Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Book Spot: Bluestockings

You get pretty spoiled in New York when you realize how many great independent bookstores are all around you. Living near Columbia University, I've got at least three great places to choose from, and that's before I get to the nearest B&N. But if you manage to get outside your 10-block radius, you find there are even more bookstores you haven't yet explored. Last year, I took the fantastic walking tour offered by the Independent Booksellers of New York (IBNYC) in collaboration with The Millions, and discovered a slew of stores I'd never visited before. We started at St. Mark's Bookshop and made our way down through Manhattan and finally over the bridge to Brooklyn, ending with treats at Word in Greenpoint and celebrating the many books we'd purchased along the way. My favorite place from this entire tour, however, was found right in the middle of the journey: Bluestockings.
Bluestockings, located at 172 Allen Street on the Lower East Side, is an independent bookstore that specializes in books on activism, social studies, and current events. The store originally specialized in feminist literature, and their name referred to a term from mid-18th-century Europe; as groups of women turned from meeting to play cards to more intellectual pursuits, they invited men of similar interests to join them for parties, encouraging them to wear their "blue stockings", the least fancy clothes they owned. The idea was to have discourse without standing on ceremony, and though the term bluestocking was initially applied with derision to women who affected literary interests, it became a term of empowerment for later generations of educated women and activists. Today, the bookstore keeps the idea of the bluestockings in their mission statement: "Through words, art, food, activism, education, and community, we strive to create a space that welcomes and empowers all people." Through both the books they stock and the environment they have created, Bluestockings manages to do just that:
The place is crammed from top to bottom with beautiful books on every subject you could imagine: women's studies, queer theory, race and ethnicity, political movements, counter-culture movements, politics of war and peace, everything is available. Moreover, they feature books from hundreds of different publishers: as large publishers tend to focus on bigger topics, many academic and independent book publishers pick up the slack on the more focused yet equally important subject matter. And Bluestockings tends to divide even these publishers' subject areas into smaller, more nuanced methods of categorization.
Looking for Sci-Fi set in a dystopian universe? The staff can find it for you. (I got the sense that they had read much of the material stocked, always a great find in an indie bookstore). Queer studies broken down into specific issues? They've organized that, too! Young adult and children's literature that will help them become future activists? There's a shelf for that!

What's additionally great about Bluestockings is that they continue to support those publications that mainstream bookstores have long abandoned. As a former employee of
The Kenyon Review, which I still consider one of the greatest literary magazines out there, it thrilled me to walk into an independent bookstore and find 2-3 copies in stock in the magazine section. Very few bookstores stock these kinds of publications anymore, but Bluestockings has dedicated a whole wall to them.
This makes my little ex-Reviewer heart skip a beat. Also available: political pamphlets, for whatever political affiliation you may have, both professionally-printed and homemade:
And postcards. And t-shirts.
What really makes this bookstore for me, however, is the way they encourage discourse and conversation about the books you're reading. The store hosts free (suggested admission) author appearances almost every night of the week, where writers and readers mingle and discuss the issues at hand over a slice of vegan banana bread and below dozens of gorgeous posters by local artists. Back before the Kindle and the iPad, bookstores used to be more than just shops, they were watering holes and places of great conversation, and Bluestockings is maintaining that tradition.
Most importantly, this bookstore remains a place where what you choose to read can surprise you: in the age of e-books and online purchases, it is becoming harder and harder to be genuinely electrified and changed by what you choose to read. (I tend to go to Amazon with a shopping list, rather than an eye to browsing). Whereas in a bookstore like this one, the long table of potential reads can engage your curiosity.
Walking in, I wasn't sure what I wanted to buy, but I found myself drawn to works of graphic novels, political propaganda, gender theory, and pop sociology, and would have walked out with all of them had my bag been big enough. When you agree to browse for reading material, you open yourself up to the possibility that what you read might change your mind. It's a risk, yes, but one very much worth taking, especially when you visit a store as good as this one.

Upon checking out with my selection (The Black Minutes by Martin Solares), and mentioning my interest in reading more literature-in-translation, the woman at the register said, "Oh, then you should check out Kenzaburo Oe's The Changeling, it's amazing", and pointed me to its location on the shelf. It was clear from the enthusiasm in her face that she knew what a difference a great book could make, and was going to do everything she could to share that enthusiasm.
I wish there were more stores like Bluestockings out there, and I hope next time you're in New York, you get a chance to visit. I guarantee it will be a highlight of your book-buying experience.

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