Your Friendly Neighborhood Infoshop
[This article originally appeared in the January 1998 issue of MaximumRockNRoll]
If you've been a big city punk at any time in the last decade, you've probably visited or at least heard of infoshops. Infoshops combine a social space, zine archive and library, meeting hall, day care center, concert venue and bookstore into one autonomous space. They are usually promoted and organized by anarchist activists, but infoshop supporters and participants aren't necessarily all anarchists. Infoshops are rooted in the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) ethic-they are created by people who are interested in making the revolutionary process happen, not just sitting around and talking about it.
Infoshops have been around for years and are generally thought to have originated in Europe, especially Germany were there were over 60 at one time. They were nurtured by the squatting, autonomist, punk, and anarchist movements. The infoshops in Europe, especially Germany, functioned not only as community centers, but also as maildrops for groups which had been outlawed by the state. The European shops and autonomous centers inspired the creation of infoshops in North America, but it should be noted that there is a long tradition of radical community centers in the U.S. These are commonly known as peace and justice centers and have been the basis for leftist activist and community organizing.
There have been, and still are, infoshops in just about every big city in North America. They've had some interesting names: Beehive Infoshop in Washington, D.C., Long Haul in Berkeley, Emma Center in Minneapolis, Croatan in Baltimore, Autonomous Zone in Chicago, 404 Willis in Detroit, Who's Emma in Toronto, Epicenter in San Francisco, and many more.
In the U.S., some infoshops are also known as alternative reading rooms or community media centers. In fact, infoshops have been described as "a cross between a radical bookstore and a movement archive." You can find zine archives and book lending libraries in infoshops. This is a grass roots response to the fact that most public libraries that are either ignorant of radical literature and zines or deliberately exclude such materials from their shelves. Infoshops sell books, zines, and t-shirts, not just to support the community which wants these things, but also as a way to raise money to pay the infoshop's rent.
What happens at infoshops? Infoshops serve as community centers for the local activists, so you'll often find activist groups meeting there. Groups like the IWW, Earth First!, or the Lesbian Avengers might have their regular meetings at an infoshop. You'll also find projects like Food Not Bombs or Book to Prisoners who use an infoshop as a staging area. A FNB group may use the infoshop's kitchen (if it has one) to prepare the day's food for the homeless and poor. Some infoshops provide office space for other groups or a darkroom for alternative journalists. They also have "women's space" which is an evening event held on a regular basis.
If you want to get an alternative education, check your local infoshop's calendar for free educational classes. Infoshops frequently have "Free Skools," which are the 90s version of the "free university" concept which originated in the 60s. Anybody who feels like they know something about a particular subject, be it the Spanish Civil War or practical bicycle repair, can arrange with the infoshop for a day and a spot on the calendar to do some freelance teaching. Generally classes are non-hierarchical and there are no tests, grades, or certificates. If the Skool ain't your thing, your local infoshop will have film nights or visiting lecturers. In the Atlantic region, the Atlantic Anarchist Circle has a speaker's bureau which makes arrangements for speakers to go on lecture tours. Several years ago the infoshop in Portland, Oregon arranged a speech by Noam Chomsky, which was pretty successful.
Infoshops are very valuable as meeting spaces for activist groups. It can be difficult finding a meeting space for a radical group, especially a place that feels safe and isn't at the mercy of unsympathetic hosts. Meetings at an infoshop can also serve to fertilize the activist scene, with new groups sprouting from others. For example, some people who have been attending prisoner solidarity meetings may decide to start a new group dedicated to sending prisoners free books. Folks who are doing Food Not Bombs may decide to open a food co-op or even a community garden.
Infoshops are important nodes for alternative publishing. They provide an outlet for zine authors and small publishers to sell their creations. Some shops have computers, printers, and other materials which are available for zine editors and flyposter artists. The anarchist newspaper Slingshot has been published by the Long Haul Infoshop in Berkeley, California for many years. The folks at the A Space in Philadelphia have recently started publishing a zine called "defenestrator," which covers the local political scene.
Urgent communications are also disseminated at infoshops. News and emergency flyers can be posted on bulletin boards. The shop may have a phone tree that can be used to get the word out about a crisis, such as the police arrest of activists. If a shop has a computer and an Internet connection, it can receive or retrieve news items from activist web sites or mailing lists. It can also send out news, announcements, or emergency requests for aid.
An infoshop is usually run by a collective and volunteers; there is no paid staff. Major decisions are made during regular meetings. Since infoshops are frequently staffed by anarchists, there is a tendency to gravitate towards using consensus to decide things, although this is not always the case. Needless to say, it is impossible to find an infoshop "director" or "president." Some infoshops are membership-based, which is done to promote commitment to the project and to make sure that not just anybody off the street could come in and vote.
The movement's social base is in the punk scene. This is probably due to the fact that infoshops are the kind of community space where punks feel at home, plus they provide either a punk concert venue or a place to promote the local scene. The shops also are usually the best local outlet for zines and in some towns they may be the best place to pick up the latest 7 inch.
However, this reliance on the punk scene has its flip side. While punks infuse a lot of energy into a new infoshop, especially if they see it as being punk-oriented, punks are, by and large, transient youth. Like many young people, they have a wide range of interests and tend to move around a lot. They aren't settled members of the community so they may perceive that the project will carry on if they leave. An infoshop not grounded in the surrounding community, be it geographical or activist, will end up being just another punk clubhouse. There's nothing inherently wrong with having an infoshop that only serves a local punk subculture, it's just that the participants have to be open about that and need adopt an approach that reflects that reality.
Infoshops can also be beset by other problems. Since the organizers are usually working class or middle class whites (and typically young), they usually don't have much cash (capital) and therefore have to settle for cheap storefronts in depressed areas of a city. The end result is an infoshop organized by white youth in a community they don't live in, usually populated by minorities. The subculture that patronizes the shop, be it punk, hippy, or radical, sticks out in contrast to the surrounding neighborhood. The neighborhood residents may perceive the infoshop as a beachhead in the gentrification happening in that town. Sometimes an infoshop will be confused about its purpose or mission and may decide that it needs to "do things" for the local community. These programs may or may not be needed by the community. This isn't always the case for all infoshops-certainly many have had successful community programs-but it can be a complicating factor. The community residents may also resent the fact that most of the infoshop activists typically don't live in the community and can always go home to someplace nicer, somewhere else in town.
The Beehive Infoshop, which used to exist in a storefront in downtown D.C., was situated in a gentrifying zone between a depressed African-American community and a predominantly white, affluent gay yuppie neighborhood. The Beehive grew out of the local D.C. punk scene, which was young and mostly white. It experienced an identity crisis where it couldn't figure out if it was serving the local punk and anarchist movements, or the geographical community in which it was located. Several members of the Beehive collective tried to talk about the gentrification issue, but the infoshop dissolved before it was adequately resolved. One of the former Beehive collective members, Brad Sigal, wrote an excellent pamphlet about his experience with Beehive and infoshops in general, titled "Demise of the Beehive Collective: lessons for the infoshop movement in North America." It should be required reading for anybody thinking about opening a new infoshop.
The main problem that infoshops face is internal dissension and factions which are a result of a project which includes members with a wide range of goals, different lifestyles, and a collective that doesn't have a clearly defined mission. If an infoshop starts with mostly members from the local punk scene and grows to include other activists, lifestyle issues may come to the fore. Some collective members may not want a weekly series of loud concerts. Others may insist on vegan food at all functions. Some may not be interested in doing outreach to the local community.
The Emma Center was an infoshop in Minneapolis, Minnesota, that opened in 1992. It closed its doors in 1995. It was started by activists who were involved in the Twin Cities Anarchist Federation (an umbrella group) and some folks involved in the Powderhorn Food Co-op. The Emma Center was "a center for anarchist activities" and it had "books and magazines for sale, free clothes and food, free weekend child care, Women's and Queer Space nights, and frequent punk shows." (Kieran Frazier, The Blast!, 1995). The infoshop had the typical confusion about who it was trying to serve. Frazier noted that it "never made solid connections with neighborhood people, and never had a solid plan to do so." The Center also lost its base in the anarchist activist and punk communities when several of the members went off to work on other projects. The original vision of the Emma Center had been to "tighten the anarchist community in the Twin Cities, serve as an educational information tool and network, and be able to provide certain services to the surrounding communities like child care, a food shelf, soup kitchen, a bookstore, a meeting place for anarchist organizing, and a place for accessible all-age gigs and events like art shows, theatre, and other types of performances." The Emma Center accomplished some of these goals, but it failed to become a long-term counter-institution, which is needed by a community.
The infoshop movement peaked around 1995-1996. There was excitement in the air because there were several established infoshops and many new ones being opened. A "Counter-Institutions" conference was held in Detroit, mainly because of all the new interest in the infoshop concept, plus the need that existing infoshop had to network and share information with other shops. In the Fall of 1994, the movement spawned its own zine, called (Dis)Connection, which was devoted to movement networking, information exchange, creative musings, news dissemination, and advice sharing. Five issues of the zine have been produced to date. The production of each issue rotated among infoshops.
Around this time the movement also started its own organizational network, known as the Network of Anarchist Collectives. NAC was an infoshop for infoshops. It had its own email listserv and helped coordinate activities among infoshops. In August of 1996, NAC and the A-Zone in Chicago put together Active Resistance '97, which brought over 700 activists to Chicago to talk about community organizing and to protest the Democratic National Convention, which was happening only blocks away. The existence of the A-Zone infoshop and its community of supporters was instrumental in pulling off this successful conference.
In 1997 the North American infoshop movement is going through a period of self-reflection. There are some infoshops that are still going strong after at least 5 years, others are struggling, and many more have come and gone. The ones that remain in existence include Long Haul in Berkeley (opened its doors in 1979 as an activist center), A Space in Philadelphia, Lucy Parsons Center in Massachusetts, and Who's Emma in Toronto. Infoshops that have closed their doors in the last year include the 223 Center in Portland, Oregon. The Autonomous Zone infoshop in Chicago has closed its doors twice in the last year and moved several times. They are currently moving into a new location.
It's hard to tell what the future holds for the Infoshop movement in North America. The 1990s have seen some successes and some failures. Even the infoshops that existed for a short period of time had an impact on the activists that were involved. The experience gained during the last decade, be it good or bad or in between, should help activists and infoshop supporters avoid some basic mistakes and maybe clarify their vision. Infoshops can be an important resource to a community, but it's not easy creating a successful one.
A new book on the infoshop movement is being published in early 1998 by Chris Dodge and Chris Atton. It should be available through one of the anarchist book distributors.
For more information on the web on the infoshop movement (including a directory) see:
Mid-Atlantic Infoshop: http://burn.ucsd.edu/~mai/
Infoshops Aren't the Revolution is available from:
Love & Rage Revolutionary Anarchist Newspaper
PO Box 853, Stuyvesant
Station, New York, NY 10009 USA
4722 Baltimore Ave.
Philadelphia, PA 19143
LUCY PARSONS CENTER
#3 Central Sq.
Cambridge, MA 02139
69 1/2 Nassau St.
EMMA GOLDMAN GRASSROOTS CENTER
100-91 Albert St.
Winnipeg, MB R3B 1G5
0323 Student Center
La Jolla, CA 92037