Book review: The Radical Bookstore: Counterspace for Social Movements

reviewed by Rosie Levine Hampton

29 Apr 2022, 10:57 a.m.
Rosie Levine Hampton

The Radical Bookstore book cover. Contains: a cat in fron of a bookshelf with text overlay.

The Radical Bookstore: Counterspace for Social Movements

By Kimberley Kinder and reviewed by Rosie Levine Hampton

Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2021; 360 pp.: ISBN 978-1-5179-0918-5, US$28.00 (pbk)


In 1984, the British collective of the Federation of Radical Booksellers published Starting a Bookshop: A Handbook on Radical and Community Bookselling. Their intention was to formalise the ‘informal communication of ideas’ and to provide a material guide for others to create their own radical spaces (Federation of Radical Booksellers (Great Britain), 1984: 5). Nearly 40 years later, covering a different geographical landscape, The Radical Bookstore acts as a similar material guide, one enhanced by careful theoretical reflection as to what makes these spaces what they are. This book is a comprehensive and engaging work that thoughtfully tackles theoretical issues in social movement theory, urban studies and cultural geography, whilst reflecting on their practical implementation through 77 American radical bookstores and establishments. The scope of Kinder’s analysis is impressive, yet the author also leaves room for further engagement on a number of questions addressed throughout the text, in a way that is fruitful and generative. The book makes a number of interesting theoretical contributions, unthreading the ways in which the different radical spaces are built, run and sustained through organising and solidarity networks. Kinder’s key contention is that these spaces are actively made, rather than passively found, which is then unpacked through eight chapters. Building the book(store) from this foundation is crucial, as Kinder’s analysis illuminates questions not only around the materiality of these sites, but also with respect to the sociability and emotionality of each space.

Consequently, the book rests on nearly 80 sites that are included within Kinder’s definition of ‘counterspace’, which is sympathetically noted as ‘not a perfect term’ (p. 39) but nonetheless works well in capturing what is an incredibly complex landscape of feminist, queer, anti-racist and anarchist (amongst many other) bookstores. In fact, The Radical Bookstore uses phrasing like ‘on the other hand …’ much like punctuation. I should note that this is far from a critical observation. Rather, it speaks to Kinder’s generous engagement with her empirical material, weaving threads through each space whilst delicately accounting for the varied experiences and opinions of those involved in each bookstore.

Thus, referring back to one of the book’s key definitional tenets, Kinder uses the term ‘counterspace’ to denote the spatial infrastructures that ‘activists construct for themselves to accommodate contentious political practices operating in parallel with established norms and pushing toward alternative futures’ (p. 40). These different counterspaces are then traced throughout the United States, as Kinder draws from extensive archival research and oral history interviews. Important methodological considerations are drawn out here, as the introduction asserts the importance of valuing the time of interviewees – essentially, not bothering them too much when important information might be gleaned from archival material, rather than from the words of busy activists. This raises pertinent questions, and it would be interesting to see the author (or others) investigate these. The book later considers the importance of these bookstores as ‘durable’ counterspaces, highlighting that the historical and contemporary preservation of these sites is integral to the activists’ project, particularly in fulfilling the objective of organising for alternative futures. Therefore, the collaboration between urban scholars – and qualitative researchers more broadly – may produce unique opportunities to honour these desires for self-preservation, through work produced by archival and oral history projects, such as Kinder’s. However, how might we balance using access to the wisdom of key figures in the radical bookstore movement, whilst also recognising that those same people might be more likely to be time-poor, or susceptible to emotional burnout?

Another important methodological consideration, which then feeds into the empirical discussion in the book, was how to qualify what spaces were ‘radical’ enough to include in Kinder’s study. This would not be an enviable task, given that leftist theorising, organising and history is permeated by definitional debates – some more clearly undertaken in good faith than others. Thus, some might take issue with the range of different counterspaces included in The Radical Bookstore, particularly with the ways in which their material infrastructures shaped what sort of alternative futures the activists involved wanted to achieve – and what concessions they were willing to accept to reach them. The different compromises various organisers were willing to make often revolved around unsurprising facets – how/if to make profit, how a bookstore should be owned, how much workers should be paid. The text necessarily dislodges uncomfortable categories of ‘activist-entrepreneurs’, ethical consumerism and the relationship of political organising to processes of gentrification. As a result, whether or not these debates prompt the reader to call for exclusion of a particular site is reflective of their subjectivity in reading the text. This fortunately provides fruitful avenues for further scholarly and activist discussion, and it is Kinder’s necessary inclusion of all of these establishments that facilitates this, whilst also arguably accurately reflecting the expansive landscape of activist organising in the United States.

However, at times, it might have been worthwhile to flag that some compromises have more significant implications than others. Some of the discussions that covered the aforementioned topics appeared to remain largely ephemeral or prompted little material or social change within the bookstores themselves. Nevertheless, there were points where I expected the text to treat particular issues that these sites faced with more urgency. For example, the landlord of the People Like Us bookstore is noted to have wanted to have a clause in the lease for the premises requiring that only books that were in ‘good taste’ would be sold there (p. 87). This was framed under the challenge of ‘negative public opinion’ and thus regrettably a potential challenge that activists may have had to negotiate. This is one area where future scholars may seek to expand on The Radical Bookstore’s firm foundations. Kinder’s work paves the way for more situated, particular analyses that will be able to utilise the counterspace framework, and test it against specific case studies of oppression, and alternative futures. With the aforesaid landlord example, it would be interesting to see how future work might develop a more specific definition(s) of the term ‘counterspace’, denoting this encounter as a potential microcosm of the relationship between queer repression and rentier capitalism.

This could be an exciting point of departure from an already welcome contribution to social movement and urban studies. At points it was difficult not to be left wanting more from the author’s selection of qualitative evidence chosen to illustrate the importance of these spaces. This is again not a critical observation. Rather, it appears unavoidable when the source material is as significant as is the case here, and absolutely speaks to the richness of the empirical research conducted. The Radical Bookstore ends on a similarly rich and hopeful note. Kinder reasserts the importance of durable spaces but qualifies that this does not mean that spaces that have closed were unsuccessful. Rather, she unpicks the potentially rigid relationship between longevity and influence, opposing any ‘loss-orientated’ narratives of a particular bookstore’s success or ‘failure’ (p. 265). This is a welcome, and even comforting, view to conclude with, considering that the historical trajectory of radical bookshops is easy to feel initially disheartened by, as in the UK the introduction of the Net Book Agreement and Section 28 saw a tsunami of closures towards the end of the 20th century. Kinder’s final thoughts reiterate one of The Radical Bookstore’s most wonderful (and spatial) tenets – that these bookstores were not only important within the walls of their making, but the encounters within them rippled out beyond the front doors and affected meaningful change, even long after some of them had to close.



Federation of Radical Booksellers (Great Britain) (ed.) (1984) Starting a Bookshop: A Handbook on Radical and Community Bookselling. Lancaster: Federation of Radical Booksellers.


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