The Big Idea bookstore, says clerk Kevin Finn, is "an epicenter [for] a certain sense of consciousness." The Bloomfield store is dedicated to rare, radical publications on everything from alternative religion to organizing social movements and anarchist philosophy -- texts not usually available at the chains. "There are a lot of important social and political realities that you don't see in the mainstream media."
Finn is one of about 20 volunteers who have worked at Big Idea for no pay since it opened in January. The store's 400-square-foot main floor is crammed with bookshelves labeling its sections in ransom-note typescript: "Queer Issues." "Military History." "Cookbooks/Politics of Food." The store's even more cramped upstairs houses racks of alternative newspapers and 'zines -- small, scrappily produced magazines both nationally and locally produced. On the store's walls hang cartoon antiwar and antigovernment posters, the types of banners seen unlawfully pasted to abandoned buildings and lampposts across the city, here carefully tacked to the walls and sold for $3 each.
Most of Big Idea's stock comes from small, socially progressive publishers such as AK Press and Common Courage, although the store will order almost anything. Democracy in America by Alexis De Tocqueville is already in stock.
Inventory Manager Rachael Weber says there's not yet a bestseller among the hundreds of titles sold. Frequent patron Katie Dodo says she recently bought Atheism: The God Against God, by George H. Smith, as well as books on Buddhism and Wicca.
"I was raised Mormon but that's long gone," she explains. "I could probably find books on these subjects in the library -- but not from these perspectives."
Big Idea originated as a table selling leftist books and periodicals inside the Mr. Roboto Project, a punk-rock venue in Wilkinsburg run by a collective. Inspired by similar bookstores in New York City and Seattle, activists at Mr. Roboto rented the space at the end of last year.
Weber says the store is keeping afloat largely thanks to volunteers, who include college students, teachers, medical professionals and blue-collar workers.
"Look around here: A lot of people are pretty poor," says Nathan Irvingson, a factory worker and volunteer clerk. "They need to know there is more they can do than just vote to change things."
The building that houses Big Idea was recently the office of state Rep. Frank Pistella. The 53-year-old moderate Democrat hasn't come by to see his office's new stock (Organise! For Revolutionary Anarchism, for instance, and The Complete Social History of LSD), but clerks say some of his younger aides frequent the store. One reportedly praised the store and bought a book for his teen-age daughter, says the store's Weber.
"He was just wowed," Weber says. "He was so happy that young people were interested in politics."