Strolling down the streets on the Lower East Side, street walkers may spot several cafés, some Jewish bakeries and delis, a few grocery stores and liquor shops, small clothing stores, and a wide myriad of different businesses. On a Saturday afternoon, business is likely booming. A street walker on Allen Street may notice a glass window with a handwritten sign saying, “Black Lives Matter.” A few feet further, another sign reads, “No Ban! No Wall!” Intrigued, the street walker may walk in.
Bluestockings, located at 172 Allen Street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, is a bookstore, but it also functions as an info shop, a café, and an activist center. Shelves line the walls, there may be a large discussion group sitting around a table, a section selling Diva Cups, stickers, patches, and notebooks stands not far from the counter, and a small area selling coffee and tea is just on a visitor’s right side upon walking in. I was intrigued about this unique space. After speaking to Ashley and Maria, two dedicated volunteers, I knew I stumbled upon a unique business many others before me had already known about and loved dearly.
Bluestockings is a mission-aligned feminist bookstore functioning through an intersectional scope. Maria declares, “We are an intersectional feminist base. We strive to curate through that lens.” They strongly believe in intersectionality, and that issues such as race, class, and gender are not independent of one another.
As a storefront business located in the Lower East Side, Bluestockings is, admittedly, not where you would go to find mystery novels or talk about men’s health. “The idea of a space is that it’s finite. We’re not a general bookstore. If people want to have a conversation about men’s rights, this is not the place,” Maria elaborates. But, that aligns with the mission of the bookstore, its feminism, and its intersectionality. It is a safe space for those who need it and its success may thus be accredited to its stability and dedication to the cause.
Apart from selling books, Bluestockings hosts events almost every single day. These include discussion groups, presentation-style events, movie viewings, Open Mike, and book readings and range from the topic of feminism to political theory to race. According to Maria and Ashley, discussion groups are hosted during the day and presentation-style events are hosted at night. All of the bookshelves are on wheels to accommodate an open space in the evening. Eileen Myles, a famous lesbian poet, did her recent book launch there.World War III Illustrated had their most recent magazine launch there. The Icarus Project, which focuses on mental health issues, hosts events there. The Women’s/Trans’ Poetry Jam happens every month.
The bookstore/info shop also has Tuesday morning yoga. “There’s no real talking in a yoga class but just to have a space that is inclusive regardless of if you come in and you’re disabled or you come in and you’re trans, and you don’t want people to be all up in your grill, you’re just trying to do some yoga. I think it says something especially considering there is a hot yoga place upstairs,” Maria explains. People who look for a safe space come here for a judgement-free zone.
It is also important to note that Bluestockings does sell products apart from books. Particularly interesting is the stock of Diva Cups, a menstrual hygiene product which is not frequently in stock anywhere, let alone a bookstore. “We try to be a resource for the community.” Maria remarked, “There’s this common misunderstanding, especially among the radical left community, that you’re not doing something unless its direct action and that’s simply not true. The fact is that a person can come in and have a conversation that normalizes the topics that we have here. A CVS denormalizes it [Diva Cups] by not having it in stock. It’s about normalizing these things. Gender aside, literally half the people on this planet menstruate. It’s not everyone’s favorite topic but still, you buy stuff for it. For a space to make a conscious decision in what they carry- the existence of a space like this and the thought that goes behind what is stocked- are definitely doing something already.”
Bluestockings bookstore was opened relatively recently, in 1999. Bluestockings was actually named after the Blue Stockings Society, which was an English movement to promote female authorship and literary advancement in the mid-18th century. It consisted of upper class women who gathered together to discuss literature. Men were invited to participate as well.
This contemporary bookstore was opened by Kathryn Welsh and a silent business partner and a group of volunteers. According to Maria, Bluestockings opened in 1999 and was originally a privately-owned women’s bookstore. However, it went through financial distress in 2002. The collective disbanded and Welsh took over. In 2003 she decided to sell the bookstore. Brooke Lehman purchased Bluestockings and assembled a six-person collective to operate the space. The entire mindset of the business changed as the collective took on a more intersectional scope, instead of focusing on being solely a women’s bookstore. In 2005, the owners were able to secure the next door location.
When the business began to decline in the early 2000’s, it is possible that it was due to the time period after September 11. According to data provided by the Alliance for Downtown New York, “90 percent of Lower Manhattan stores saw revenues decline for a full year after the [9/11] attacks — and 47 percent of the neighborhood’s retailers, services and restaurants reported layoffs” (Bukszpan). Customers really just weren’t interested in anything at that point.
In 2000, Hillary Chute wrote, “About a year old and as unlike Barnes & Noble as a bookstore could be, the comfortably ratty Bluestockings Women’s Bookstore and Café stocks a collection of great old and new feminist-minded books of fiction, nonfiction (theory and politics mostly), poetry, and comics.” The physical aspect of the shop had been one of its distinct characteristics. Maria and Ashley had mentioned to us that there were recently some repairs they had turned to the public for. A crowdfunding campaign in 2015 was utilized to support badly needed repairs the business was not able to fund due to expensive rent prices.
Welsh had originally opened the bookstore as a bookstore for women. Perhaps that angle wasn’t successful. In 2004, Kathryn McGrath published “Pushed to the margins: the slow death and possible rebirth of the feminist bookstore” in Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources. McGrath notes that Bluestockings, upon reopening, has “new owners and a revamped mission that defines the storefront as a radical bookstore and activist resource center—but not specifically a women’s space.” The number of independent booksellers in general has decreased due to bookstore chains and online bookstores, and this was noticeable in 2004 as it is now. Feminist bookstores have not done better than their peers. McGrath cites data to exemplify this- in 1997, there were 175 feminist bookstores in North America, in 2004 there were 44, and my research has shown me that there are now only 13 in 2017. Why? McGrath said that as once-radical feminist ideas have become accepted as mainstream, “the spaces that nurtured the movement that produced those ideas are vanishing.” Feminist bookstores simply don’t have as many resources or financial means, but their power is immense. Bluestockings to McGrath and many other strong feminists was just another example of a declining feminist bookstore, which if closed, would have contributed to the loss of feminist literature or literature that doesn’t have mainstream appeal. This point she makes is perhaps the reason why Bluestockings reopened without being strictly feminist, and instead took on a more intersectional scope with hopes to advance radical ideas and provide a safe space for people of underserved and underrepresented groups. McGrath argues that this overlap makes sense because, “Feminist politics, after all, have always included social justice—and many of globalization’s problems affect women disproportionately—so the overlap is hardly surprising” (McGrath).
In an interview with Kimmie David, one of the six collective owners in July 2008, David states that after reopening, Bluestockings did not stay strictly a women’s bookstore and became inclusive in not just the gender issues and the transgender issues, but with all people that are underrepresented and oppressed. This establishes the new intersectional approach instead of focusing on just feminism. After reopening, the name was actually shortened to Bluestockings Bookstore, had a new non-hierarchal model of governance, and underwent “a major change in staffing which opened up the workers’ collective to include not just women, but also people who identify as transgender, genderqueer, and non-transgender men” (Warsett).
In 2014, Senti Sajwal wrote on article on Mic which resounded with McGrath’s statement of feminism no longer being a mainstream interest. Sajwal cited how in the early 1970s, feminist bookstores began popping up across the United States as the feminist movement gained mainstream visibility. So while feminist bookshops used to fill a specific demand, “the advent of the Internet, the Kindle and competitive pricing at major retailers has made such niche materials much more accessible” (Sojwal). In the New York Times, Charles Curkin wrote about the bookstore’s designation as a “safer space,” a place for like-minded people to share their views, and how with the Black Lives Matter movement expanding and issues of gender and sexuality becoming more prominent, Bluestockings has found itself as an institution for tolerance. In fact, a customer said that what originally attracted her to Bluestockings was its “selection of black women poetry” (Curkin). This reiterates that the bookstore may have not survived had it not taken other underrepresented communities, apart from women, into account. Bluestockings is so successful because it caters to a very specific group of people, but catering solely to women, at least during that time period, did not work.
We have zero employees. Nobody is paid here. Legally an S corp owner does have to collect any profits made at the end of the year, but we try to spend all the money that we make throughout the year and put it back into the store before the end of the year. Any "profits" that an S corp member claims are not taken. Maria
Another factor that keeps Bluestockings alive and well is the large clientele network and network of volunteers. Just as people contributed to the crowdfunding campaign, volunteers keep the bookstore running. As unconventional as Bluestockings already is, I was shocked to hear that it has no official employees. According to Maria and Ashley, it is registered as an S corporation, with no one owner being able to own the majority of shares. Nobody is paid. All of the “workers” visitors may assume to be employees are actually volunteering their time, and in general, a lot of it. Any profits are put back into the store and into taxes. “No money is claimed outside of general expenses,” Maria explains. “We come in because we’re happy to be here,” Ashley says, and Maria chimes in, “Yeah this is not our shift, either of us.” Thus, the dedicated volunteers are truly what keep the business functioning and dedicated customers keep it alive. Clearly, for these customers, there is a lot to love as evident by the above photograph of the Bluestockings Love Board. Visitors pin positive messages, and many are beautiful thank you notes to Bluestockings.
The location of a business is often a major factor in its success. As we talked about the area, Maria noted that, “We pay Lower East Side rent. It’s a crazy disparity. It’s very difficult to run a shop like this in New York.” Info shops across the world simply don’t have as much overhead as Bluestockings does. However, Maria and Ashley do say that the landlord is very keen on keeping consistent rent. Rent prices have gone up, but with a different landlord, prices may have been considerably worse.
So many areas from ten years ago, they don’t exist anymore. The neighborhood has changed tremendously. Gentrification is a huge thing here. This used to be where you would move if you couldn’t afford your rent. Maria
The location does allow Bluestockings to have a large flow of customers. Maria remarks, “Whenever there’s a pro, there’s a con too. The amount of traffic we get, how easy it is for someone who barely speaks English who’s looking for the radical spot in New York. They don’t know where else to go. They don’t know a place that is consistent enough.” Being located in such a populated area, many visitors, including passersby, are able to come in. Not only that, but the location is accessible, with a subway nearby. Additionally, keeping the location the same for so many years has allowed Bluestockings to be so successful. They have had people come back from 15 years ago because the location has not changed. “So many areas from ten years ago, they don’t exist anymore. The neighborhood has changed tremendously. Gentrification is a huge thing here. This used to be where you would move if you couldn’t afford your rent,” Maria notes. Keeping Bluestockings in the same area has given it stability as a shop, something many places in New York have not been able to do. In addition, the volunteers say that it is nice for the store to be open 11 to 11 so there’s a sober option available for residents in the community.
Blue Stockings is located at 172 Allen Street on the Lower East Side, and is part of Census Tract 30.01. Some general information about the census tract includes that 57.925% of the population above 15 is unmarried and 45.38% of residents are female, which is a relatively even ratio. About 66 percent of residents in the census tract are employed. In the Lower East Side overall, anywhere from 50-70 percent of residents are employed. The majority work in the private sector.
The table below depicts the types of employment of residents- a large percentage are in retail, information, arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services. A large portion work in professional, scientific, technical, management, administrative, educational, health, social services, and waste management services. Retail, entertainment, and food services generally make sense in context of the region. The Lower East Side has increasingly become an area where nonresidents go for meals and shopping boutiques. In terms of arts and recreation, because the Lower East Side has changed and become less of a residential area and more of a recreational area, stores, food, and artistic and unique spaces, such as Blue Stockings, make it memorable. We are reminded that Bluestockings is such a unique space because it is a bookstore/café/activist center/info shop, due to its mission, and due to its economic strategies, specifically in terms of employees.
|Employed Civilian Population 16 Years And Over:||2,588|
|Transportation and warehousing, and utilities:||61||2.4%|
|Transportation and warehousing||52||2.0%|
|Finance, insurance, real estate and rental and leasing:||161||6.2%|
|Finance and insurance||109||4.2%|
|Real estate and rental and leasing||52||2.0%|
|Professional, scientific, management,
administrative, and waste management services:
|Professional, scientific, and technical services||278||10.7%|
|Management of companies and enterprises||0||0%|
|Administrative and support and waste management services||115||4.4%|
|Educational, health and social services:||303||11.7%|
|Health care and social assistance||138||5.3%|
|Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation
and food services:
|Arts, entertainment, and recreation||157||6.1%|
|Accommodation and food services||463||17.9%|
|Other services (except public administration)||71||2.7%|
It is likely that street walkers on the Lower East Side are usually not residents of the area. They may be New Yorkers from different regions and tourists from different states and countries. In fact, the volunteers at Bluestockings mentioned that many visitors are tourists from out-of-state or even out-of-country. This is due to both the location of the Lower East Side and the international customer base of Bluestockings. They mentioned that they get a lot of traffic, and a lot of different people come in (although of course there are the regulars). Many visitors barely speak English and many visitors are minorities. The volunteers also mentioned just how expensive Lower East side rent is. This contributes to the disparity between the residential demographic (predominantly European, higher income) and the demographic of the visitors and clientele of Bluestockings.
43.883 percent of the population is white. This white population is still diverse- the ancestry of residents ranges from German to Irish to Italian to Swedish- but predominantly European.
|Statistics||Census Tract 30.01, New York County, New York|
|Ancestry not specified:||694||15.7%|
|Ancestry not reported||678||15.3%|
|SE:T204. Ancestry – Place of Origin (First Ancestry Reported)|
|First ancestry reported:||3,733||84.3%|
|French (except Basque)||44||1.0%|
|United States or American||36||0.8%|
|West Indian (excluding Hispanic groups):||39||0.9%|
|British West Indian||18||0.4%|
|Unclassified or not reported||694||15.7%|
Bluestockings staff has voiced that gentrification has been an issue. Residents are, for lack of a better word, more privileged financially than the bookstore’s clientele are. According to Social Explorer, the median household income in the census tract was $34,826 in 2000. The Lower East Side in general seemed to have a much lower median household income than the rest of Manhattan in 2000. Perhaps this indicates a contemporary gentrification, occurring later than that in other regions of the city. According to nyc.gov, “Despite significant demographic changes during this decade, the Lower East Side is still home to a large foreignborn population and moderate-income households earning between $50,000 and $75,000 actually grew by 30%, but higher income households are also growing at a much faster rate. While median household income rose dramatically from $24,192 to $39,082 it is still substantially below the New York City median household income of $50,173. It is safe to say, however, that if current trends continue the Lower East Side will be out of the reach to all but the most affluent New Yorkers, with the exception of residents living in New York City Housing Authority apartments or in other government subsidized housing” (DECADE AFTER 9/11: A LOOK AT WHO WE ARE NOW). A sign of this ongoing gentrification is how 44.219% of the population in the census tract in 2000 lived in a different house in 1995. This indicates that after only five-years, there was a large displacement of previous residents and/or influx of new residents. This data may be relatively outdated if the gentrification is still going on, so it is important to continue to research such trends in the Lower East Side as data becomes available.
Nonetheless, the takeaway is that the Lower East Side is undergoing changes, largely due to gentrification. How does Bluestockings fit in? It may actually stand out more than it fits in, as customers and volunteers generally do not match the demographic of the Lower East Side. The loyal customers are often those who travel to Bluestockings for the sole purpose of being in that environment and are often not residents of the area, while other customers are in this area with heavy traffic already and stop by.
Maria and Ashley discussed multiple aspects of this bookstore. Extremely friendly and articulate, their passion for Bluestockings and all that it stands for is inspiring.
Bluestockings has experienced some bumps in the road since its founding in 1999, and was even on the road to closure at some points. However, it was able to surpass those bumps for a multitude of reasons. The feminist bookstore evolved into a bookstore with an intersectional scope. The volunteer base continued to grow as more and more people stood for the cause. Dedicated clientele and customers contributed to a crowdfunding campaign which allowed much-needed repairs to come to be. Yet the location has stayed the same and many of the same customers and volunteers keep returning. We also note that Bluestockings is not just a bookstore- there is a café, discussion groups, yoga, and a myriad of different services and products offered. Thus, Bluestockings is the epitome of an evolving business built on a strong foundation of volunteers, supporters, and clientele.
Perhaps another part of the reason why the business is surviving is because it is so unique. Bluestockings caters to specific groups, and generally does not meet local demands, as residents of the area are often better off financially and are of a different demographic than visitors to the store are. Yet the business caters to a number of groups of people for whom the business is meaningful, and those people, whether out-of-bourough, out-of-state, or even out-of-country, are willing to travel. Only time will tell what exactly will happen to the Lower East Side as gentrification occurs, and if it will allow Bluestockings to be more of a local phenomena or isolate it from the residential community more. Truly, however, the mindset behind Bluestockings is what will keep it successful- if the strong foundation of volunteers, supporters, and clientele remains, the business can evolve to fit other needs. Small businesses in changing neighborhoods may employ many strategies to stay successful, but for Bluestockings and other businesses that do not necessarily cater to the local area, success may rest on this strong foundation of volunteers, supporters, and clientele, something Bluestockings seems to have secured.
All photographs, unless otherwise indicated and credited below, are property of Nicole Rakhmanova.
If you would like to hear the original interview, it is embedded below.
(Featured Image) Bluestockings. Inside View Of Bluestockings. Retrieved from http://bluestockings.com/
Samuel, R. (1778) Portraits In The Characters Of The Muses In The Temple Of Apollo, 1778. London: National Portrait Gallery, 1778.
Bukszpan, D. (2016) “15 Years After 9/11, Downtown Manhattan Has Risen From The Ashes”. CNBC. CNBC LLC. Retrieved from http://www.cnbc.com/2016/09/10/rising-from-the-ashes-downtown-manhattan-15-years-after-911.html
Chute, H. (2000). “Best Bookstore Doin’ It For The Ladies”. Village Voice.
Curkin, C. (2015) “At Bluestockings, A Manhattan Activist Center, Radical Is Sensible”. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/29/nyregion/at-bluestockings-a-manhattan-bookshop-and-activist-center-radical-is-sensible.html.
DECADE AFTER 9/11: A LOOK AT WHO WE ARE NOW, How Gentrification Reshaped Manhattan Community Board 3. (2011). New York: Two Bridges Neighborhood Council, 2011. Retrieved from http://www.nyc.gov/html/mancb3/downloads/cb3docs/TwoBridgesDemographicAnalysis.pdf
McGrath, K. (2004). “Pushed To The Margins: The Slow Death And Possible Rebirth Of The Feminist Bookstore”. Feminist Collections: A Quarterly of Women’s Studies Resources. Retrieved from https://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-124644046.html
“Our History”. BLUESTOCKINGS. Retrieved from http://bluestockings.com/about/history/.
“Social Explorer”. Retrieved from Socialexplorer.com.
Sojwal, S. (2014). “These Are The Last Of America’s Dying Feminist Bookstores”. Retrieved from https://mic.com/articles/90515/these-are-the-last-of-america-s-dying-feminist-bookstores#.TV8vyMxVT
Warsett, G. (2008). “Bluestockings: An Interview With Kimmie David”. Retrieved from http://www.bookslut.com/features/2008_07_013100.php