MerryDeath #73

 “I’m at the bookstore… you’re at the bookstore too…”
—Dicks

    Crescent Wrench Bookstore & Infoshop existed from fall 1996 through fall 1998.  It was started by a bunch of anarchists and a few punks in New Orleans, Louisiana; we loosely knew each other from food not bombs and radical activist circles. In many ways it was similar to how a lot of anarchist bookstores start, a few people who know each other get together to create a space in their city. I was thrilled; it was what existed in so many other cities I had visited, a center for anarchists to mingle and discuss theory, to try to disperse radical literature and have a gathering place for other projects like free-schools. It was so exciting to be a part of creating one of those spaces. I really learned how to use consensus there, when our group functioned well together it was really amazing and inspiring.  There were always some differing opinions, but it seemed like generally everyone in the collective felt a sense of entitlement to utilize the space. It was not without difficulty, but it was really a powerful group.
    We were in two different locations and the second space was more expensive.  It was in an area that was becoming gentrified, one block from a housing project and one block from an up-and-coming shopping strip with antique stores and alternative clothing shops.  The situation there was definitely tense.  One of the difficulties was that we had kids who lived in the housing project visit in which was sometimes really amazing, sometimes really hard.  Our relationship to the parents and adults living in the projects was often ignored or vaguely addressed; it was really difficult to talk about directly. I think often it was easier to interact with the children, maybe on an unconscious level it related to power and experience; falling into the role of middle class white folks as educator, and young poor people as those in need.  Interactions with adults often were overshadowed by our own internalized racism and cultural stereotyping which made it difficult for us to interact in ways that would build community or transcend the segregation that existed in that neighborhood between us. It was more common to avoid directly addressing race issues beyond trying to interact with the kids.  Most of the weekly problems revolved around difficulty establishing boundaries for the kids when they were in the space.  Some people had really great ideas, from working with children in public schools, like don’t be alone with a kid, let the parents meet you and know if you are spending time with their children, and establishing firm guidelines of when is “kid time.” That means times when volunteers will actively interact with kids, have projects like reading and book making, and times that are off limits, like sex toy making workshops, meetings, etc.  Problems often happened when no one individual or group would engage directly with the kids, and they were expected to understand unspoken rules.  If kids broke some unspoken rule and were told to leave, it would be confusing and frustrating for them.  That is a problem I have seen happen in a lot of spaces; people not being direct and open with kids.  We found that kids responded well to direct communication.  But there were tensions outside the space, with adults and racial tension that we never really found ways of addressing consistently.
    I was young, and I don’t think I ever really thought about who our target audience was, other than that I assumed that people with money buy books- college students, middle- aged radicals.  The free condoms and free box were the free resources we had that seemed to appeal to a wider audience beyond that.  I think a few of us had the idea that by carrying diverse books; African American history, class struggle, etc. that we would eventually appeal to radical communities of color.  But even in a city made up of 80% people of color, the people who came into the bookstore were more than 90% white. There were a lot of different ideas of how to try to change that dynamic, how to address issues of our role in the gentrification of that neighborhood.  What I feel like I learned the most was the general consensus that in order to have a racially diverse group having events and running the place, the makeup of our group would have to reflect that.  Our group was largely female, with a strong queer presence, and the events and people who were attracted to the space reflected that.  But racially we were predominantly white, and destined to reflect that in terms of who used the space.
    Ultimately, the space was more of a clubhouse for freaky middle class youths than anything else; we couldn’t even keep up with rent by the end.  We were forced to try to find a new space when our lease was up, a few key members were moving out of town and there had become a large division between the collective members with our visions and personality conflicts.  We moved our space into a storefront a friend offered us for free rent; it was in a residential neighborhood so really functioned as a storage area where we tried to keep doing mail-order.  It quickly disintegrated, so finally multiples of the books were traded to used bookstores where we got other books to put into the library we kept. The library was moved into a warehouse space when two other collective members and myself formed Nowe Miasto.  It was a lending library for a while, but half the books were never returned and I gave up library duty when I moved out.  Now it is a non-lending library, in a beautiful room people can visit.
    There are lots of debates, between lifestyle anarchists, social anarchists, all kinds of activists and punks about what is the purpose of radical spaces like this.  I enjoy being a punk, an anarchist, the rad amazing community that exists across the country, across the world.  I need to have a community of like minded people to escape to. But I have found other projects that link different communities together far more effectively than the radical info-shop often does.  Many spaces are set out to be by white radicals, for white radicals. I think that way of thinking can be dangerous, segregationist, and I believe it underestimates communities of color to think that only white people want or know how to achieve freedom. There is a bookstore in New Orleans called Community Books; run by people of color, there are events and readings there, radical books, some meetings for a community radio station occurred there. A lot of really great African American radicals gather there; I didn’t learn about it until Crescent Wrench closed and it seemed like such a similar vision, but run by people who were older, dedicated, much more tied into the needs of the communities of color in New Orleans. 
    There was so much going on in that space, organizing, reading workshops, etc, and we never explored creating an alliance with them.  Seeing Community Books showed me how much can exist in a city that we aren’t tied into, don’t know about.  How we can assume people of color aren’t organized or active, and how really we are just ignorant of communities outside of our alternative culture.  Crescent Wrench served a strong purpose as a clubhouse, we learned a lot about the minute differences between us, but by the end it felt like a huge waste of time; politically ineffective, and we didn’t accomplish the goals we wanted to do.  After the space closed a few collective members became involved in other projects that were much more effective politically; less time consuming with better results. I think it requires learning how to think outside of our small isolated boxes to learn how to interact with people who have different ideas.  I believe that it is possible to have alliances between activists of all races, sexualities, ideas, but it requires a lot of work.  Hopefully, if we really all want social change, we can try to learn ways of accepting differences to work towards common goals.
-merrydeath