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What’s the Big Idea? Read on…

By Suzanne | January 20, 2010

I’m pleased to report that on my recent trip out east to visit my family, I was finally able to stop by The Big Idea Bookstore in Pittsburgh. I’d tried to go by and check it out last time I was in town, this fall —but it just didn’t work out then, possibly because the entire city of Pittsburgh seemed to still be in recovery after having been invaded by so many riot cops the previous weekend.

Anyhow, this time I got a chance to check out the Big Idea as well as meet a few of the collective members. They are swell people and they’ve got a good thing going on there, so I decided to write them up as our latest store profile! Two collective members, Hannah and Dave, were kind enough to answer some questions for me…

AK: Can you tell me when and how the Big Idea got started, and how you got involved?

Dave: The Big Idea started on February 14, 2001… I’ve only been involved for a little over a year, having seen the storefront on my way home from work one night. I checked it out and started volunteering shortly thereafter.

Hannah: The Big Idea started—long before my time—at [another] location, in Wilkinsburg (a different part of Pittsburgh). It was part of an umbrella group called The Multi-tool, which included the bookstore, a show space called The Mr. Roboto Project, and a free bicycle resource called Free Ride. The other organizations still exist, but The Big Idea moved in early 2004 to its current Bloomfield location. I started volunteering in January 2009. I think I originally learned about the store some time before that, when trying to figure out where I could get a copy of Maximum Rocknroll in Pittsburgh.

AK: What would you say is the main mission of the Big Idea collective? Do you see yourselves primarily as a bookstore, or does your space serve other purposes as well?

Dave: We’re a small space, so at this point we’re mostly into selling radical books and zines. We’re looking to moving to a larger space so that we can focus on events and making space available to other groups.

Hannah: We would be ecstatic to open our space to a multiplicity of purposes, but our current, tiny location scarcely allows room for more than three people to stand around at once…. We hope to someday buy our own building, which would necessarily be bigger (and just about anything would fall into that category). With more room, we would strive to become a community space as much as a bookstore.

AK: How do you choose the books you carry? What do people come in looking for?

Hannah: We admittedly order most of our books from AK (what up, AK!), although we also carry the works of many other publishers. Our buying process is collective: any collective member is welcome to flip through catalogues and choose which books they would like to order. We tend to reorder books that sell well. Right now, some of our most popular books are about sustainability—like The Urban Homestead and Toolbox for Sustainable Urban Living.

Dave: We all go through the catalogs, if we’re interested in participating in the order, and make a list of what we’d like to carry. Then as a collective we go over the list and pare it down—usually based on what we can afford that order, what has sold well in the past, and what we think is just worth carrying. People come in looking for all kinds of things: zines, used books, the latest New York Times bestselling political outrage book (which we never have)…

AK: How is your collective structured? How many people are involved at any given time? How many people does it take to keep the store open?

Dave: We’re a “flat” collective. The only “authority” roles are the coordinators who make sure essential shit gets done (paying bills, communicating info, etc.). All decision making is collective and consensus based. I couldn’t say how many people it takes to keep the store open. Right now we have about a dozen volunteers, including some new folks, and we seem to be doing all right.

Hannah: The level of involvement in the collective is self-selecting. Volunteers can choose to simply cover shifts, or they can choose to participate more by taking on coordinator positions. We use loose consensus to make decisions, and we are usually able to discuss issues casually as a group, as there are always less than 10 people at any given meeting. Most of the volunteers we work with are pretty reasonable people, as well. The particularly unreasonable ones tend to self-select out.

AK: From an outside perspective, it seems like there’s been a lot of anarchist/radical folks traveling and moving to Pittsburgh in recent years. Is that a fair assessment? How has that affected the city and your project?

Hannah: The influx of radicals is, of course, a double-edged sword. On the one edge, more radicals means more patrons and more volunteers. On the other edge, they have tended to be a transient bunch without the commitment levels required for running a bookstore. Many times, newbies to Pittsburgh will find out about the store, decide they want to volunteer, tell us all the ways that they are going to improve space, and then disappear forever.

Until this past year, Pittsburgh had long been an isolated city—missing from the maps of many travelers, as well as movers and shakers. But 2009 turned the spotlight onto Pittsburgh brightly and hotly: The city hosted conferences for liberal bloggers, union organizers, and Crimethinc. kids alike. And the international attention was still yet to come in September with the G-20 spectacle and debacle. Beyond all this, the mainstream media have begun to tout Pittsburgh as a “green” city success story—a statement that is certainly up for debate.

All this attention has made more than a few people uneasy. With Pittsburgh becoming such a popular place for anarchists to relocate, some wonder if they will really stay or if they might soon move on to the next hip city. This place has always been a retirement town for old punks who want to buy houses. But could it become a type of Bay Area soon—that is, a place that everyone has lived once but where no one stays forever? Within the next year, I think we will see whether or not our city’s popularity will last.

AK: What have been the greatest successes or achievements of your project?

Dave: Our biggest achievement is just staying open. We’ve had some rough months this past year but have really pulled together as a collective to stay open by putting more hours to see that the store maintains regular business hours. We also had a fundraiser in December that was a whopping success that we hope to repeat in spring or summer.

AK: Do you have any advice for other folks out there trying to start up their own infoshops or distros?

Dave: I, as all the current volunteers, inherited the infoshop from the founders who have long since moved on the other projects. [So] perhaps the only advice I can offer is to try to not take on too much as individuals and always bring in new blood so that the infoshop’s operation doesn’t rely on a small core of people. That way, as people naturally come and go, the infoshop remains a fresh and vital project.

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