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Little Shop, Big Idea

Browsing through Pittsburgh's most political bookstore

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Here's how you know Bloomfield's Big Idea bookstore is a great place: On the day I visited, it had only one copy of a book by ur-capitalist Ayn Rand, whose books convince college students that their only obligation in life is to make lots of money. And that lone copy was moldering in the discount bin outside, its pages yellowing in the summer sun.

 

 

How do you like the genius of the free market now, bee-yotch?

 

Big Idea is a volunteer-driven collective that specializes in politically progressive titles, and in all things offbeat and strange. Recently relocated from Wilkinsburg, Big Idea brings to Pittsburgh something that every self-respecting city has: a left-leaning storefront bookstore.

 

A look at the titles is enough to tell you that you're not in Barnes & Noble any more -- not even the one in Squirrel Hill. Die Nigger Die! by H. Rap Brown. The Diary of a Compost Hotline Operator. Anti-branding broadside No Logo by Naomi Klein. Compost. Books by Noam Chomsky, of course, and anarchist Emma Goldman. Books on prisons, racial issues and the labor movement -- not to mention the racial issues faced by the labor movement. There are even how-to books like From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank, which teaches you how to convert a diesel-engine car to one that runs on vegetable oil: The exhaust, apparently, smells like French fries. (Note to aspiring New Economy types: Given Pittsburgh eating habits, we could become the Houston of the vegetable oil business. Every Primanti Brothers is a potential gusher! Get in on the ground floor!)

 

The store's collection is not large, by any means, but Big Idea's all-volunteer staff can special-order just about anything you want, and more than a few things you've never heard of. Recently ordered: The SCUM Manifesto -- the call to arms of would-be Andy Warhol assassin Valerie Solanis -- although volunteer Mary Jo Knelly tells me "We usually have that one in stock." Who does the ordering? Any of the volunteers belonging to the Big Idea Collective. (Qualifications are not especially demanding: "You have to show up at one of our meetings," Knelly says.)

 

Housed in the former district office of state Rep. Frank Pistella, the space retains a handsome tin ceiling, but as you might expect, a DIY aesthetic prevails throughout. Some of the bookshelves are homemade, and have a tendency to sag under the weighty musings of Herbert Marcuse. The furniture is mostly donated. The chairs, for example, were the gift of "a woman from Squirrel Hill who asked if we were helping to beat Bush, and we said 'Sure!'" A loft-like second floor features a table and casual meeting space for lefties who need a roof under which to keep dry while they subvert the dominant paradigm. The space is decorated with local and national zines as well as political posters. (Interior decorating is by local activist Etta Cetera.)

 

The Big Idea is not exactly a new idea: An earlier manifestation of the store existed alongside Wilkinsburg's Roboto Project performance space. But the store's hours were anarchic -- and not in a good way. Big Idea now features regular hours, and while a volunteer occasionally doesn't show, the collective is confident enough to print its hours on bookmarks: Wednesday to Saturday from noon to 7 p.m., Sundays from noon to 5 p.m.

 

But Big Idea isn't just a store; it's also, fittingly, a state of mind. Volunteers have taken the store outside its walls, doing outreach and sales at other locations. At last year's funky-yet-upscale "Hot House" fund-raising event, Knelly says, "The people in their khakis wanted to buy every book we had."

 

Sadly, though, "We can't get the people in khakis to come to the store," Knelly adds. Recently, she says, "I saw the movie The Corporation, which has interviews with Naomi Klein and Noam Chomsky. I imagine people would want to buy their books after seeing the movie, and I'd wish for them to come here."

 

If it seems odd that going out and buying something would be someone's first response to The Corporation -- which decries the increasing power of our free market overlords -- well, such are the contradictions of capitalism. And Big Idea is happy to sell rope you can use to hang the system -- or at least Ayn Rand's corpse.

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