(Photo by Sydney Barragan)
Tesoro High School

New York’s Bluestockings — one of the last feminist bookstores

Approximately 50 people were preparing to participate in a Halloween-themed Critical Mass bike ride on a chilly day in October 2006. It was about 6 p.m. when they heard the shocking news that caused them to gather in a small bookstore known as Bluestockings.

They had just discovered that journalist and activist Brad Will was assassinated in Oaxaca, Mexico. A world away in New York City, a room of people mourned the loss of their friend. The owner at the time, Brooke Lehman, was among them at the time to grieve Will’s death.

However, the group knew that their friend wouldn’t have wanted them to do nothing.

“We organized a direct action on the Mexican consulate that evening,” Lehman said. 

This event 16 years ago is evidence of what this self-described “radical bookstore” truly is for its former owner: A hub and a haven for activists. 

At first glance, Bluestockings looks like any other small bookstore: a small blue awning hangs over a tiny storefront, with a view of wooden coffee tables and colorful bookshelves. But upon closer inspection, what is different here is the selection of titles, such as : “How to Read a Protest: The Art of Resistance,” “Goddess of Anarchy, and Witches,” “Sluts,” “Feminists,” and more.

Bluestockings is first and foremost a radical bookstore that features topics like feminism, queer identities, political theory and environmemtal issues in its inventory. 

“When I first came to the store,” said Matilda Sabal, a non-binary volunteer at Bluestockings, “I finally saw parts of myself reflected in the stuff that was on our shelves.” 

Bluestockings opened its door near the corner of Allen and Stanton streets two decades ago. And when the store, which is now collectively owned and volunteer run, was only days away from closing in 2003, Brooke Lehman stepped in and purchased the store from Kathryn Welsh, the original owner. 

“Bluestockings was a really important space, in particular for the feminist and queer community in New York City,” Lehman said.

Activists regularly met here to plan direct actions, such as organization efforts against the Republican National Convention when it was held in New York City in 2004. Years later during the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the store hosted meetings for the protests against financial inequality. 

Lehman believes that the importance of independent bookstores like Bluestockings goes beyond participating in local matters. By making itself accessible to visitors and non-natives, Lehman says it is offering people from outside of New York City and even internationally a place to connect with other people that share their beliefs and values or just want to see what is happening. 

“In many ways, I saw us as a sort of a radical embassy in the United States,” said Lehman. 

In the wake of the 2016 presidential election, there was an influx of visitors as Bluestockings began attracting a new crowd of people looking to take action.

“It’s maybe their first time, feeling really politically shaken up and [they] are looking for resources,” said Sabal. 

Bluestockings has been working to provide resources for those looking to fight back. 

“With the inauguration of Donald Trump,” read an announcement for an event in February 2017, “local resistance and renewal are more vital than ever.” 

At the event, “The Revolution Where You Live: Resistance and Renewal for the Trump Years,” Sarah van Gelder shared her observations of how diverse communities across the country tackle major social issues. 

Bluestockings started as just a small bookstore and cafe. But 20 years later, the store has become a hub for organizers, activists and book-lovers alike. 

“Bluestockings was just the place where, when intense things happened, people would come and gather,” Lehman said.

Similar to when Brad Will was killed, Bluestockings was the place for solace during significant events such as Trump’s presidential victory. 

A Paste article said there were 120 feminist bookstores in the United States and Canada in the mid-90s. Today, Bluestockings is one of the last 13 feminist bookstores still standing

“We were losing so many spaces already in New York City, that it was just really important to save a legacy,” Lehman said.