opened in 1999 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan as a feminist bookstore. Over the past 20-plus years, they’ve changed locations (they’re still on the Lower East Side) and shifted from being volunteer run to employee owned, predominantly by trans and queer individuals.
More than a bookstore, Bluestockings is a hub for activism and a community space, offering free services to those in need including food and necessities, as well as harm-reduction support, and a place for community organizers to gather.
They’ve hosted readings by authors like Janet Mock, Roxane Gay and Julia Wertz, and stock the shelves primarily with books on anarchism, queer revolution, transgender and gender theory, and feminism.
One of the cooperative’s nine owners, Raquel Espasande, spoke to us about the cooperative’s mission as a community space that is open to everyone.
Can you talk about how Bluestockings is run?
Raquel Espasande: There are nine of us who are full worker-owners, so there is no hierarchy. We make all decisions based on consensus, and we each own an equal amount of the bookstore. It’s a little bit different from before [when it was volunteer run], but it’s in-keeping with the same values.
The store started as a woman-run bookstore. What was the impetus for evolving into something more inclusive?
RE: The bookstore was started by a woman named Kathryn Welsh. As ownership changed hands, it just naturally expanded to different types of activism, still including feminism, because it was a really great way to build community. People naturally gravitated there to organize their unions and hold info shops and workshops. It’s not that we’re not owned by women, but we are overwhelmingly trans and queer. So we put that up front because it is the most salient identity.
How would you describe the broader Bluestockings community?
RE: One of the things we’re proudest of is the diversity of people who feel like they have a place at Bluestockings. There are people who have been coming to the bookstore for 20 years who stay for a few hours and drink coffee. There are a lot of unhoused people in the neighborhood who are good friends with us because of all the services we provide. We won’t kick anyone out, so they have a place to go and sit and read, and the coffee is just $1. The community here is very gay. Very trans. We have a lot of people who have been in community organizing since the '80s who come in.
You mentioned you offer a number of services to the local unhoused community. What does that look like?
RE: At the moment, we are just a normal, for-profit bookstore. But we also run a free store, where anyone can donate items like snacks, toothpaste, toothbrushes, all sorts of hygiene items and useful daily stuff. We give these out for free to anyone who comes in and asks, and most of the time those people are unhoused.
We also are registered with the City as an Opioid Overdose Prevention program, so we give out fentanyl test strips and free naloxone and naloxone training. We give it out to all types of people. We get invited to punk shows and do naloxone training on the side, like at the recent Mayday Space fundraiser for the New York State Abortion Access Fund. It was so much fun.
The cooperative seems to go above and beyond to support the community.
RE: It‘s surprisingly simple. Narcan [the brand name for naxolone] is just a nasal spray; I can teach somebody in 10 minutes how to use it properly, and that can save a life. It’s very disorienting how easy it is to offer things that are so desperately needed.
Maybe it seems easy to offer, but how many businesses are really thinking about that?
RE: Exactly. Being a business that allows everybody to use the restroom means there are constantly people going in and out of our restroom, and sometimes there are arguments over things like people taking too long. Of course, it’s frustrating. You have one bathroom that is used by an entire demographic in the neighborhood. That’s the only bathroom they can really use, and it’s only open from 11am to 7pm.
Can you talk more about other harm-reduction services you offer?
RE: We’re a place where people can come in and ask questions. For anything that is outside our capacity or level of understanding, we refer people to the or the [both] in the neighborhood. People trust us that we’re going to send them to a place that isn’t going to incarcerate them or force them into treatment. We connect them to people who will treat them well.
What are some other mutual aid events you host?
RE: We do a binder swap, where people who no longer need or no longer use chest binders can drop them off, washed, at our location, and we’ll post which sizes we have on . Anyone who needs a binder in that size will come by and pick it up, which is self-sustaining, and that’s the nice thing about mutual aid. People just need a place that can hold these interactions, but it’s really the community who’s helping each other out. Especially with something like binders, a lot of people get top surgery and no longer need the binder, but it’s still in perfectly good condition.
Having been on the Lower East Side for so long, do you feel a strong connection to the neighborhood?
RE: We do feel very tied to it. We’ve seen the neighborhood change a lot. What’s in our old location now is a membership-only cannabis club. But there are so many great community organizations that we’re able to have relationships with in the Lower East Side, like the harm-reduction centers that I mentioned, , —these are all pretty much walking distance from us. The has a garden that is an amazing event space they let us use.
What’s the responsibility you feel as a bookstore to promote diverse voices and topics in literature?
RE: As much as I love everything that we do, I would not work here if it wasn’t a bookstore. When I graduated college, my primary plan was to become a public librarian. As I got more involved with Bluestockings, I realized everything I wanted to do at a public library I was able to do with less restriction here. There’s this pervasive myth of political neutrality in public libraries, but it’s impossible to be completely politically neutral. When you’re tied to government funding in the way that a public library is, you have to make really difficult choices based on what your patrons want to read and what funders want you to have in the library.
We had a fundraiser over Zoom back in the quarantine times where we had a bunch of amazing authors like and speaking. talked about how she was living in the Lower East Side before she rose to heights of success. When her came out, the first place that she saw it placed in the window was at Bluestockings.
What are some other books on your radar?
How do you see the City supporting the Bluestockings mission?
RE: One thing that is supremely important for me, and pretty much everyone who works at the bookstore, is the politics of New York City. We are fairly assured that abortion rights will stay safe here, trans people and trans health care will be safe here, that to some extent immigrants are welcome here and have resources in the City.
We couldn’t have this bookstore in a place where we’d be the only community organization or be battling laws that are too restrictive. We couldn’t offer free Plan B if it weren’t for the City program support; referring people to the New York State Abortion Fund, which funds not only people living in New York but also people who have to travel here for access; our naloxone; even the free fentanyl test strips we give out—those are illegal in a number of states. There’s just no way that a place with as thin profit margins as we have could do as much in another city.
There could be a version of Bluestockings that exists somewhere else, but it wouldn’t be the same.