Unpaid workers arranged folding chairs for the Monday evening poetry reading as Prince’s apocalyptical party anthem “1999” played softly in the background.
Viva la revolución!
“This is a place where people can come and engage,” said Travis Morales, 56, a sort of nonobligatory manager at Revolution Books, the all-volunteer, nearly 30-year-old not-for-profit retailer of radical literature, T-shirts and “cute red-star earrings,” which has lately benefited from an uptick in foot traffic in its new location at 146 West 26th Street.
“Obviously, what’s happening in the financial sector is raising big questions for people,” asserted the friendly, bespectacled, ponytailed shopkeeper.
The place was packed to its collective gills on the night of Sept. 25, when noted Maoist economist Raymond Lotta took the podium to offer his thoughts on the “shifting tectonic plates” of the global markets—an appropriate topic, given the economic turmoil of the past several weeks, and one with immediate results at the register.
“People donated money, people signed up to volunteer,” Mr. Morales said.
Some people even took to the streets. Mr. Morales, for one, joined other like-minded activists that afternoon in marching down to jittery Wall Street and passing out free newspapers under the banner headline “Communism: The Beginning of a New Stage.”
“Over and over we’re told, ‘This is the best, this is wonderful, this works for everybody’—bullshit! You know? This will mean millions and millions of people losing their jobs,” Mr. Morales told The Observer. “And the billions of people who suffer at the hands of the system are the ones who actually make it work.”
And so the workers’ great struggle studiously continues—yet only six months ago, it seemed that the weight of the free market might just quash Chelsea’s little communist enclave.
The literary syndicalist commune had lost its lease at 9 West 19th Street, where stacks of Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-tung and the Marx-Engels Reader were shelved under a large mural depicting planet Earth busting free of galactic-size shackles.
As Karl Marx himself once noted, “Landlords, like all other men, love to reap where they never sowed.”
And the landlord in this particular case planned to reap about $8.4 million by selling the ornate, century-old, five-story 10,275-square-foot loft building—“which will be delivered vacant,” according to a Corcoran Group listing for the property, “allowing its new owners to completely utilize it or lease up at current market rates.”
Bookish Bolsheviks campaigned to raise some $40,000 in non-tax-deductible donations in order to build a new “beautiful and well-designed store” just seven blocks away.
“[A] place that invites the radical intelligentsia and newly arrived immigrant, the casual browser and people searching out specific books and topics,” according to the store’s fund-raising brochure, which went on to outline some specific needs and price estimates: new floor ($6,000), tables and furnishings ($1,200), espresso machine ($1,000), and air-conditioning system ($10,000).
After all, no aspiring Trotskyite worth his pointy goatee wants to drink weak Victory Coffee in the stuffy New York heat.
But, at that time, the financial outlook seemed bleak, especially for anyone in the business of selling books. In March, Chelsea’s block-long, 35,000-square-foot Barnes & Noble, located nearby along the Avenue of the Americas, between 21st and 22nd streets, was also forced to shut its doors.
Ironically, it was the mighty free market, not the pedantic proles, that faltered in the following weeks.
Amid ongoing credit woes and stock-market schizophrenia, the sale of the building on West 19th Street has yet to close and the abandoned retail space collects cobwebs. “It’s still in the process of being sold,” said Corcoran broker Dario Mannarino.
But Revolutionary Books is back in business, complete with shiny, brand-spanking-new hardwood floors, and aiming to capitalize on the widespread economic anxiety.
“The world today cries out for radical fundamental change,” Mr. Morales said, brandishing a copy of the newly released Constitution of the Revolutionary Communist Party by American socialist Bob Avakian, priced at a proletarian-friendly $5!
“We’ve sold hundreds of copies,” he boasted.
“Can I buy three waters?” asked one customer in a gray sweater, apparently thirsty for more than a mere manifesto, as about a dozen people gathered on Monday night to hear poet Peter Neil Carroll read from his latest collection, Riverborne: A Mississippi Requiem, chronicling an ill-fated road trip to New Orleans on the eve of Hurricane Katrina—a saga that, in the words of one bookstore volunteer, “felt like the end of the empire.”
“We thought you’d never ask,” Mr. Morales told the parched patron.