Internationalist Books stays true to its radical roots

By Gloria Lloyd
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

Internationalist Books and Community Center, located on West Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, is an independent, nonprofit cooperative and alternative bookstore that has served as a hub for social activism and grassroots organizing for the past three decades.

Animal advocate David Cantor gives a talk on Nov. 19 at Internationalist Books, a nonprofit bookstore and community center in Chapel Hill. Cantor spoke about how environmental policies affect animals. (Staff photo by Gloria Lloyd)

Internationalist Books is often described as a “radical” bookstore, a description that its volunteers and customers embrace.

Outreach manager Laurin Gioglio said of the term, “We’re trying to own it a little bit.” Longtime volunteer Mike Cohen called the bookshop a “nest for radical action.”

The bookstore provides meeting space for a number of area nonprofits, including the Carrboro Community Garden and other environmental or social justice-related groups.  Inventory manager Lydia Powers said the Internationalist is a space where any group can “study, work, talk and promote their interests.”

Although the shop runs on a tight budget and is mostly run by dozens of volunteers who sign up to work in the store for at least three hours per week, the bookshop also has three part-time staffers who manage operations.

The store sells books that cover a variety of topics, on nearly every day of the year but one. On Friday, Nov. 26, the Internationalist will not be selling books but is instead promoting its 12th annual Buy Nothing Day, a local celebration of an international movement designed to protest consumerism.

On its website, the Internationalist describes Buy Nothing Day as a “response to the consumer-driven post-Thanksgiving shop-ocolypse known as Black Friday.”

The store urges its potential shoppers to instead come into the shop and make arts and crafts or play board games.  In past years, Carrburritos and other local restaurants have donated food for the store’s Buy Nothing Day participants.

Some of the most dedicated Internationalist volunteers have worked shifts at the shop since it opened in 1981. In February, the shop will celebrate 30 years as a community meeting space and resource.

In the 1980s, the Internationalist served as a hub for anti-apartheid organizing at UNC-Chapel Hill. More recent activist groups have opposed the Iraq and Persian Gulf Wars.

The store’s founder, Bob Sheldon, was murdered while closing the shop in February 1991, a crime that remains unsolved. Sonic Youth wrote a song about the incident called “Chapel Hill,” and the Indigo Girls referred to Sheldon’s murder in the song “Jonas and Ezekiel.”

In the years after Sheldon’s death, the Internationalist moved from West Rosemary Street to its present location on Franklin Street, which increased street traffic and prominence.

Gioglio said that in addition to the usual contingent of Chapel Hill and Carrboro activists, “A lot of people coming between Chapel Hill and Carrboro stop by because it’s on the way.”

The store also reorganized as a cooperative, with a sliding scale fee to become a member and receive store discounts and voting power on the Board of Directors.

Politically, the Internationalist is often described as having a leftist bent.  “We may be towards the left of the spectrum, but we’re an umbrella of a collective,” said Gioglio. “Some volunteers are interested in prison rights or abolition, some are interested in anarchy, some are interested in political and philosophical theories, some are interested in animal rights.”

Powers said that Internationalist Books has functioned as a living room and meeting space for an assortment of groups throughout the community who have not been welcomed by other nonprofits, including a homeless group that wrote a letter of thanks to the bookstore for providing a meeting space.

A chair outside of Internationalist Books gives shoppers a taste of what types of books will be on the shelves inside. (Staff photo by Gloria Lloyd)

The Internationalist regularly holds author appearances and film screenings, including an upcoming Dec. 16 screening featuring a documentary, “River of Waste,” about the environmental damage caused by hog lagoons.

Other events include appearances by touring activists, such as an event held Friday, Nov. 19 in which David Cantor of Responsible Policies for Animals, Inc. spoke on land use policy and the human disconnect from animals as part of RPA’s “This Land Is Their Land” campaign to move beyond factory farming and promote a different way of looking at animals and the Earth.

“Humans have ceased being citizens and have become consumers, TV watchers, spectators,” Cantor said in his talk. “Very few people have any idea what an ecosystem is.”

The shelves of the bookstore are filled with books, magazines and pamphlets on topics such as feminism and veganism.   A lending library is named in honor of Lisa Garmon, a longtime local activist and 20-year volunteer at the Internationalist.

Along with printed literature and information, the store now has computers that people can use. The Internationalist hosts music events as well as book readings and monthly discussions on various topics.

The Internationalist is a supporter of a number of long-term local projects, including the monthly Really Really Free Market held at the Carrboro Town Commons, as well as newer events such as the Carrboro Anarchist Bookfair.

Many local initiatives, such as the Carrboro Community Garden and Croatan Earth First!, hold their meetings at the Internationalist.

The cooperative also hosts the Chapel Hill stops of numerous traveling exhibits and groups in the summer, including Think Outside the Bomb and the Beehive Design Collective, a traveling mural show that seeks to educate and mobilize consumers against mountaintop coal removal.

Cohen said that the Internationalist is important because “the Chapel Hill activist community shouldn’t be dependent on the university for resources.”

With the stability that the Internationalist can offer of a permanent storefront dedicated to promoting activism, dedication to local causes doesn’t always have to end with graduation in Chapel Hill. Cohen said the community cooperative bookshop can “provide a level of continuity that student groups can’t maintain.”

As a nonprofit organization, Internationalist Books accepts donations, including book donations that are either sold in the store or sent to political prisoners as part of the Prison Books Collective.  The collective mails about 12,000 books each year to prisoners throughout the South for the program.

As part of the Prison Books Collective, the bookstore also hosts a monthly birthday card writing night for prisoners. “We know about their struggle,” Gioglio said. “Prisoners need love, too.”

Gioglio said that if the Internationalist received more in donations, the bookshop would be able to stock and sell more new books on its shelves rather than used. The store managers would also like to have enough funds to hold a speaker series that could bring more well-known speakers to the store.

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