Find solace and community at Bluestockings Cooperative Bookstore

This queer, trans and sex worker runs a moonlit bookstore as a cafe, free store and activist space.

When I walked into Bluestockings Cooperative Bookstore, a radical Lower East Side bookstore, a few Saturdays ago, I didn’t expect to walk away with two pants and a blazer. After wandering around the store and heading to the back, I discovered a room covered in clothes and a poster on the wall that said “free savings for trans people and sex workers”. Having never heard of a free thrift store, I had my doubts about taking free clothes, but after confirming with an employee – who pointed out that there were more bags of clothes to come – I walked out of the room a few hours later wearing the professional attire I’d been looking for at no cost.

Bluestockings Cooperative, founded in 1999, began as a volunteer-run women’s bookstore. It now exists as a radical, worker-owned activist space that sells books almost exclusively written by LGBTQ+ people. The cooperative aims to serve as a resource for anyone in need, by offering a free store with food, clothing and hygiene products. They also host monthly Zoom meetings for book clubs and trans support groups.

Annalisa Myer, a trans doctoral student at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center, thinks Bluestockings accomplishes that mission. After hearing about the free savings on Instagram, she ventured down Suffolk Street and returned home with a sweater vest, loafers and hoodies.

“Searching for new clothes can be an expensive ordeal – even spared – and the cost is really prohibitive for many trans people, especially during the winter months when you need thicker or warmer clothes,” a- she declared.

The store offered this free gift for two days in October, affirming its commitment to providing a comfortable space for the LGBTQ+ community to shop and socialize.

“Free savings advertised size inclusiveness and offered a selection of larger sizes,” Myer said. “I love meeting other trans people and finding community. They had lots of high quality clothing and overall I think the event was a great success!

The store also offers a unique program where customers pre-pay for future shoppers who might need financial support or just a pick-me-up. Sticky notes with money amounts and people profiles scribbled on them hang on a wall for anyone who fits the description to pick one up and use it as a money substitute in Bluestockings.

“$5 [for] anyone who cannot bear the crushing weight of capitalism” and “$5 [for a] queer survivor on the road to recovery,” are just a few that I have seen.

“Bluestockings was the first place I saw myself reflected when I was a queer young person, and that was really important,” said Merlin Sabal, one of the store’s owners. “I really hope this is a legacy that we will continue.”

Sabal started as a volunteer in 2018 before landing a job when Bluestockings transitioned to a worker co-op in 2020. This year marked several changes as the store closed due to the pandemic in March 2020 and fully reopened in a new location in 2021.

“It was really important for us to stay on the Lower East Side because that’s where we had built our community,” Sabal said. “So even if we had to leave the Allen Street location, it was important for us to stay here.”

In addition to the free store program offered at Bluestockings, the co-op is also registered as an Opioid Overdose Prevention Program in New York.

“The Lower East Side and The Village have been really, really gentrified over the past 40 years and so part of the Opioid Overdose Prevention Program and the Free Store are our attempts to resist some of that gentrification,” said said Sabal. “I think it’s a great place for people to learn about harm reduction because a lot of our population is young gay people and a lot of those people like to go to parties and do drugs, and public awareness stuff about harm reduction doesn’t always reach those people.

People can become certified in administration Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of opioids, and leaves the store with a bag containing two spray bottles. The store provides free fentanyl test strips, masks and rapid COVID-19 tests.

The back room, in which the free savings were housed, generally functions as a comfortable seating area with tables and chairs accessible to all. The cafe sells drinks that cost no more than $7, and the counter opposite has some cheap pins and stickers.

It’s rare to find a reasonably priced store in New York. Raquel Espasande, another of the store’s owners, witnessed customers’ surprise at this affordable approach.

“Sometimes it’s so sad to see how downcast New Yorkers are because they come in and say, ‘I’m so sorry, but can I use your restroom? I’m going to buy something. I’m like honey, no, please use it,” Espasande said. “We have free towels in there, condoms and all kinds of things. It’s very sad but I’m glad we can to be that space for people. There aren’t many places where you can exist for free in New York, especially indoors, other than libraries.

Espasande insists that owners never expect people to buy anything. At Bluestockings Cooperative, they want to change the idea that occupying space requires money while removing the discomfort or pressure people feel to always pay when they are outdoors.

We want you here, so don’t worry,” they said.

Whether you’re shopping for a book, sipping coffee, or simply engaging in community space, Bluestockings Cooperative aspires to help all New Yorkers.

Contact Sunny Sequeira to [email protected]

Virginia S. Braud