On the Lower East Side, a community bookstore has divided a community

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By Dan Sears

On the Lower East Side, a debate is raging over the fate of Bluestockings Cooperative, a community bookstore that is facing eviction.

In addition to selling books, Bluestockings also distributes free Narcan overdose prevention kits.

Some of the bookstore’s neighbors argue that it attracts criminality and harassment to the neighborhood.

But Bluestockings’ supporters say the bookstore’s unconventional initiatives fill a much-needed void in social services amid the city’s worsening drug overdose crisis, and that the bookstore is being blamed for issues with homelessness that have existed in the neighborhood for decades.

Bluestockings has “given people a third space in a city that is rapidly becoming so privatized that there is nowhere to go,” said Salonee Bhaman, a former worker-owner of Bluestockings, which is collectively owned. Bhaman left the store in September after she accepted a full-time job at the New York Historical Society.

The conflict around Bluestockings is a microcosm of debates playing out in slow-motion across the city – and across the country – as cities grapple with issues such as homelessness and safe drug use.

Brandon Del Pozo, an assistant professor of medicine at Brown University and a former NYPD officer, said many schools and pharmacies distribute Narcan, and bookstores are no different.

He said what’s unfolding at the bookstore “is a problem that’s usually lurked in alleyways and the shadows and behind closed doors really being brought out in the light to one location.”

Del Pozo said it’s difficult for cities to mitigate drug use among some homeless people because it requires considerable investments in housing opportunities, mental health services and the medications that keep people off of harder opioids.

“Even for a city with a lot of resources like New York, that’s hard,” he said.

A little bookstore with big goals

Bluestockings was founded as a feminist bookstore on Allen Street on the Lower East Side in 1999. In April 2021, it moved to its current location on Suffolk Street near Rivington and now defines itself as a “queer, transgender and sex worker-owned activist space.”

Bluestockings is co-owned by six workers who run its day-to-day operations and make decisions regarding the store. Store memberships, which entitle members to discounts on merchandise and cafe items, start as low as $2 a month, and a $500 membership comes with a tote bag.

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The store’s mission “has always been to be a place where you don’t need to spend money to exist,” said Bhaman. “All sorts of people have used that cafe space as a place to work, read, be warm, be cool.”

By many accounts, Bluestockings has succeeded at its mission.

During New York City’s heat wave last summer, staffers distributed water, Gatorade and cups of ice to those who needed them, according to Bhaman.

It has a public bathroom that anyone can use – a boon in a city where public restrooms are notoriously hard to find. And it also distributes free socks, underwear and other toiletries to those in need, according to multiple supporters.

When Nefertiri Torres, who lives in a women’s shelter near Bluestockings, needed a Metrocard or a place to house her plants, she turned to Bluestockings for help.

“They will feed us, give us clothes, give us money, give us a space so we can sit and relax,” Torres said in a phone interview. “I can’t stress it enough. It is a safe haven.”

But not everyone views it as such – and some insist it’s actively making the neighborhood feel less safe.

“These zombies started colonizing the street”

Several neighbors interviewed for this story said they had no problems with many of the store’s policies, but said their objections began shortly after the bookstore became part of the state’s Opioid Overdose Prevention Program, or OOPP, which Bhaman said began in June 2021.

That’s when Bluestockings started hosting weekly Narcan trainings and handing out Narcan overdose-prevention kits.

Some of the block’s residents said they’ve since noticed an increase in the number of people who they say appear to be homeless, openly use drugs on the street, harass neighbors and pass out on the sidewalks.

Maddine Insalaco, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1997, said in a phone interview that living nearby went from being “marvelous” to “horrible.”

“When they first came here everyone here thought it was kind of cool to have them here because it showed one other example of how tolerant New York is,” she said. “But when this OOPP thing started, and then these zombies started colonizing the street and fouling up the street.”

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“We witnessed a lot of exchange of needles, a lot of shooting up, a lot of stuff like that,” she added.

Insalaco said she sometimes feels scared, and strongly feels that the bookstore should stop participating in the OOPP program.

Jason Jones, who has lived on the block since 2005, said he’s seen people scattered along the block “smoking crack, shooting up, passing out.”

“Ambulances were coming by all hours of the day, completely random what time and when it was,” he said.

Jones also said that a person who appeared to be homeless and was standing in front of Bluestockings had yelled at him and his children as they walked to school.

“We didn’t feel very safe,” he said, of the incident.

In May, Jones started a petition called “Save Suffolk St.,” which asked City Councilmember Christopher Marte to “assess if this ‘business’ is duly equipped to provide the services they are offering.”

“While we support all that Bluestockings does for the LGBTQIA+ community,” he wrote, “they are not equipped to service harm reduction and thus their unprofessional management has sadly brought illegal activity that has made our street unsafe.”

The petition had 63 signatures as of Friday afternoon.

“They’re just shielding their child from the reality of the world”

In late December, the bookstore announced that it was facing eviction in an Instagram post that has received more than 16,000 likes and over 300 comments, most of which were supportive.

Worker-owners of the store had no comment on the eviction reports, and also said that their lawyer had no comment. According to New York magazine, the store is accused of creating dangerous conditions for residential tenants, and improperly using the space as a medical facility, among other lease violations.

The eviction notice has been extended several times, according to reports in The New York Post and New York magazine.

New York-based real estate investment firm Penn South Capital lists the bookstore’s address as part of its “portfolio” on its website. The firm’s founder Parag Sawhney declined to comment for this article.

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For now, the store is still open, and about a dozen customers were perusing books at Bluestockings on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

Brandon Roiger, a regular customer, said local residents who oppose the bookstore are advocating for their own personal “utopia” without addressing the root of the problem, and dismissed concerns that Bluestockings was making families and children less safe.

“They’re just shielding their child from the reality of the world without having a meaningful conversation about what it means for people to be oppressed and experience social inequity in the world,” he said.

Raymond Arnold, who’s said he’s been going to Bluestockings for seven years, became a member last June. Arnold, a public school theater teacher, used to visit Bluestockings on his lunch breaks when he worked nearby.

“Those people are hiding behind this trumped-up charge about Narcan to say something about who’s receiving mutual aid and things like socks, and underwear, and granola bars, and applesauce, and hand warmers,” he said.

Bhaman, the former owner-worker, said she’d like to see people who oppose the store redirect their energy toward those who hold power. She believes Mayor Eric Adams and members of the City Council are more worthy targets for people’s activism.

“You should be blowing up their phones and asking them why there is nowhere for these people to go. Why are there no shelter beds? Why we don’t have a right to shelter anymore? Why libraries are not open on the weekends?” said Bhaman. “Those questions I think are the real ones that we need to ask, and it’s a bigger struggle than, ‘Let’s shut down the queer bookstore.’”

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