Walk in to Bluestockings, the radical-feminist bookstore and activist center on the Lower East Side, and you’ll still be greeted with the boundary-pushing texts, conversations, and vegan treats that have made it a countercultural landmark.
But take a closer look and you might notice that half the track lighting doesn’t work, the outside awning is faded, and the floors are starting to give. “We are a DIY space, and we’ve actually done a lot of our own construction,” explains Sarah Olle, a collective member. “But we’re not professionals.”
That’s why the shop has launched a crowdfunding campaign via indiegogo.com to help finance the rehabilitation of the entire space at 172 Allen Street — everything from the electrical infrastructure and floors to the point-of-sale system and coffee machine. “We’re not in threat of closing,” stresses Olle. “This is more of a breaking point. We need to catch up with where we should already be in terms of our equipment and storefront.”
That storefront, she says, hasn’t been updated since the shop opened in 1999. With 45 days to go, roughly 300 people have donated a total of $14,776 — about 30 percent of their $50,000 goal.
Asking the public to help finance renovations marks the end of an internal conversation about whether Bluestockings could afford to stay in its current location under a new five-year lease. This year, the collective’s rent increased 22 percent to $11,000 per month, a figure Olle says is still likely below market rates (Bluestockings refers to itself as a collective because it is staffed by unpaid volunteers and rejects hierarchy in its decision-making). Bluestockings signed the lease in June, but questions linger about the store’s long-term future in a neighborhood whose culture and economics are shifting beneath it.
“I think it’s specifically important to claim this space,” says Maureen Catbagan, sipping coffee in a corner at Bluestockings on a recent afternoon. “There’s this erasure that’s going on in New York with redevelopment and contractors. This is the last space where people are claiming community space. I think it’s one of the few openly queer bookshops.”
Olle says the collective talked about moving to Brooklyn, which might fit better with Bluestockings’ vibe. The collective also bills itself as an activist center and fair-trade café, concerned with everything from queer theory to law enforcement and incarceration issues and one of just thirteen feminist-identified bookstores in the U.S. and Canada. But partly on the strength of their sales, which are up 24 percent in 2015 compared with the same period last year, they aren’t going anywhere.
“It seemed important to be in the Lower East Side — to be oppositional to the gentrification that happens around us,” Olle says. “I think it’s very cool that we’re in a neighborhood we don’t fit in with anymore, because we get to see day in and day out what it could be.”
David Pugh, who has worked at Bluestockings for the past three years, says the physical store is crucial because it is as much a space for countercultural ideas as it is an actual bookseller.
“If it were just a bookstore, it wouldn’t be worth the time and resources that people invest,” Pugh says. “It’s here to serve a function that few other places can offer — it’s like Gertrude Stein’s salon, if such a place existed in New York.”
And, he adds, where else can you get a handmade felted nipple for only six bucks?
Olle agrees that updating the space is about making sure it continues to serve as an incubator for activism and can continue to manage its near-daily events. In the past, Bluestockings has attracted guests ranging from Pussy Riot to trans activist and author Janet Mock, who recently tweeted in support of their crowdfunding campaign.
“The stakes are that if this is a successful campaign…the next five years will go smoothly for us,” Olle says. “If we don’t, we’re going to continue to have ongoing challenges.”
— Janet Mock (@janetmock) September 23, 2015