is intersectional, so if we want people to learn about feminism from the shelves and from one another, they need to see that we’re behind other issues that are intersecting with feminism.”
“How long have you been part of Bluestockings?” I asked.
“Oh, almost two years. I volunteer here once a week, but other volunteers come every day or every month. Bluestockings must have had about 500 volunteers since it opened in late 1990s, but I was born in 1992 so I was an incoherent child when it first opened.”
I got myself a piece of vegan chocolate chip cookie and joined Teddy by the window. Instead of browsing through my thesis adviser’s book, I decided to look up what Bluestockings was like when it first opened and learned several things.
I learned that Bluestockings hosts events almost every night and that there would be a spoken word performance the next day. I learned that it is a safe space for activists, that it has an explicit policy against any form of discrimination and oppression in their premises, whether it is based on gender, age, or experience in activism. I learned that Bluestockings really take their safe space policy seriously, so much that two Pussy Riot members trusted the bookshop enough to organize a talk with them back in 2013. I learned that it asked its visitors to be mindful of other people’s privacy, rights, and comfort or they will be kicked out, so I tried very hard not to eavesdrop on the conversation on the next table, even when I couldn’t help overhearing sentences as intriguing as “I had to throw away all my condoms, my girlfriend is coming” or “So where else have you been arrested in the U.S.?”
Most of all, I learned that the girl behind the counter isn’t one of the volunteers who come and go in the space to lend an extra hand. Bluestockings is entirely powered by volunteers. The bookshop was first established in 1999 and had to be sold four years later because it wasn’t financially viable, so the people who bought Bluestockings decided to run it as a collective on a break-even model. As a collective, they distribute responsibilities among volunteers based on the time they could commit and decisions are made together, while the break-even model means that their main goal is to continue to exist.
I took a bite out of my cookie, which turned out to be warm and gooey and not like what I imagined vegan cookies are like – a poor substitute for the real thing. Bluestockings sounds utopic, being run entirely by people whose incentives are not monetary, with a system that tries to stay away from hierarchy, and for a cause that hasn’t wavered in the face of gentrification and skyrocketing rent in the Lower East Side.
But Bluestockings is not a utopia, I don’t think; it is more an exercise in making a world where there are alternatives to capitalism. Considering that Bluestockings has remained open for 15 years, I would say that they succeeded in visioning a world they want and that they consistently inch closer to make such a world come true.
Bluestockings is not just a character with an attitude. It is persistent and it works hard. It has an unwavering belief that another world is possible, and actually show that it is.
172 Allen St, New York, NY 10002, United States