In early March, Minneapolis’s Boneshaker Books—a collectively run, all-volunteer radical bookstore—closed its doors. Facing mounting debts, Boneshaker’s founding collective said farewell after 10 years.
Six weeks later, in the middle of the pandemic that has shuttered countless stores, a new collective, drawn from loyal volunteers and customers, launched a fund-raiser to keep Boneshaker open. We blew past our initial fund-raising goal of $10,000 on the first day, eventually raising more than $35,000.
The decision to launch a fund-raiser wasn’t made lightly. In a time of unprecedented financial upheaval, the fact that Boneshaker is staffed by volunteers protects us: unlike most of our fellow indies, we are not struggling to make payroll. But our volunteers and customers are people who live in the world, and plenty have lost income due to the pandemic—one in four, statistically. When rent is due and the fridge is empty, buying a $27 hardcover is not high on the list of priorities. Why, then, the outpouring of support, from some 635 donors, to a small anticapitalist shop?
Surely some of it reflects the desire for normalcy—to not lose anything else when we stand poised to lose so much. But we think it reflects a deeper need, too. Books help us envision the futures we want, and the futures we fear. What comes after this phase of the pandemic will be determined by a clash of contending visions: some double down on the ugliest aspects of our society; others point toward something better. But we can only effectively fight for—or against—futures that we first imagine. Bookstores have a unique role as incubators of our imaginations.
Radical imagination has always been a part of our store, has always been intertwined with community action. Our collective, nonhierarchical structure empowers volunteers and community members to shape our operations and programming. Our store houses two grassroots organizations, the Women’s Prison Book Project and Twin Cities Democratic Socialists of America, as well as a free meeting space. Our most successful events have been partnerships with community groups, like a collage-making collective, a bisexual+ discussion group, and a book club last summer on Nick Estes’s Our History Is the Future, cosponsored with organizations opposing a Minnesota pipeline.
This role as a community hub looks different now. While stay-at-home orders are in effect, Boneshaker’s doors remain closed—already the lives of too many workers are endangered by the capitalist imperative to continue with “business as usual.” Like many other bookstores, we’ve set up an online storefront at Bookshop, where we’ve created lists of suggested titles on topics like reproductive freedom, indigenous studies, and anarchism, alongside more traditional fare like fiction and cookbooks. Bookshop offered a solution to the problem posed by the pandemic: a spike in online ordering alongside a drop in operational capacity. But we see it as a stopgap, not a replacement. We’re developing safe, contactless methods to fulfill orders from our inventory and hope to resume our signature bike delivery soon.
Meanwhile, our diverse calendar of community events has been replaced by two online book clubs: the Politics of Pandemics and Anything but Pandemics. We don’t know what today’s equivalent of ACT UP will look like, but we know reading groups on the original can offer clues. At present, our clubs have paused, as our Minneapolis community focuses on the struggle for justice for George Floyd. We recognize the moments when it’s time to set down our books and step into the streets. In the meantime, our online shop is surging with orders for books about antiracism and black movements—because people will always turn to books to chart a way forward.
Books, and the community we create around them, help us step beyond our immediate fears and experience ourselves as part of something greater. We think our fund-raiser’s success reflects a longing for precisely that connection to the best side of ourselves—for meaningful contact when we are physically isolated, and for ideas when our lives have narrowed around the new challenges of meeting our basic daily needs. We also believe Boneshaker’s focused attention on offering resources to comprehend and combat structural violence ensures that when we do gather again, we will have deeper knowledge about how to build a more equitable world.
Of course, in a city known for brilliant organizing campaigns led by immigrant workers at Amazon warehouses, maybe people just really like our most popular fund-raising swag: T-shirts reading “AMAZON IS EVIL; Support local bookstores.”
Elizabeth Wrigley-Field and Corbin DeWitt (a pseudonym) are members of Boneshaker’s volunteer collective.