“Pretty much every place I go, I look for the anarchist bookstore,” says Jason Dean, who wears dark-rimmed glasses and a black winter jacket. Dean fumbles with his new purchase, Ursula K. Le Guin’s short story collection The Unreal and the Real, and explains to me that he’s on a cross-country road trip. Dean started from his home in Washington State and is now making his way down the Atlantic coast in a camper van. Thursday is his last day in New York, and he doesn’t miss the opportunity to stop into the new location of Bluestockings, a radical bookstore, café and activist center that, for many, is a Lower East Side institution.
“I wanted to at least come and pick up a book and provide some support financially and morally,” says Dean, who visited the store at its old location last time he was in Manhattan. “Stores like this are so important to the communities they serve and to the communities they give voice to.”
In the summer, Bluestockings announced that it was permanently closing down its original location at 172 Allen Street. The decision to shutter the 21-year-old activist hub was a difficult one, multiple volunteers with Bluestockings told me. But the Allen Street building had accumulated significant structural damage over the years, and the pandemic proved to be a good time to negotiate a new lease. Bluestockings’ new home, at 116 Suffolk Street, is more than double the size of the space on Allen. The extra room will accommodate wider aisles and exit paths for wheelchairs, plus a platform-lift to the café and ADA-compliant bathrooms.
Though these design features are still being built out, Bluestockings is currently running a soft, limited-capacity reopening Thursdays through Sundays during the holiday season. The reopening started last week in the front foyer of the new space, accommodating five customers at a time to maintain social distancing. Inside, an array of activist books– on trans power, sex work, feminist history, anti-racism, mental health– line bookshelves and are displayed on tables. One rack exclusively features zines and another has a curated selection of socially-minded postcards.
Throughout the day on Thursday and Friday, longtime fans of the store and new neighbors stopped in to offer a warm welcome.
“We’ve had so many folks immediately come in and say hello and welcome us back, and we’ve had so many new neighbors give us well wishes,” said Red Schulte, a member of the collective that operates Bluestockings.
Part of what makes Bluestockings unique is its business model: it is entirely volunteer-run and collectively owned, meaning an informal group together makes business decisions and keeps the store up and running while, at any point in time, some 80 to 100 people work as volunteers. While members of the collective handle the bottomline business aspects of the store, volunteers offer up three or more hours per week and help with day-to-day tasks as well as projects like procuring books and planning events.
Over the years, Bluestockings has broadened from a feminist bookstore and community for women to a space that serves a number of different communities, including sex workers and queer people. The book selection has grown wider, now featuring titles on radical politics and anti-capitalism. But at its core Bluestockings continues to be a place for people to share ideas for a new kind of future.
“There’s a lot of magic happening,” says Abygai Peña, who started volunteering with Bluestockings in January of 2018. Peña is now part of the member collective and the director of marketing and communications. “People are organizing letter writing for their prison penpals; people are organizing a fund for sex workers in prison who are victims of gender based violence; people are even posing the question, ‘Do we even need to have a prison system?’”
At Bluestockings, Peña has even learned CPR and how to use Narcan, which treats suspected opioid overdose. (In addition to selling books and holding events, Bluestockings gives out all kinds of free health supplies like condoms, menstrual supplies and safer sniffing kits to those who need them.)
Bluestockings is currently trying to fundraise $150,000 for its buildout as well as a new POS and inventory system. More than $50,000 has already been raised through a GoFundMe page and Peña said an additional $50,000 has been raised separately. With the final $50,000 the store hopes to fully reopen in the spring of 2021.