L.A.’s Alternative Bookstores Put Community And Culture First

A network of multifunctional bookstores and libraries is finding practical ways to sustain their communities, filling in gaps in government services.

(Photo by Devon Divine / Unsplash)

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Theodore Henderson knows the value of libraries and cafes, often the only place unhoused people can access a bathroom. But at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, when many of these spaces closed their doors, that challenge became even more difficult.

“Sometimes, the meaning of a community for housed people is not the same for the unhoused,” says Henderson, an unhoused activist in Los Angeles. “Everyone wants to be treated like a human being.”

L.A.’s All Power Books is one of a growing network of alternative literary spaces tapping into this distinction. Located in the West Adams District of Los Angeles, a historically Black and multiethnic neighborhood that once faced racially restrictive covenants, this cooperative bookstore believes in showing up for its neighbors.

“Spaces like this are needed everywhere,” says Kai Nguyen, one of five co-founders (and a core team of six) at All Power Books. “People are waking up to the fact that the system is not working for us.”

The interior of All Power Books. (Photo by Sarah Quiñones Wolfson)

Espacio 1839 and Re/Arte Centro Literario in Boyle Heights, Radical Hood Library and Reparations Club in Los Angeles, and Memories of El Monte – the list goes on. As government and nonprofit agencies struggle to stabilize the housing crisis and respond to mental health issues, multifunctional bookstores and libraries are finding practical ways to sustain their communities and address their concerns at a grassroots level. They also make room for creativity, not confined to institutional structures, hosting author visits and exhibitions to welcome emerging ideas within the arts.

Most of All Power’s founders are local activists and organizers advocating for environmental and climate justice, working toward housing security, and fighting against state-sanctioned violence. “We can say that we’re married to L.A.,” says Nguyen. “We will be doing this for the rest of our lives.”

Founded in June 2021, All Power Books’ mission is literally written on its walls. A painting of Molotov cocktails is a reminder of the iconic fire bombs’ role in resistance movements internationally. From a Palestinian flag pinned behind the register to a “destroy the patriarchy” slogan, All Power’s owners have no qualms about their radical politics.

Veer to the left to see racks of clothing, educational supplies, toiletries, a community refrigerator, an open closet with food – neatly organized soup cans and snacks – and produce distribution. Everything is donated and free aside from the merchandise and some books, including works by Ho Chi Minh, Che Guevara, Angela Y. Davis and Marxist theory.

“We have developed and fostered solid relationships with the community,” Nguyen says. “We espouse Marxist ideals, but we are not talking people’s ear off about revolutionary theories. We are just treating them with kindness and this type of community building has been impactful.”

Inside All Power Books. (Photo by Sarah Quiñones Wolfson)

All Power Books has now acquired two locations, including a smaller spot directly next door. Backed by contributions, donations and retail purchases, they aim to expand the networks in which they are involved, working with activist groups L.A. Tenants Union, Street Watch L.A. and Say Their Name L.A.

Because it isn’t just a bookstore – it serves as a mutual aid and events space, a hub for community advocacy work and resources, as well as documentary screenings, writing workshops and poetry readings. Literary material is at heart, but it goes beyond the penned word: Abolitionist thinking is front and center.

They have cultivated a place where people can unwind, stay warm or cool, charge their phones, use a computer – without feeling obligated to spend money. Nguyen explains that everything is intentionally arranged to extend a sense of respect as patrons can independently access complementary goods.

The “bookstore” hosts free clinics at a nearby church and offers assistance to apply for health coverage and nutritional programs, including MediCal and CalFresh. The founders prioritize emergency preparedness, making information about tenant protection as well as a labor organizer available to patrons to answer questions about worker treatment.

“We don’t just believe that a better world is possible, but we think it’s inevitable,” Nguyen says. “So, taking that ethos and utilizing that when we’re organizing is important.”

Andrew Yip and Amy J. Wong are co-founders of the Matilija lending library. (Photo by Sarah Quiñones Wolfson)

It’s not alone in that attitude. Take Matilija, an El Monte, California, lending library – its name is derived from a California poppy flower that is so resilient that it can sprout even amid natural disasters. The site of a previous shoe repair store, Matilja is focused on sharing stories by authors who are Black, Indigenous and people of color: James Baldwin, Assata Shakur, Ocean Vuong, Elaine Castillo, Carribean Fragoza and beyond.

“Storytelling is a powerful tool to empower our communities, affirm our existence and affirm community power,” says El Monte city planning commissioner Amy J. Wong, who co-founded the lending library this year with her partner Andrew Yip. “We saw an opportunity to transform this shop into a library where people can read books that reflect their stories and lives and share space.”

Wong also co-founded the San Gabriel Valley Progressive Association, an organization fighting for racial justice. Together, the pair run the library with their own personal funds as well as donations. The co-founders hope to bring a communal garden, host movie nights, health and wellness classes and reading circles – and position the library as a place to mobilize and learn about local causes and social issues.

Already, Matilja has been participating in bike tours with the community collective South El Monte Arts Posse, exploring regional history or riding with Avocado Heights Vaqueros/as, and educating residents about environmental racism.

The books, the co-founders say, serve as an entryway to learning about injustices, with the ultimate aim of protecting the community from harm. “In light of violence against people of color, especially against Black and Brown bodies, we want to have greater discussions,” Yip says.

Inside the Matilija lending library in El Monte, California. (Photo by Sarah Quiñones Wolfson)

Gabriel Sosnowski, the owner of Midnight Books in Uptown Whittier, says the area has always been relatively conservative. Still, during the 2020 demonstrations against police brutality, he recognized an energy breaking away from conservatism popularized during the era of former presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

“There is a younger generation wanting to be better,” he says. Sosnowski witnessed organizations pop up like Whittier for Social Justice and felt a bookstore like this could speak to the needs of the changing generation.

“I saw places like All Power Books open up and rejuvenate the community,” he says.

Midnight, which operates from book sales, shares poets of color and history books not often shared in academic curricula, including learning opportunities about communism, socialism and anarchism. “We don’t discriminate against different ideologies because we organize with groups of all stripes,” he says.

Just as similar bookstores have gained support from donations and their own investments, Sosnowski says they continue to operate from book sales.

Amid ongoing government harassment of unhoused individuals, Midnight Books offers warm meals and carry hygiene products for anyone in need.

“The city government will sweep and harass our unhoused neighbors and provide absolutely nothing in return,” Sosnowski says. “We do our best to provide food daily and any help and resources we can.” Midnight Books is often involved in initiatives that address homelessness and housing instability; recently, the bookstore partnered with Whittier Area First Day Coalition, an agency founded on helping at-risk individuals, to assist with finding folks’ interim shelter.

“Part of the intention is to spread the word, so other people open these spaces,” Sosnowski says. “Nobody competes with each other, and we hope a hundred bookstores and community spaces open.”

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Sarah Quiñones Wolfson is a pop culture journalist focusing on the intersection of arts, culture and social justice.

Tags: los angeleshomelessnesscaliforniaplacemaking

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