Former Associate editor Margret Aldrich on the hunt for happiness, community, and how humans thrive
3/7/2012 9:26:31 AM
A town without bookstores is like a town without churches or bars. Minus the hymnals and happy-hour specials, the best bookshops are vital community centers where patrons can gather, share ideas, and have grand revelations or quiet discoveries. When Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, New York, began to fail, it tapped into the strength of its community with an inspired idea: cooperative ownership.
Last spring, rather than shuttering its doors, Buffalo Street Books sold shares of the independent shop to 600-plus local “co-owners,” raising more than $250,000, reports Christina Palassio in This Magazine. Less than a year later, the co-op bookstore is thriving.
What makes Buffalo Street Books’ co-op model successful? “The owners and employees of Buffalo Street Books do so much to make the store more than just a store; they’ve turned BSB into a community within a community,” says Chloe Wilson in The Ithaca Independent:
The store holds lectures, writer’s workshops, and reading groups on a regular basis. The store reaches out to Cornell and IC professors and works with them to supply books for their classes. The store encourages burgeoning writers and invites them to share their work. People who go to Buffalo Street Books aren’t just customers or employees, they’re members of BSB’s community.
In an industry already complicated by declining brick-and-mortar sales, answering to hundreds of shareholders has potential to add another layer of difficulty. “The messiness of running a co-op may not appeal to many beleaguered bookstore owners,” Palassio writes in This Magazine. “But with the rise in community-supported projects like [CSAs] and websites like Kickstarter and Unbound…the line between investor and customer is blurring.”
Keeping hometown bookstores alive makes the complications worthwhile. As novelist Ann Patchett told the New York Timesafter opening Parnassus Books in Nashville’s book desert last November, “I have no interest in retail; I have no interest in opening a bookstore. But I also have no interest in living in a city without a bookstore.” Like Buffalo Street Books, Parnassus Books utilizes the support of the community. Its Founder Rewards Program offers perks and discounts in exchange for member dues that range from $75 to $5,000.
In case you missed it, watch Patchett deftly explain the value of independent bookstores on The Colbert Report below. And don’t forget to support your local bookshop. The bars and churches are busy enough, aren’t they?
Sources: This Magazine(article not available online), The Ithaca Independent, New York Times
Image by Quinn Dombrowski, licensed under Creative Commons.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
2/3/2012 3:15:28 PM
Decorated with brightly colored wallpaper and pots of cheery flowers, Giveboxes are festive additions to Germany’s city streets. The small structures, which look like a cross between a phone booth and a gardening shed, hold community-donated items that are free for the taking, says Dougal Squires on Slow Travel Berlin. Clothing, books, shoes, blankets, bags, lamps, glassware, and cologne are examples of the useful(ish) things up for grabs.
The idea for Giveboxes came from an anonymous Berliner known only as Andy or Andreas. (Go to Slow Travel Berlin’s website to hear an engaging interview with the Givebox founder.) Since the first Givebox debuted in Berlin last summer—constructed in an eyesore of a spot that was often used as an improvised public toilet—more have popped up in Hamburg, Vienna, Paris, Copenhagen, and elsewhere, with a miniature version making its way to San Francisco.
Cash-free shopping ventures are popular in many parts of the world, with freecycling and free stores found in North America and Europe. But Giveboxes offer an advantage, writes Chloe Lloyd in E Magazine:
The Givebox cuts out the middleman, hassle and arrangement requirements intrinsic to the better-known “freecycling.” The anonymity of the Givebox also supports the notion that it doesn’t matter who we are giving to as long as there is someone who is in need of goods that we no longer use.
To me, Giveboxes most closely call to mind the charming Little Free Libraries springing up in U.S. neighborhoods, which encourage passersby to leave a book or take a book. Both projects encourage community involvement and reuse, along with a pint-size dose of informal artistic expression.
Want to build a Givebox in your town? Andy/Andreas offers plans, costs, and marketing materials on Givebox’s Facebook page, albeit in German. Let’s find a translator and keep up this communal spirit of giving—I’ve got a rice cooker, a dog-eared copy of The Stranger, and a 1960s red wool coat with your name on them.
Sources: Slow Travel Berlin, E Magazine
Images via Givebox.
Margret Aldrich is an associate editor at Utne Reader. Follow her on Twitter at @mmaldrich.
9/22/2011 4:46:40 PM
Whatever you call it—“agricultural urbanism,” “new ruralism,” or one of the dozen other alternate labels—the concept of carefully planned agrarian suburbs sounds like utopia. Protecting land while permitting growth, “agriburbia” is a farm-friendly antidote to the eat-it-up philosophy of consumerist suburban sprawl.
When populations encroach into the countryside, we sacrifice more than pastoral vistas, says Jonathan Lerner in Miller-McCune.“The steady loss of farmland and natural habitat to sprawl-pattern development endangers food supplies and other resources, as well as the health, wealth and survival prospects of individuals and even whole communities,” he explains.
In Fresno County, California—where the majority of farms are small, family-run enterprises and half are minority operated—the threat to the agrarian landscape that produces everything from plums to almonds is undeniable. “The American Farmland Trust has estimated that if conventional growth patterns continue, by 2040 the county could lose another 135,000 acres of farmland, out of a total of about 2.25 million acres,” Lerner writes. He continues:
[A] new approach to regional planning could help turn that pattern around in Fresno and elsewhere. At scales ranging from a few hundred to many thousands of acres, the approach aims to protect unspoiled and working landscapes while allowing development to accommodate expanding populations….
Forget large-lot, single-family, cul-de-sac subdivisions accessed by traffic arteries lined with fast-food and big-box outlets. Future development would be densely clustered or channeled into towns and villages on sites less valuable for farming and conservation or where infrastructure already exists. Besides homes, these growth centers would include shops, workplaces, schools, pedestrian amenities and transit.
This kind of development, known as new urbanism, is already increasingly familiar. What’s new is its integration with efforts to protect working and natural landscapes.
The agriburban plan being considered for Fresno, called the Southeast Growth Area (SEGA), would combine a vibrant residential community with agriculture in a 9,000-acre belt of land at the edge of the city. Gardens and orchards would grow throughout, and small commercial farms would border the eastern perimeter.
Agriculturally oriented subdivisions are springing up in other parts of the country, too: There’s Hampstead near Montgomery, Alabama; The Farmstead, outside Charlotte, North Carolina; and Pingree Grove, less than an hour from Chicago. With amenities including elaborate community gardens, local food farmers markets, farm-to-table restaurants, and active community involvement, there are plenty of reasons to live there beyond land preservation.
“Though the particulars differ, they all share the basic approach of building compact towns or villages as a way to avoid consuming undeveloped land,” Lerner writes. “New-urbanist thinking is essential because it provides the tools for creating places for growth that are not only dense but desirable.”
Image by Thomas Hawk, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/1/2011 3:54:23 PM
Andrew Carnegie built an impressive 2,509 libraries around the turn of the 20th century. Now Rick Brooks and Todd Bol are on a mission to top his total with their two-foot by two-foot Little Free Libraries, reports Michael Kelley in Library Journal.
The diminutive, birdhouse-like libraries, which Brooks and Bol began installing in Hudson and Madison, Wisconsin, in 2009, are typically made of wood and Plexiglas and are designed to hold about 20 books for community members to borrow and enjoy. Offerings include anything from Russian novels and gardening guides to French cookbooks and Dr. Seuss.
Each Little Free Library runs on the honor system, displaying a sign that asks patrons to Take a Book, Leave a Book. “Everybody asks, ‘Aren’t they going to steal the books?’” Brooks told Kelley. “But you can’t steal a free book.”
Fifty libraries have been built so far, with 30 more underway and plans to expand into Chicago, Long Island, and elsewhere. Brooks and Bol have a long way to go to reach their goal of 2,510 libraries, but they’re digging the ride. “At a personal, human level, it’s very thrilling how it excites people,” Bol shared with Kelley. “But on a larger plane, it’s such a nice spark for literacy, art, and community all at once.”
Check out (so to speak) the gallery of charming Little Free Libraries below and visit the organization’s website to learn how you can bring one to your hometown.
Source: Library Journal
Images courtesy of Little Free Library.
8/25/2011 3:31:42 PM
What’s thriftier than a thrift store? In Baltimore, Portland, San Francisco, and other cities scattered across the United States and Europe, free stores—shops that offer goods at no cost—are a practical protest of consumer culture.
The concept is simple: People bring in good-quality items they no longer want or need (toasters, air mattresses, artwork, clothing); and people who want or need those items take them home, free of charge, explains Victoria Kreha in Green American.
“From a box on a street corner to an open-air market to an actual brick and mortar store, free stores can take many forms,” Kreha writes, but their primary philosophies are consistent. Bonnie Nordvedt, administrator of the Baltimore Free Store says, “The purpose of a free store is for everyone to rethink their shopping habits, spending habits, and general addiction to ‘newer-bigger-better.’”
While free stores are especially helpful to low-income members of the community, Nordvedt explains that they are for everyone, regardless of economic standing:
We have seen a lot of people who think the free items are just for those who can’t otherwise afford them. While that is definitely a part of why we do this, it is not the main reason. We want to bring people together, not continue to segregate them into the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Every single person should be reusing, repurposing, giving, and taking.
Interested in starting up a free store or market in your city? Check out the tips offered by Green Americanand the Really Really Free Market for finding a location, attracting volunteers, and gathering items to give away.
Source: Green American
Image by inggmartinez, licensed under Creative Commons.
8/19/2011 4:12:43 PM
Forget about the green movement; environmentalism is a social movement that impacts us all. So says Bay Area spoken-word and hip-hop theater artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph, who aims to integrate environmentalism and sustainability into all communities—urban and suburban, poor and privileged.
Green supporters are lucky to have the dynamic and dedicated Bamuthi in their corner. The New York native and former English teacher is a recipient of the Rockefeller Fellowship, which recognizes the country’s 50 greatest living artists, and was named one of America’s Top Young Innovators in the Arts and Sciences by Smithsonian magazine. This week, we sat down at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis to talk about his efforts to start a conversation between underserved communities, green-action agencies, and the arts world.
“I want to engage the question of environment, specifically in black and brown communities, in a different kind of way,” Bamuthi explains. “The process of working in environment really illuminates how isolated and compartmentalized the green sector is, specifically in its messaging.” He continues:
The idea is that environmentalism is a social movement; we’re all impacted by it. The question is, how do we shift messaging? How do we create as many different points of access as possible to enter into the question of sustainability?
Our movement has to be less about “green” and more about a shared value—life. But in some cases life isn’t a shared value. In some cases when you’re dealing with communities with crazy dropout rates, high infant mortality rates, high murder rates, life is not necessarily a practiced value. So, how do you create opportunities for folks to recognize the value of life through everyday activity?
Bamuthi answered this question by organizing the urban eco-festival Life Is Living, which incorporates urban performance, intergenerational health, and environmental action. So far, the festival has visited Oakland, Houston, Chicago, New York, and San Francisco.
Inspired by Life Is Living, the Walker Art Center invited Bamuthi to join their ongoing Open Field project to create an event called The Living Classroom—an outdoor commons of local and national artists exploring the question, “What sustains life in your community?”
The Living Classroom is a perfect anecdote to what Bamuthi calls our “intellectually risk-averse society,” mixing art and sustainability issues in accessible ways. Photographer Wing Young Huie, for example, coordinates a ping-pong tournament on the Walker lawn and encourages passersby to participate in communal karaoke. Spoken-word artist Desdamona works with others on a collective collage made up of magazine cut-outs, notes, and sketches. Artist and urban designer Rick Lowe plays dominoes with strangers at a picnic table and chats about healthy living. Later, there are hip-hop performances, Puerto Rican dancing, and a sneak preview of Bamuthi’s new work red, black and GREEN: a blues.
A ping-pong ball bounces over to the shady spot where Bamuthi and I are sitting. “And so you see,” he says, gesturing to the eclectic activities happening around us, “life includes drawing and dominoes and rolling down hills, and it also involves alternative energy and conservation and food activism and poetry and art. The idea is to place all these things on the same continuum so that there’s less isolation and a greater emphasis on interdependence—socially, intellectually, and practically.”
Image by Bethanie Hines, courtesy of the Walker Art Center.
8/17/2011 5:27:00 PM
Community singing—gathering with a group of acquaintances and strangers to belt out songs from across the eras—was a big deal in the Twin Cities in the first half of the 20th century, drawing crowds of up to 25,000 people to local parks. Today community singing does not, necessarily, sound relevant or revolutionary. In fact, it might seem completely schmaltzy. But singing together has more political and personal impact than first impressions reveal.
Minnesota Community Sings director and activist Betty Tisel is heading up a community singing revival, reports Jim Walsh in MinnPost, and her motivations go far beyond warming hearts. “Doing this work has meant my doing less political activism, but I feel OK about this because the payoff for community singing is that people get refueled for the struggles we have to keep working on together,” she tells Walsh. Tisel continues:
If we’re going to draw others into the work of building a just, sustainable world, that world’s gotta look like a place we would also like to live in. We need joyful, local, participatory culture….This is eat local, buy local, sing local. It helps me “keep on keepin’ on,” and people who have attended the sings tell us that it helps them a lot, too.
The gathering I attended at MLK Park in Minneapolis last night was nothing if not joyful, inclusive, and connecting, and it didn’t have a drop of unintended schmaltz. The 150 people in attendance (a smaller crowd due to stormy weather, Tisel says) ranged from toddlers to the elderly, and whoever sat next to you became your newest, dearest friend. Consummately lead by Minnesota Community Sings executive director Bret Hesla and artistic director Mary Preus, we sang American standards like “This Little Light of Mine;” international songs in Arabic, Italian, Spanish, and Swahili; and antiwar songs including “Tenting Tonight,” which was sung by soldiers on both sides during the Civil War. The lyrics hold up after 150 years:
Many are the hearts that are weary tonight
Wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts that are looking for the right
To see the dawn of peace.
Before the event, which was my first community-sing experience, I invited another uninitiated friend to join me. Her jaded, if good-natured, two-word reply was: Hells no. After participating with the smart, ardent crowd in South Minneapolis, I enthusiastically say: Community singing: Hells yes!
If you’re still not convinced of the power of the community sing, watch the ever-cool Odetta talk about her love of singing with others:
Image from Library of Congress.
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