TEMP SLAVE #7, 1995
'Blackout Bookstore and Info-Shop'
by Rachel Rinaldo
Blackout Books began in the summer of 1993 as an anarchist bookselling project at ABC No Rio (a collectively run art gallery/community space in New York's Lower East Side). It involved three people who brought books and remainders from Left Bank distribution and sold them at punk shows and anarchist events. With the idea in mind of eventually having an anarchist bookstore, they invited a number of locally active anarchists to a meeting to form a more substantial group in February 1994.
Out of that meeting came the Blackout Books colletive, about ten people. Several of the current members came to the meeting, and others joined and left the group since then.
For the next few months, the group concentrated on selling books from a talbe at punk shows and political forums at ABC No Rio. We also instituted some formalized meeting procedures, like facilitation, and organized in subcommittees, such as merchandise, events, and bookkeeping. We slowly ordered more books and periodicals and began selling books and t-shirts too. The group itself began holding occasional forums at ABC on subjects such as the Zapatista uprising.
By late spring, we had some money in the bank, as well as a few people who were willing to donate in order to make the project more substantial. We started looking for a space and ordered more books to stock a store.
We got a storefront with a three year lease at the end of August. Because it needed quite a bit of work, the landlord let us have a month of free rent. The collective and a number of volunteers, especially folks from the nearby squats, worked for the entire month, tiling floor, building a counter, and painting the walls. We found furniture on the street or bought it used from people in the neighborhood. People also donated useful items like floor lamps, cleaning supplies, and shelves. Most importantly, during this work period, we got plenty of book donations.
During the work period, we also spent time formalizing the collective and figuring out how to run the bookstore on a day-to-day basis. We decided that the structure would consist of a collective as the decision making body, with volunteers to work weekly shifts, and made procedures for joining the collective. We created a guide for store procedures, rules for how to run meetings and make decisions, set opening hours, decided how to structure infoshop activities, and made decisions about long range goals.
Just prior to the opening, we made a poster with our mission statement and wheatpasted it all over the city. We did a massive national and international mailing of postcards for the opening along with flyers about the store. We used every mailing list we could dig up!
It worked: On October 15, 1994, several hundred people attended the opening party, which was also a book party for the new Autonomedia book ZAPATISTAS! Several anarchist papers printed our flyer and mission statement.
Since then, we've been more successful than we ever dreamed. We have a large, diverse group of volunteers. There are longtime activists, as well as some who are otherwise not politcally involved. The store has become the starting place for all kinds of political groups and planning meetings for demonstrations, letter writing to political prisoners, and more. We are starting to feel integrated with the community, which was one of our major goals. We all feel like there's much more that we can do, so we encourage volunteers and collective members to work on new projects. Now that we have a photocopier and computers, people can use them for produicing flyers and leaflets. The VILLAGE VOICE ran a small article on the store, and we're trying to get otherpapers and magazines to write about us.
Blackout has been lucky in many ways. There was so much word of mouth about the project that we didn't have to search out to help--people came to use with books and computers and other donations. As soon as word spread that we sell things on consignment, local writers and artists came in with their work, some of which is excellent and sells really well. In some ways, this was probably a function of being in the right place at the right time.
We've also made a conscious effort though, as I said, to be a part of the community. We want to sell books and periodicals as well as be a center for anti-authoritarian activism in New York. We try to have forums on issues that are relevant and interesting to anarchists and other people. We are trying to find books in Spanish and children's books. I find it gratifying that kids from the neighborhood enjoy coming into the store to make drawings or just hang out for a while. A big part of this is that individuals in the collective and volunteers are often involved in numberous projects outside of the store. This serves to spread out the store, and makes us legitimate in various communities.
Another important factor has been the physical environment of the store. It was cruscial to everyone that we have a sofa and chairs. Though the space is very small, we've managed to keep our conversation pit in the center, which means people come in and read books from the shelves or the library. Now though, it's becoming a little too much of a club house, and we're thinking of ways to discourage people from hanging out all day. We also usually have music playing (at low volume) and our tape collection is incredibly varied. We let people use the bathroom (though we have to have an anti-heroin sign on the door to discourage neighborhood junkies). Some volunteers even cook food on their shifts.
The integrity of the collective has been important in all of this. Though it's politically diverse, the collective has managed to maintain its own identity, something which ahs not been the case in the history of NYC anarchist bookstores. Although we feel responsive to the community and are willing to take sides in particular issues if necessary, we also resist attempts by people or groups which foise their agendas on stores. This was something that was really critical in the beginning, when various groups were hoping to claim the store as their own. Now that we've shown we're a distinct group in our own right, there will be fewer attempts.
Blackout has a lot of plans for the future. We're planning to double our stock so that we look like a real bookstore and can be a credible alternative to chain stores in the city. We're getting email and internet access; hopefully, some of the accounts will be open for public use. We're publishing an anarchist guide to NYC for the summer, and planning plenty of art exhibits. One of these days, maybe we'll take over the Krishna space next door and start a cafe!
Back to Index of ABC No Rio History