Customers who walk into Internationalist Books and Community Center this Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, will be greeted by empty shelves, a dormant cash register and a most unlikely sales pitch: “BUY NOTHING.”
That’s because the only items Internationalist will be selling the day after Thanksgiving are the store’s ideals, which include good old-fashioned anti-consumerism. “Our overconsumption is killing the planet,” reads a store flyer announcing the non-sale, which will feature free food, music, gift-swapping and street theater. “We plan to provide a festive space for those who choose to join the consumer fast.”
Though the store won’t make a dime, its staff considers this day Internationalist’s biggest of the year. “We’re not a commercial store,” manager Dawn Peebles explains. “We’re selling books as a means to educate, not to make lots of money. We’re probably going to lose a couple hundred dollars, but we would much rather participate in the international anti-consumerism movement.”
Stores that put principles before profits usually don’t survive for long, but Internationalist, Chapel Hill’s hotbed of rabble-rousers and radical readers, will celebrate its 20th anniversary this February. At times, the store has struggled to stay afloat, buffeted by inconsistent sales and the sudden loss of its original owner. But during the last year, Internationalist has hit its stride by implementing a bold plan to go cooperative. The store is hosting more readings and teach-ins, disseminating a wider range of materials and making more news than ever before.
As the store marks its upcoming anniversary with a series of festivities and a new membership drive, it will also commemorate a more somber occasion. February 21 is the 10th anniversary of the murder of Internationalist’s founding owner, Bob Sheldon.
Back in 1981, during the early days of the Reagan Revolution, Sheldon launched Internationalist as a reading room for Marxist and counter-culture literature. “We have no country, we just live here,” read the store’s first manifesto. “We have no interest in keeping America No. 1.” That defiant global perspective took root as the store became a center for anti-apartheid organizing at UNC-Chapel Hill.
Sheldon stayed at his original location, a cramped room above Henderson Street Bar & Grill, for two years before moving to a freestanding building on West Rosemary Street. The store flourished there, filling out the extra space with more books, magazines, bumper stickers and other leftist ephemera. It also became a nexus of agitators fighting inequality, patriarchy, racism, homophobia and imperialism.
Internationalist was also a center of fervent organizing against the 1991 Gulf War, which was raging on the Thursday night that someone walked into the store and killed Sheldon with a gunshot to the head. The police turned up no significant leads, and the murder has never been solved.
A team of two dozen volunteers stepped in to run Internationalist after Sheldon’s death. As they mourned, they organized to get the store on a firmer financial footing. Sympathetic professors at UNC-Chapel Hill began ordering their textbooks through the store, and in late 1995, Internationalist moved to 405 West Franklin St., a heavily traveled location that has increased the customer base.
Still, by the standards of most small businesses, sales are meager. “We do about $4,000 in sales a month, of which about a thousand is profit,” says Peebles. “Our rent is $825.” There’s barely enough left over to pay her part-time salary. In 1998, financial crisis set in with “the great textbook fiasco,” as the staff calls it. UNC Student Stores, which already had a corner on the market, began making a point to carry the textbooks Internationalist sold. Textbook sales fell through the floor, and by early 1999, the store was $80,000 in debt.
At that point, Peebles says, “We were facing either shutting down or reaching out.” The volunteers decided on what seemed like an inevitable solution: collective management. In April 1999, Internationalist became a cooperative, and thus far the store has signed up more than 400 members. A $20 annual fee gets members a 10 percent discount at the store and a vote for the board of directors. The fundraising blitz picked up support from several donors and rock bands that volunteered for three benefit shows. Today, Internationalist has chipped its debt down to $20,000, and will eliminate it altogether in two years under the current payment plan.
“Until then, every day is a new financial struggle,” Peebles says. But the emergency has passed, and the store has plunged back into its multifaceted mission. During the last year and a half, Internationalist’s 30 volunteers have spearheaded an astounding array of campaigns.
The store coordinated Take Back the Streets, a series of downtown rallies on behalf of preserving public space, and served as a meeting space for the Food Not Bombs collective and several skill-share groups. Teach-ins addressed the drug war in Colombia, the sanctions against Iraq, the uprising in Chiapas and the international finance system. The store mobilized quickly to organize press conferences and raise legal support funds for Triangle-based activists arrested while protesting in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. Monthly open-mic poetry and free movie nights filled out the cultural agenda, and capacity crowds of 50 and 60 people sandwiched into the store for author readings on everything from corporate abuses to genetic engineering to “fearless, feminist porn.”
“I think the overall contribution [of the store] is giving voice to all kinds of issues that otherwise people wouldn’t have access to,” says Ruby Sinreich, a veteran community activist from Chapel Hill who sits on the Internationalist’s board of directors. “Especially when you think where independent bookstores are going, how much they are struggling and disappearing, it makes the role of the Internationalist that much more important.”
Another way the store gives voice to the voiceless, Sinreich says, is by “acting as a hub for grassroots organizers, especially when it’s small groups or just one or two individuals looking for a little help” getting projects off the ground.
Each of those initiatives shapes the store, says Darren Hunicutt, a 21-year-old volunteer who studies history at UNC-Chapel Hill and works as a cashier at Weaver Street Market. “This is a community space, a space where people can gather,” he says. “For everyone who wants to see things happening locally, a crucial part of that is having an actual space, a shelter where you can legally meet.” The book selling, he says, is secondary.
Above all, Sinreich observes, “This bookstore is very accepting and very fluid.” Peebles offers evidence of that by recounting a recent store incident that was handled in true Internationalist style: “Last week, some guy came in who wanted to spread the word about nudism–and he wanted to do it ‘in uniform.’ Shay Bryant, our volunteer who was working, didn’t want him to be completely nude so she made him tape his ‘Ask me about nudism’ flyers to his front and back. Stuff like that happens here all the time.”
Internationalist staff say that with its upcoming anniversary, the store is poised to embark on another major evolution, one that will continue the tradition of local and global action. Asked what they are lacking most, Peebles says, “I think that we need more outreach.” Or, as Sinreich puts it, “With our community mission, we can’t carry out the work without the support of the community.”