Infoshops Are Paradise for Media Junkies

Where to go when your library lets you down


| November/December 1998



Imagine a library that archives alternative-press publications, a radical bookshop where customers use the free photocopier to create zines, and a neighborhood center featuring how-to programs ranging from bookbinding to making your own menstrual pad. Combine them and you have the Crescent Wrench Infoshop in New Orleans. This storefront center is one of many such alternative media oases springing up throughout North America.

The Long Haul in Berkeley, Chicago's Autonomous Zone, Arise! Resource Center and Bookstore in Minneapolis, and New York City's Blackout Books are other “street libraries.” Typically founded and run by young volunteers, infoshops are more than just an interesting place to hang. They often also provide concerts, video screenings, and heated political discussions. To pay the rent, most of them rely on pass-the-hat donations—and the generosity of anonymous benefactors.

Infoshops, which are common in Europe, grew out of the international punk and anarchist movements. Germany has at least 100 infoladen listed in a directory updated regularly by infoshop expert Chuck Munson. Chris Atton, author of Alternative Literature: A Practical Guide for Librarians (Gower, 1996), writes that in Great Britain, infoshops “grew out of the squatted anarchist centres of the 1980s, such as the 121 Centre in Brixton, London.” Many of the infoshops in the United States began as peace and justice centers during the Vietnam War.

Some infoshops are predominantly bookstores. Others, such as the Civic Media Center in Gainesville, Florida, are specialized libraries stocked with countercultural material—small-circulation political magazines, videos on controversial issues, books from alternative presses. Still others are full of alternative (or underground) CDs, straight-edge punk zines, and other cultural flotsam unlikely to be found in any libraries, even those that offer secondary material on punk culture.

Infoshops come and go. Besides financial problems, many have neighborhood communication difficulties, especially those organized by white youth in minority-populated areas. As Munson points out, “residents may perceive the infoshop as a beachhead [for] gentrification.” Internal politics can also put them out of business. Emma Center in Minneapolis, founded in 1992, almost immediately began providing free day care, clothes, and bread; a men's anti-sexism group; “women-only” and “queer-only” gatherings; a growing zine and book library; and even concerts. Eventually a split developed between one group of staffers motivated primarily by altruism and another interested in making money for the center. The rift forced Emma to close in 1995.

Infoshops also have been targets of outside oppression. Last December, “Death to Mumia” fliers (referring to the imprisoned black activist Mumia Abu-Jamal) and white-supremacist propaganda were pasted to the windows at Wooden Shoe Books in Philadelphia a few days after the shop received an anonymous phone call from someone threatening to burn down the “commie, nigger-loving store.” Despite these hazards, new infoshops seem to crop up like dandelions. Recently the Insur-Recreation Center, a “radical infoshop and resource center for activists, punks, and the community,” opened in Minneapolis, promising a weekly “Vegan Café” and film screenings.