Madison's most tenacious left-wing bookstore might be closing at the end of August, amid confusion over its future.
It's hardly news anymore that local independent bookstores face increasingly difficult times, with the competition of Internet retail and the squeeze of a populace less and less interested in reading physical material. Just recently, in Madison, for instance, the once-radical-feminist bookstore A Room of One's Own has had to reinvent itself to appeal to a larger audience and thus stay afloat.
Now it appears that Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative, a radical Madison fixture since 1989, is on its last legs. Curiously, though, it's not exactly clear how near the end is for its downtown store.
The store already has "END OF BUSINESS // SUMMER CLEARANCE" signs displayed in its windows and throughout the store at 426 W. Gilman St., and a well-stocked cart of free books sits out front. Four Rainbow volunteers said this week that the bookstore was planning to close by the end of August. Some even discussed plans to find a new home for Rainbow's beloved shop cat, Harvey Goldberg. But senior volunteer and textbook purchaser John Peck wrote in an email Wednesday that although Rainbow is "certainly facing some financial challenges and are having another collective meeting on Friday, August 12… to discuss future options," he could not confirm whether or not the store was closing until after that date.
And significantly, there is no indication on Rainbow's website or social media accounts that the store is planning to shut down in a few short weeks. Several other volunteers and board members did not respond to requests for comment this week.
Back in February, volunteers Suz Smela and Erik Beach said in an interview with WORT's Brian Standing that there was no plan to close the shop, and that the current Rainbow lease ends in February 2018. But they also noted in that interview that Rainbow has been feeling squeezed in a crucial part of its business: selling textbooks to UW-Madison students. They explained that a recent administrative change at UW-Madison requires faculty to list their books online so that students, presumably, can search out deals themselves.
Volunteers Camy Matthay and Elizabeth Severson also pointed to this administrative change as a large blow to Rainbow's well-being. "The reason Rainbow is closing is absolutely financial," Severson said this week. "Textbook sales were a huge part of Rainbow’s financial backing, and [the recent UW change] was the last straw for the closing of Rainbow."
Allen Ruff, a former longtime staffer, textbook orderer, and member of the Board of Directors, agrees.
"For many years, the textbook orders from UW faculty through Rainbow helped provide an economic foundation for everything else that went on in the store—several weeks of textbook orders provided a cushion for the rest of the year," Ruff says.
"That changed very rapidly within a very short period of time as more and more people went online to get their books," he adds. "The textbook rush disappeared down to a trickle with online ordering—a situation that was exacerbated by the requirement that University faculty order their books through University Bookstore, unless faculty specifically opt out."
Ruff points to several non-technological reasons for the decline of radical bookstores: the shrinkage of specific radical movements, the changing of the composition of the Madison student body, and the contraction of a broader socially and politically conscious base that supports bookstores.
Sandi Torkildson, co-owner of A Room of One's Own, has dealt with this as well. Torkildson said this week that she felt she needed to shift her store from a radical feminist bookstore into a general bookstore that carries "enough things to give any person a reason to buy from our store" in order to stay in business.
Allen Ruff also used A Room of One's Own as an illustration of a bookstore that once had the support of a certain liberal movement behind it—in that case, the strength of the women's community in Madison.
But while A Room of One's Own changed its business plan in order to stay competitive, the Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative didn't, and stuck with the founding principles it established back in 1989. That perhaps foolhardy decision is why many people (this author included) love it so much as an institution. Not only is it hard to find a shop with several shelves full of books filed under the simple header of "Anarchism," but it's also increasingly difficult to find a place that retains some of the spirit and vigor of Madison's progressive past—a radical energy that is needed more than ever.
Karl Marx argued in his Theses On Feuerbach that "Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world in various ways; the point is to change it." Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative has not only provided a place to read about alternative principles, but it's provided a space to live alternative principles. It has provided a space for, at various points, the Books to Prisoners Project and the LGBT Books to Prisoners Project, the homeless newspaper Street Pulse, the No Dane County Jail group, GSAFE, talks with radical authors too numerous to count, a small library, and various other projects and organization. If Rainbow goes under, Madison will become a much more lonely place to fight for social change.