An independent bookstore is never just a bookstore — it may also be a social scene, a cultural incubator, and the keystone of a neighborhood. And sometimes, a bookstore can be the hub of a social movement pushing for positive change.
“If we think about protests and marches, where you temporarily take over public space, you have to have some kind of operational base,” says Kimberley Kinder, associate professor of urban and regional planning at Taubman College. “You need a space in the background that you can use for planning, and that you can retreat to when you’re done, and that you can use to build networks in between these spikes of protests.”
For many progressive movements — whether for women’s or queer rights, racial justice, housing access, or the environment — that base of operations has been a bookstore. In her new book, The Radical Bookstore: Counterspace for Social Movements (University of Minnesota Press, 2021), Kinder takes a closer look at these purveyors of both printed material and social progress through close studies of 77 bookstores and similar establishments around the United States. She finds that retail — a facet of urban life that planners have historically seen as highly exclusionary — can also be an opportunity to bring people together.
At first glance, Kinder’s research topics appear eclectic. Her first book, The Politics of Urban Water: Changing Waterscapes in Amsterdam (University of Georgia Press, 2015), explored how a variety of people — including squatters, queer activists, artists and environmentalists — have used the Dutch city’s iconic canals to advance political causes including housing rights and climate justice. In 2016, she published DIY Detroit: Making Do in a City without Services (University of Minnesota Press), which looked at how residents have adopted and cared for the city’s abandoned buildings and landscapes — sweeping the streets, mowing vacant lots, planting gardens, and creating art — in the absence of commercial or government investment.
But while the content may change, at heart Kinder is interested in how people who live in cities have found ways to adapt the urban environment to their own purposes and their own community’s needs. “The key theme in my research is to look at how people use urban spaces in ways that aren’t necessarily intended by the people who design or own or regulate them,” Kinder explains. “I’m interested in informal ways of controlling space and claiming space and repurposing it.”
In the case of radical bookstores, while the business owners may indeed have an official, government- and market-sanctioned claim on their property, the informal use of the space to build community and fuel activism is just as important as the sale of books and magazines — if not more so.
Among Kinder’s research subjects was Women & Children First, a feminist bookstore in Chicago whose proprietors and employees not only work to raise awareness of issues of gender and sexuality but also support members of the local community who turn to the bookstore in times of distress and involve themselves in the nitty gritty of local politics. Left Bank Books in St. Louis served as a base for anti-war efforts in the 1970s and Black Lives Matter discussions in the 2010s. Housing Works Bookstore in Manhattan uses its profits to fight AIDS and homelessness. Often, she found, the most radical establishments were in the most conservative communities.
“If you’re the only radical outpost for 200 miles,” Kinder says, “then you have to take on all of the causes, become more extreme, and speak very loudly in order to be heard.”
In general, radical bookstores, which often have their roots in political movements of the 20th century, have also had to adapt to changing times, often becoming both more intersectional — taking on multiple progressive causes rather than only one — and working to appeal more to the general-interest customer. At a time when independent businesses of all kinds are under threat from rising rents and the changing retail landscape, they also have had to rethink their business models, sometimes becoming nonprofits or pivoting to what Kinder calls “the experience economy,” offering programming in addition to printed products. But that approach also has made them more vulnerable to the effects of the COVID pandemic.
“Small businesses in general were very hard hit,” Kinder says. “Even some of the places that seemed solidly in the black before have been really unsettled by COVID.”
Kinder anticipates that some of the radical bookstores she studied may not survive the pandemic. But while those losses will be painful for their communities, Kinder believes people will need physical spaces like bookstores where they can organize and build community.
“People have been saying for a hundred years that cities are redundant,” Kinder notes. “They say, ‘Technology is going to make it unnecessary for people to be in the same space.’ And yet somehow it never panned out that way. The way people use space changes, but our need to brush elbows — for business, for culture, for emotional reasons — hasn’t gone away.”