The Lucy Parsons Center: A Bookstore for Boston’s Radicals [Full Pre-Published Version]

Abridged version was published on NPR: WBUR’s The Artery on August 7, 2017. Below is the original pre-published draft by the writer!

by C. Shardae Jobson

I first attempted to visit The Lucy Parsons Center on a balmy Saturday afternoon around 2 PM. After I saw upon arrival that it was closed, peering through the front door, all I could see were two bookshelves and a short set of stairs to a second floor as small as an office coffee room. As I sat down on the bench next to the Center, defeated, a light wash of rain had begun to commence. It could not have been a more opportune time for nature to commiserate with me.

That missed encounter exemplifies the enigmatic presence of the independent, non-profit, radical bookshop, The Lucy Parsons Center. When opened, a shredded wooden sign inconspicuously beckons in this part of Boston’s Jamaica Plain accented with Spanish-language bodegas, beauty supply stores, and home-cooked style food joints.

Once aware of the sign outside of 358A Centre Street, my visits were successful for simply getting in. The Center is usually open Sunday-Wednesday. Store hours for Thursday-Saturday are (currently) uncertain due to a lack of volunteer employees to cover shifts on those days. It is recommended to check their Facebook page where hours are posted, albeit intermittently. You can also drop the store a line.

 

Inside, a grandma’s cottage feel permeates, from the Black & Decker coffee maker on the window sill to the tall and short rosewood bookcases and moss green suede couch. Followed by a volunteer’s tender hello behind a not-so-modish computer, they prefer the books, magazines, and zines to speak for themselves. They certainly do as, through its inventory, the Center stands with communities that constantly combat against discrimination and injustice, and interests of the radical and counterculture mindset. This is further exhibited in the artwork displayed such as the “Refugees Are Welcomed Here” poster on the entrance and on one wall, above a transgender-friendly illustration, a row of vintage revolutionary posters, including one declaring, “Assata Shakur Is Free.” Correlations can be made between the lives of Shakur and the shop’s namesake, Lucy Parsons.

“She was a radical organizer. She was thought to be more dangerous than a thousand rioters because of her ability to speak” a common Parsons description shared by the loquacious Jay Scheide, a volunteer for 21 years. “History doesn’t know much about her. The history that she embodies. We did want to publicize her and what she has contributed.”

Born in Texas 1853, Lucy was her real first name. But she used various surnames in an attempt to thwart prejudice at her Afro-Mestiza background. Her family was Mexican, African-American, and Native American. Reportedly, her last name was Gonzalez.

In 1871, violating miscegenation laws, Gonzalez married Albert Parsons, a socialist, anarchist, reporter, and former Confederate soldier. Together, they were castigated by police and politicians for their tireless gumption to elevate worker’s rights and fought all forms of repression. In May 1886, the couple was involved in two historic events.

On May 1, the Parsons joined the first May Day parade in Chicago, demanding an eight-hour workday. Three days later, Albert and other labor leaders spoke in support of the 2,000 blue-collar Chicagoans protesting police brutality. Later in the night, as 500 civilians remained, a bomb was thrown and exploded within the crowd. This is historically referred to as the Haymarket Riots. Albert and seven leaders were unjustly charged with conspiracy. He was executed on November 11, 1887.

130 years later, the bomber’s identity remains unknown.

Lucy continued her calling as a (rebellious) orator, socialist, writer, and activist, and in 1905, helped establish the International Worker’s Union. In 1942, she died in a house fire at the age of 89. (By then, she had no immediate surviving family members. Her daughter Lulu and son Albert Jr. had both died by 1919. Post-death, The Chicago Police allegedly confiscated a majority of her belongings and letters, leaving future historians to search harder on information about her).

Acknowledgment of her legacy—as she is a missing notable figure of late 19th-century history—wouldn’t manifest until the Red Book Store—opened two decades before—revamped and relocated from Jamaica Plain to Central Square with Parsons’ likeness in 1992. (Coincidentally, during one of my visits, Scheide was wearing an old “Redbook” T-shirt. The name, spelled as one word, was in graffiti text and past address of 92 Greene Street underneath). In 2011, the Center moved back to Jamaica Plain, continuing as The Lucy Parsons Center.

The staff is constantly re-ordering Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States and new classics by authors like Junot Diaz and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie can easily be found on shelves. There is a lending library birthed out of Occupy Boston and books in Spanish. For the Spanish-speaking community, Scheide pointed out, “We would like to have more Spanish-speaking people that are volunteers. But we do have some here.”

Because of the revolutionist material it distributes, the Center is also viewed as an info shop. Boston infoshops have dwindled, though fellow independents like The Brattle Book Shop, More Than Words, and Porter Square Books are in business. In 2002, the feminist focused New Words in Cambridge closed. But their once loyal clientele maybe now consider the Center as there’s been increased engagement with books on feminism and immigration, a clear repercussion of 2016’s inimical political climate. Commerce has otherwise been steady with its expected mix of regular and curious consumers.

“Bookstores…people read less. But they read books less than that too,” Scheide concluded another time, as I observed him handle an in-store soundtrack that went from “Fight the Power” to Bessie Smith on low volume. “Because of all the other media, getting books through Kindles and stuff like that…even the bigger bookstores are feeling it. People, who know who we are, often have a plan for the type of books they want.”

In a February 2016 New York Times Opinion Page, with a focus on Manhattan-based Book Culture, stated that the proof was in the receipts that smaller bookshops were back in vogue: “…the good news is that indies are quietly resurging across the nation, registering a growth of over 30 percent since 2009 and sales that were up around 10 percent last year…” This is good news for the Center, though it contradicted the Lower East Side closing of the beloved St. Mark’s Bookshop, yet the Times insisted “The indies now find that readers are looking for life beyond their computer screens.”

Returning to summer 2017, amidst another round of muggy weekend weather outside, three young women studiously gleaned the books inside the Center. After making individual purchases (the Center now owns 358A. Donations and sales cover other costs), they were delighted in having discovered the Jamaica Plain gem of a bookshop.

“I collect books to read, I’m an avid reader. I get a lot of used books and I was getting a lot of the same kind of perspectives. So this is me trying to round out my collection. I’m particularly interested in queer stuff, lesbian, trans, and perspectives that are different from my own…so African-American, Latina…especially things I don’t know a lot about like economics and politics” said Kyle, a native of “rural, Very White, lower-middle class” upstate New York. Her attire otherwise suggested she hailed from that more famous, diverse New York state of mind, downtown Manhattan, as she was wearing a red riding hood (no cape) dress and a cross body bag with an illustrated skull on it. Her long black hair was equally distinctive in pigtails and bright remnants of turquoise on top.

Joined by her sister Brooke, who looked primed for Nylon with her beachy waves hair in dyed faded teal, beige talon nails, and glasses, and their friend Jackie from Maine, the girls were at the start of a road trip and made a stop for the Center after Kyle Googled “odd bookstores.”

“While being here, I noticed that there were a lot of books and people who talk about violence, especially in Latin American countries…colonialism perspectives…and how violence might be a way of reclaiming identities. That’s something you don’t see in a lot of bookstores” Kyle added with a fist pump into her palm. “You have to know what you’re looking for [at mainstream bookstores] and what I like about here is, I just came in here and found these subjects.”

“Yeah, I had no idea of the type of book I would want or be interested in and I found some books I’m really into,” Brooke said. One of the books she bought was Canadian poet Rupi Kaur’s intensely honest Milk and Honey. Brooke liked how small the shop was, regarded the Refugees sign, and noticed that it was “very welcoming and a safe place for a lot of different people.” (This is true. The Center also operates as a haven for those to retreat and relax). “I was surprised to see all the different categories [too.]”

Kyle purchased a stack of books and while perusing her selections, culled Cunt: A Declaration of Independence by Inga Muscio and Brooke excitedly held up Rose, also by Muscio and said, “This is the other book that precedes that!”

“I’m also really interested in Language and how people in different groups are reclaiming or using language because it’s so confusing. It can be positive or negative, depending on who you’re talking to and also visual culture. I picked one on how art relates to politics and identity.” Kyle showed Artpolitik: Social Anarchist Aesthetics in an Age of Fragmentation by Neala Schleuning. “I’m really interested in that kind of stuff. We’re all visual artists and I want to make sure as I’m broadening and becoming aware of other peoples’ experience. I want to be true and appropriate to different boundaries and expressions. The books I’ve chosen are offshoots of what I studied in college.” Also peeking out from her stack was Urban Tumbleweed by Harryette Mullen.

Jackie only got The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, a non-fiction book she was on the hunt for. The now ten-year-old title imagines what would become of the environment if human beings were to disappear.

From its volunteer employees and visitors alike—once the schedule is figured out or come across it by chance—all react thankful, even relieved, to the existence of The Lucy Parsons Center. This year marks 25 years of the bookshop knowing its purpose of paying it forward to unsung heroes of revolution and writers unafraid to tap into the heartbreaking, uncomfortable, or untold. The shop has led by example in placing the undervalued heroism of Lucy Eldine Gonzalez Parsons at the forefront. Through their nurturance of radicalism, the Center has evolved as much of the individuals they admire so much. It is palpable to sell books. It’s different and a gambit to do so with a mission.

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