An Early History Of The Lucy Parsons Center

by James Herod and Jon Bekken
(edited by Betsy Gynn 9/5/2000)

The Red Book Store (now the Lucy Parsons Center) began in 1969 in a small one-room basement shop in Central Square, Cambridge. It moved two or three times in the first couple of years, before settling into what would be its home until 1983 in a large space on the corner of River and Pleasant streets in Cambridge. In 1983 the project moved to Jamaica Plain, Boston. It stayed there until May 1994, returning to Central Square, where it stayed four years until it was evicted so the building could be demolished. In May 1998 it moved into a temporary space in Davis Square, Somerville. In May 1999, the Lucy Parsons Center moved into a big, breezy new space in the South End of Boston where we remained for twelve years. In late 2009 the LPC acquired a former real estate office in Jamaica Plain which was renovated for use as a book store. We finally moved there in the summer of 2011, and reopened for business in November.

The project incorporated in 1971; in 1992 it re-incorporated as a not-for-profit corporation and changed its name to the Lucy Parsons Center.

The Red Book Store was a project of the movements of the sixties. Sixties activists were at that time (early and mid-seventies) busy setting up all kinds of "alternative institutions" like day care centers, neighborhood health clinics, food coops, so-called "underground" newspapers -- and bookstores. Radical bookstores were springing up all over the country -- Dorrwar bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, for example, or Bound Together books in San Francisco, Food for Thought in Amherst, Massachusetts, Wooden Shoe in Philadelphia, Left Bank Books in Seattle, Fifth Estate in Detroit. Many underground newspapers had bookstores associated with them. These were not merely bookstores, of course. That is, they were not commercial projects; they were centers of activism. They were places where radicals gathered -- for meetings, parties, film showings, discussions and lectures -- or simply places where they could hang out.

Nor was this bookstore tradition new to the sixties. It has always been a part of the left, in one form or another. The Wobblies had their bookstores and reading rooms. Socialists and communists throughout the first half of the century maintained bookstores. When the revolts of the sixties broke out these institutions were invaluable resources for sixties radicals (for example, Jefferson bookstore, the communist-run bookstore in Union Square in New York City, or the bookstores of the Socialist Workers Party). Charles H. Kerr publishing house in Chicago should also be mentioned, America's oldest radical publishing house, founded in 1886 during the struggle for the eight-hour day (it was rejuvenated in the 1970s). Recently another variant of this long tradition seems to be emerging -- the so-called "info-shops." Mostly anarchist or autonomist, and utilizing copy machines and computers more than ordinary bookstores, these projects are nevertheless similar in most respects to their predecessors, although they have perhaps more of a "clubhouse" atmosphere with less stress on reaching out to the general public. They are in no sense, though, a completely new phenomenon.

Redbook/Lucy Parsons Center has survived for over thirty years. It has been truly a community project of Boston's radicals. Dozens and dozens of people have worked in the store over the years, mostly as volunteers, but some for pay (low pay). Boston's progressive community has rallied again and again to keep it in existence. It was never affiliated with any one party or group, but was an independent radical bookstore. Its bulletin boards and shelves were open to all the many groups in the radical movement, very broadly defined. It seriously tried to represent all tendencies on the left. It was eclectic. There was never a party line, which is not to say that there weren't changing emphases in different periods. And this is why it was such an exciting project, and so vibrant. Ideas were discussed there. There were almost always heated arguments going on. And there still are.

Nevertheless the project passed through phases. It's a shame there is so little documentation to help reconstruct these changing emphases. It's a shame also that no one thought to collect taped interviews as we went along, to build an oral history. But there was always so much work to do just to keep the project afloat. Radicals should probably start using oral histories more as we go along, considering that we don't have libraries, and that so many of our projects are so ephemeral, and that we often don't even have the resources to hang on to documents (but who would save the tapes?).

So very roughly, as an impression, the project was heavily Maoist at the beginning -- Maoist in the New Left sense, that is, a militant wing of the New Left which had rediscovered Marxism and then the Chinese revolution and Mao. But even then the store had a section on anarchism. By the late seventies the project was predominantly feminist. This lasted roughly until the mid-eighties, at which time the collective had become truly eclectic, having a couple of staunch anarchists, a Leninist or two, feminists, progressive liberals, and so forth. By the late 1990s the collective had become predominantly anarchist, but with Marxists, feminists and progressives still represented. In a sense, then, the store has simply reflected the preppressed for their liberation, but also celebrate the liberation of the imagination. And the front of the Center is devoted to leaflets, community newspapers and other free literature.

A project such as the Lucy Parsons Center can not hope to bring about the social reorganization that is so urgently needed by itself, but it can provide a venue for discussion and reflection, for getting out ideas and exploring alternatives. As the realm of culture is increasingly industrialized and subsumed to corporate dictates, the Lucy Parsons Center remains a thorn in the side of the ruling class. It deprives them of total cultural hegemony. As long as it exists there is still a window open to another, better, world. It means that there is still hope, that our oppressors have still not managed to bury their detractors, despite their enormous firepower. Their project of total control of everything for the purpose of making profit is not only absurd, it is in fact impossible.

Humans are simply too ornery for them ever to succeed.