On a mid-November evening, the strip of Suffolk Street between Rivington and Delancey is mainly dark, but through one glass storefront, people step off the street to browse a collection of radical, activism-centered books and zines. The colorful materials are arranged along the walls and stacked on tables by topic, including prison abolition, migration, feminism, anti-racism, gender identity, sexuality, spirituality and sex workers’ rights. “Embrace diversity or be destroyed,” reads an Octavia Butler quote painted above the bookshelves.
Bluestockings Cooperative is New York City’s only trans, queer and sex worker-run bookstore, cafe and gathering space. Founded in 1999 as a radical feminist book store, it was located on Allen Street on the Lower East Side for more than two decades. In the summer of 2020, an unsuccessful attempt to renegotiate the building lease led to members choosing to move Bluestockings to a new location and shift its business model from volunteer-run to a full worker co-op — all during a pandemic.
The store’s collective members signed the lease on the new building in August 2020. They decided to leave their Allen Street building after it seemed unlikely the landlord would address structural issues including leaking pipes and caving tiles if they resigned. Bluestockings Suffolk Street opened its doors in April 2021 after raising more than $100,000 on GoFundMe to support building out the new space and adding technological and accessibility improvements. While business slowed and moved entirely online during pandemic lockdowns, Bluestockings members took the opportunity not only to revamp the physical space, but also how it was run.
“In the course of that time,
in the move, was when we decided if we’re going to come back as this new space in this new location, we have an opportunity to basically re-think the business and how we do things, and that’s sort of where the transition to the local co-op came to be,” Joan Dark, one of Bluestockings’ worker-owners, tells The Indypendent.
BLUESTOCKINGS IN FLUX
Prior to being a full worker co-op, Bluestockings was mainly volunteer-run, with between 60 and 70 volunteers and five collective members. Now, its seven paid worker-owners set their own living wages and make consensus-based decisions about the business.
Having seen the fallout of 9/11, the Great Recession and, most recently, COVID-19, Bluestockings’ business model has been in flux before. Founder Katherine Welsh established the store in 1999, citing a lack of radical feminist book stores in New York City. However, in 2003, she sold the space to a group of activists. The store operated as a worker co-op with some volunteers, but following the Great Recession, collective members decided to stop paying themselves around 2010 — until this past year.
Dark says it’s common for activist work to be taken for granted as a labor of love, regardless of how difficult it is to sustain without financial compensation.
“I feel like what we’re doing now with the worker co-op model … if anything, feels like a return to form of just sticking to our values and making sure people aren’t having their labor taken for granted,” Dark says.
This model comes with financial challenges. Whereas dozens of volunteers previously helped run the store, now seven full-and part-time worker-owners handle the bulk of the labor with the occasional help of a few contract workers.
Dark says the goal is to hire more workers, but balancing expenses like rent with the need to pay workers a livable wage in New York City is a challenge. For some worker-owners, their job at Bluestockings is their primary source of income, but others have other jobs. The collective works to establish a livable wage for everyone and operates with financial transparency.
Bluestockings earns revenue from its in-store sales, a tiered membership program and an annual fundraiser that takes place in December.
Bluestockings’ new location is about two times the size of its previous one, allowing for more space to sit—and hopefully, eventually gather. Though the main room housing the books and cafe is cavernous, it features a cozy back room with windows, a skylight and sliding wooden doors that close it off from the rest of the store and optimize it for confined event-hosting (although all events are virtual for the time being). The store is wheelchair accessible, with wide aisles, a bathroom outfitted with handrails and a wheelchair lift for the back room.
“I feel like this one is a lot better in terms of availability of books, availability of space, and if you kind of want to just do your own thing in the back, you can do that too,” says Ana Valens, a Blue- stockings regular since she moved to the city in 2016. Va- lens is a writer and reporter, and much of her work focuses on sex workers’ issues.
“Bluestockings was just this incredible opportunity to really have a space where it felt like I could meet other people like me, I could find community, and also I could connect with other writers, other creators, artists, et cetera,” she says.
When Bluestockings first opened in 1999, only women were allowed to be part of the collective. It was named for the Bluestockings, an informal society of English women intellectuals in the mid-18th century, which later became a derogatory term for any woman who was deemed too learned. When the group of activists bought it out in 2003, they expanded the store’s mission to center trans, queer and nonbinary people as well. As the store expanded its focus beyond the experiences of cisgender women, it encompassed more activist topics. As more collective members and volunteers came and went, they contributed their perspectives and broadened the topics the stores’ inventory covered.
Bluestockings treats the worker co-ownership model as the best available stop-gap in the midst of our current capital-oriented economic system.
“You can really trace back, as the store evolves, more and more sections start to get added as more people start to come and go from the store and leave their mark, saying that we need an environmental studies section, or a section on spirituality, or a section specifically dedicated to Black studies or Middle Eastern studies … I think that’s definitely one of the really beautiful things about that collective history,” Dark says.
Valens says the sheer breadth of Bluestockings’ book selection demonstrates its dedication to truly uplifting marginalized identities.
“I don’t think I’ve seen a single bookstore in New York City that has a sex workers’ rights section,” Valens says.
Dark says worker-owners represent a wide array of intersecting identities, but describe the store as “queer, trans and sex worker-owned” because of its specific focus to center those marginalized communities.
Dark says radical queer, trans and sex worker-led movements influence Bluestockings’ work. Bluestockings’ website also cites the Black communist and leftist organizing in Harlem and the radical Borinquen (Puerto Rican) organizations of Loisaida (the Lower East Side) as influences in its worker-owner cooperative model.
In recent years, the feminist movement has experienced a rift between those who are inclusive of sex workers, trans and nonbinary people, and those who are not. Though Dark says they can’t remember a specific instance of a confrontation with a trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) or sex worker-exclusionary radical feminist (SWERF), they know it has happened. They say the loose, drop- in-drop-out nature of Bluestockings’ prior volunteer-run model had the downside of not knowing whether individuals had perspectives that were trans- or whore-phobic.
“I think by virtue of the fact that the space was originally called Bluestockings Women’s Bookstore sort of points to … this greater understanding of what feminism can be and what it should be,” Dark said.
IN-PERSON GATHERINGS OR ZOOM?
Bluestockings has been known not just as a bookstore and cafe, but also a gathering space for local activists. In the past, its frequent events have brought the likes of Russian feminist punk band Pussy Riot, writer and transgender rights activist Janet Mock to the space. Local organizers would also use Bluestockings as a meeting place.
“Bluestockings being a space where you don’t really have to spend any money to be there and just exist, I think, by virtue of that, is a place where a lot of activists tend to gather,” Dark says.
Now, its events include book clubs, talks, fundraising events and book launches, but like many events in the past two years, they’re entirely virtual.
Dark says the collective made the decision to keep the events virtual to protect immunocompromised attendees and staff.
“It doesn’t really seem like there’s a way to do events physically in the space and still keep everyone reliably safe right now,” Dark says.
Valens, who has worked on organizing her own mutual aid projects and events over Zoom, says in some ways, remote gatherings are more convenient. It’s easier to get people into a group chat than to organize a time to meet in-person. Plus, disabled and immuno-compromised people don’t have to worry about their safety. Valens says ideally, events will be hybrid virtual and in-person in the future, but remembers that before the pandemic, Bluestockings operated as more of a hub that fostered a more physical sense of community.
“It’s that sort of organic community that happens. Whereas online it’s so much harder because let’s say your feed doesn’t show you the people that you know IRL [in real life] … When you’re in Bluestockings it sort of forces you into a more community mindset than it does online,” she says.
Dark says the collective hopes to bring in-person events back to Bluestockings, but in the meantime, they believe there are still some regular customers who use the cafe and reading areas as a hub. Customers who are still wary of visiting in person can order books online.
As it turned the world upside-down, Covid has further pulled the curtain back on late-stage capitalism. While billionaires like Amazon’s Jeff Bezos profited from the chaos, nearly 60% of people making less than $35,000 a year reported losing income during the pandemic, according to Human Rights Watch.
All the while, right-wing pundits and papers blame ex-employees — not their employers — for worker shortages. The fact that some wages are so low that unemployment benefits offer more money is treated as a reflection of Americans’ laziness, not companies’ exploitative labor practices. Research shows that wage theft, which was a problem costing American workers billions annually even before Covid hit, is even worse during periods of high unemployment.
Bluestockings treats the worker co-ownership model as the best available stop-gap in the midst of our current system.
“In an ideal world I would love to just be able to hand people the books that we get and say, ‘This is a resource that I wish you could read,’ but we also need to be able to pay rent at the same time. So, I think it’s tough but I think with the conditions that we have right now, worker-ownership is one of the solu- tions that we have to take as much ownership of our work as we can.”
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