What is a Progressive Bookstore?

submitted by Charles Sackrey

This article follows up a related story by David Kristjanson-Gural in The Guardian on May 9th about the Mondragón Co-op Bookstore and Meeting Place in Lewisburg. In the earlier piece, David explained that we named the bookstore to honor a network of democratic workshops that emerged in northern Spain in the 1940s and now constitutes a global firm whose operations are controlled by its 40,000 worker-members. Using the Mondragón co-op as the model, our members pay monthly dues and receive an equal vote in operating the bookstore. We solicit the donation of books that, as we describe in our Mission Statement, “support the progressive ideals and practices of democracy, and the democratic rights of all people.” We also say that we offer books to adults and children that “tell the story of the struggle to bring those values to life, and that help sustain and enhance that vision.” For the past few months, I have coordinated efforts of a small cadre of members to gather, categorize, select, and shelve books for the grown-up section of the bookstore (and, I am confident that they would agree with the gist of what follows). As the books have poured in they have represented a wide range of genres and have been of every imaginable shape, color, length, breadth, and depth. Soon, we had many more than we could put in our shelves and were faced with the tough task of picking those that most appropriately embodied our mission. Tough job, indeed. Before we started, I assumed casually that a “progressive” bookstore would contain predominately the usual fare of political and social commentary, including tomes from Marx, Engels, and like- minded writers. It would also have relevant history, biographies of famous allies, and other accounts of a point of view that we wanted to encourage our readers to consider. Of course, rounding it all out would be a few shelves of literature and art books that complemented the others. However, the majority of the books donated early on were from the libraries of literature professors and were thus mostly novels, drama, poetry, literary theory, and philosophy. We also received about 200 books from a retired high school art history teacher. And, to add to this mix of materials, co-op members accepted the proposal by The Guardian’s jazz critic, Jonah Walters, to compile a collection of LPs for the store, most of them jazz and folk music. While we were sifting through this material to determine what to use, I began to fashion in my mind an expanding notion of how a bookstore might best spread the word about democracy. I came to see the word itself – democracy — as an increasingly limited way to express the longing for liberation and freedom, and the struggles to get there. One of the first books I retrieved from a box of donations was Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, given to the bookstore by the family of Lou Casimir, an old friend. This book is based on Hemingway’s World War I experiences, and as the story ends, its narrator and principal character, Lt. Henry, is leaving a hospital where his new son was stillborn and his great love, Catherine, has died giving it birth. The last sentence of the book goes like this: “After a while, I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.” No explanations, no excuses, no blame, just a walk back to the hotel in the rain; just eighteen words fit for a lovely poem. I was absolutely stunned by that ending and that last sentence. And until I had read the book, still in my mid-twenties, I did not know that a novel could leave me needing to stand up and get more air. Thus, picking up that donation from an old friend began to sharpen my view of what kinds of books should be in the bookstore. It was also a vivid reminder of why, when I finished getting an M.A. in economics, and before entering the PhD program in that field, I considered switching to literature. By that time, the thrill was gone with economics, to put it mildly. I had come to believe that no social analysis or commentary could describe as well such aspects of life as Hemingway’s implicit argument that necessary to our freedom – at work, home, or anywhere — was an ability to keep on trucking in the face of the bitter losses that make up so much of life. A very big lesson, indeed. Regarding novels, recently I read Ann Pancake’s Strange As This Weather Has Been (2007). In it, she describes the struggle of a West Virginia family to withstand the assaults of vast mountain-top removal operations by coal companies. Pancake’s telling of this story breaks and lifts your heart from page to page and can make you weep with admiration for the grit of this family’s efforts to protect its past and its pride against truly heartless adversaries. I’ve read other accounts of mountain-top removal, yet until I read this novel I remained emotionally distant from what it really means to have one’s world shredded by rapacious coal companies and their enablers at every level of government. Good literature (good, if it works for you), can do that sort of thing; it can take you from where you are and set you down in a place you never even knew was there. We have also been shelving many books by philosophers, including Existential and Human Emotions, by John Paul Sartre (1957) , and Albert Camus’s novel, The Plague (1947). I read Sartre’s book in the early 1980s, and he convinced me with clear and unapologetic prose of the idea that in a meaningless, godless universe – my own view of it, and one influenced by another philosopher, Bertrand Russell — I would come to be the person I am more by the walk I walk than by the talk I talk. That’s another useful lesson, if you care to learn it. In Camus’s novel, his protagonist, Dr. Rieux, ministers to the dying needs of the plague’s victims, some of them friends and loved ones. (One character says: “But what does that mean – plague? Just life, no more than that”). Each of the characters in the book reacts to the plague in his or her own fashion, and Dr. Rieux’s stance is engrained in a powerful notion, that “In the time of pestilence…there are more things to admire in men than to despise.” Reading Sartre and Camus suggested to me much that was useful, especially a plan about how to go forward with a progressive stance, at times even a radical one, amid the timid legions that peep from so many corner of the academic world. How, indeed, could a progressive bookstore not have shelves of books by philosophers? The books from the retired art teacher included a multi-volume set from the 1960s covering “great artists.” One of these volumes, about the French sculptor August Rodin, includes a section on “The Burghers of Calais.” The story behind this work, one of his most famous, is the Hundred Years War between France and England that ended in 1347. Having lost this struggle, the French government decided to abandoned its port city of Calais to the mercy of the English. The English King, Edward III, commanded that, in order to save the city, six of its most prominent citizens must come out of the city gates, with ropes around their necks, and the keys of the city in their hands. In Rodin’s statuary, the six men are gathered in a circle as they make their exit, apparently certain that they will be executed (they were actually later spared at the bequest of the English queen). The monument evokes unforgettably critical elements of life: fear, courage, resolution, the grim consequences of nations at war, and the corruption and mercilessness of power. The sight of the six men, each in his own way, add extraordinary depth to a written version of this story, and provide an unforgettable testament to the possibility of dignity in the harshest of circumstances. Regarding the LPs we offer to our customers. I do not know of any more moving demand for liberation and freedom than Beethoven’s Ninth (or Fifth, or Third) Symphony. Or is there a clearer call for freedom than in the whole corpus of music that comes to us from Black gospel singers and the blues? This music continues to shape much world music, and at its very heart is an insistent demand for liberation and freedom. Even the mournful songs about “She left me down and out, and maybe done in,” are cries for a kind of dignity that we all understand. Three years ago, Hugh Masekela, an influential South African jazz musician, made this point in the middle of a concert he gave at Bucknell. About half way through, he stopped, I think because he was provoked to comment on the virtually all-white audience in front of him. He said, simply, “If those Black musicians had not come north from New Orleans to Chicago, America would be the squarest country in the world.” Eventually, those Black brothers were followed on that path by rock musicians, such as the Beatles. Bob Dylan described their music as a brand new kind of joyful invitation to enter a place where the times are good and the spirit is free. For his part, Dylan exemplified the popular musician as poet and prophet, encouraging other songsters to write honestly about the angst of modern life, about its many injustices, and of course, about the heartaches that are the insistent traveling companions of love. Can anything better than a song make it more clear to us that we’re not alone with gains and losses, our woes and our joys? Throughout this selection process I have, for sure, maintained the view that our bookstore must have ample offerings from social theorists and commentators, and the historians, about all the things that matter. From the best of these writers we can learn about what people have done and are doing, and strategies about how to work for justice, to protect a fragile environment; and to make the world less violent and barbaric. Yet, for the reasons I’ve given, I have come to believe that we co-op members can best meet our stated goals if we add to this usual fare of the progressive bookstore the broad range of books and music that I’ve been describing. In the best of them, we always find people who share our own insatiable longing for liberation from the barriers to democracy and freedom. Won’t learning that lesson incline us to join them in a common struggle to strive for the freedom that we, too, want most of all? Last of all, because Mondragón Co-op Bookstore is a functioning democracy, I will send this article to all our members. I need to make sure that what our cadre is choosing for the bookstore is consistent with their views of what our collection ought to be. (I would like to thank Saundra Morris, also a member of the Mondragón Co-op Bookstore, who provided her typically excellent editing for this article.)


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