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D.C. leftists find a below-ground home at bookstore

Sunday, July 13, 2003

By Manny Fernandez ~ The Washington Post

WASHINGTON -- The Brian MacKenzie Infoshop is a different kind of bookstore.

It is run by volunteers, and it stocks the shelves with books and magazines for sale, for free and for in-store reading. Many staffers are Washington activists who have moved their defiance from the street to the world of retail. They operate the place as a kind of protest, filling the basement of a complex of renovated rowhouses in Shaw with some of the most incendiary and thought-provoking titles in Washington D.C.

There's William Upski Wimsatt's "Bomb the Suburbs" and Katie Alvord's "Divorce Your Car! Ending the Love Affair With the Automobile." There's a children's book called "The Story of Colors/La Historia de los Colores," by Subcomandante Marcos, leader of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas, Mexico. On the jacket is a picture of the author in a black ski mask, bandoleers draped across his chest. There are journals and do-it-yourself magazines or 'zines, including Covert Action Quarterly (No. 70, with an article on "Kissinger's brutal history") and a tiny publication called Thomasina (by Chloe Joy, a "radical" said to be 7 years old).

The Infoshop is part independent bookstore, part activist community center, part chill-out space for Washington's anarchists, anti-capitalists and anti-authoritarians. About 30 volunteers keep the Infoshop running seven days a week, with nearly half forming a decision-making body they call the collective. Collective members said the store fills a crucial void in Washington - offering hundreds of books, 'zines, CDs and T-shirts that are far from mainstream to protesters whose politics and reading choices are equally far from mainstream.

On a recent Thursday, a man and woman ignored the handful of chairs inside and sat on the floor playing a card game called Fluxx, a kind of poker for activists, with color-coded cards depicting such concepts as Love, Taxation and War. Space is tight in the 350-square-foot room, and a volunteer had to step over the game to get to the coffee-maker. Messages cry out from floor to ceiling, on stickers, T-shirts and fliers: Don't Attack Iraq. Free Leonard Peltier. Think.

"We're trying to build something at the same time that we're trying to dismantle things," said Kadd Stephens, 25, a collective member. Balancing those goals - maintaining a bookstore by and for activists while trying to subvert typical profit-driven business decisions - takes up a large part of the collective's energy.

The store held an alternative yard sale - billed by one volunteer as a swap meet without the money - and encouraged people to trade stuff they no longer needed for stuff they did, such as clothes, canned food and sneakers. Some of the shelf space is reserved for free 'zines, and a red bookcase in one corner is a reading library, with titles people are encouraged not to buy but to sit and browse, which they do, in a chair or on the floor. Staffers are working to get a donated computer so they could offer free Internet access; many of the punk music CDs and T-shirts are sold at bargain-bin prices.

Volunteers said they are proud of the collection of items not easily found in other bookstores, such as the day planners they sold out of with noteworthy dates in radical history. "There's this myth that the corporate bookstore has everything," said the collective's Chuck Munson, 38.

One day last week, Munson, Stephens and another volunteer gathered inside the store as a woman sat on the floor by the reading library, flipping through a book. A representative of the Marijuana Policy Project dropped off some fliers protesting Drug Enforcement Administration raids on medical marijuana patients, and the conversation soon turned to President Bush's recent "Bring 'em on" taunt to those attacking U.S. troops in Iraq.

"What's wrong with them?" asked Stephens with sarcasm, referring to U.S. leaders.

"Where to begin?" sighed a volunteer.

The Infoshop project was born one night about four years ago, when about 15 activists met over dinner at a Dupont Circle restaurant to talk about the lack of city spaces for radical expression and literature. Infoshops in other cities have become activist hubs for a new generation of protesters, sprouting up in places such as Berkeley, Calif., Philadelphia and Chicago. D.C. radicals said it was unfitting that Washington, described on the Infoshop's Web site as "an international bastion of capitalism and greed," should be void of a space for dissent.

After selling books out of boxes at hip-hop shows and conferences, the collective finally moved into the new Arthur S. Flemming Center, headquarters for a dozen nonprofit groups. Tucked into the basement for just $450 a month, including utilities, the Infoshop opened in May, named for Brian MacKenzie, an American University freshman and collective member who died in 1999 of a heart condition.

Activists said they pay the rent through book and music sales and benefit shows. But money isn't everything, said volunteer Michelle Lee. "I think everybody in this room would love it if every book in here was free," said Lee, 24.

Stephens acknowledged, "Our adherence to market principles is lousy at best."


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