The climate and landscape in Bloomington has been changing rapidly. This is clear on any drive or walk around town, particularly around Kirkwood, the Square, and in the areas off the B-line trail. Massive luxury condo developments, the bank and future hotel on Kirkwood across from the Monroe County Public Library, the Hyatt Place hotel, and further projects off Kirkwood and elsewhere are constructed with a particular population in mind. It is not for those of us struggling to find ever-elusive affordable housing near our jobs or schools, and it’s surely not the numerous community members who are left homeless without a year-round shelter: temporary shelter or places of gathering set up by people experiencing homelessness are regularly attacked and evicted by police, often to make room for developments like the “Artisan Row” houses on the B-Line off Dodds, Echo Park development South of Country Club Rd, and the forthcoming Switchyard Park. We saw this more recently with the clearing of People’s Park’s homeless population by the police, which coincided with both increased surveillance downtown and the construction of new micro-apartments on the site of the Bloomington Bagel building overlooking People’s Park.
Boxcar Books and Community Center has stood throughout all of this. It’s no secret that brick and mortar bookstores have struggled, and folded, in an increasingly digitized age. We’ve watched independent bookstores and infoshops around the country, including Bloomington’s own Howard’s, close in recent years. Rising rent and a Kirkwood increasingly geared toward techies and wealthy students and their families did not bode well for an independent, radical, volunteer-run collective bookstore.
Boxcar has existed as a bookstore in Bloomington for 16 years — occupying our current location on 6th St. for 9 years — but our role as a community center was often backgrounded. In the last couple years we have focused on promoting ourselves as a place to gather, and often simply exist, in an increasingly policed and surveilled downtown. As the wider community has struggled with homelessness, addiction, and hyper-policing of the poor, so has Boxcar Books. In addition to serving as a hub for marginalized and underrepresented literature and radical thought, we, to our knowledge, continue to have the only open-access bathroom in the area. We offer free coffee, wifi, device charging, a place to engage with ideas and meet, and a warm space to rest or hang out for anyone, regardless of their background, housing situation, or financial standing.
At times, this led to a struggle to establish healthy boundaries as we worked to offer space for all people, including those experiencing homelessness, addiction, and mental illness. While our dwindling collective struggled every month to raise enough money to pay our exorbitant rent and bills and combat the structural decay of the building, we also struggled with the reality of what creating open space actually entails. As the downtown area was transformed, Boxcar became a locus of the city’s refusal to deal with those social problems highlighted by development. We struggled to be able to continue to offer space for those people who most desperately needed it, while still having a store that felt accessible and enjoyable for customers and groups holding events. It was a learning process, and we did not always succeed. Even with this constant crisis over the last two years, we felt that it was incredibly important to continue to offer what little we could: an open community space to all. We understand that poverty, housing insecurity, and, to a large extent, addiction are the manifestations of those issues highlighted by the books and zines we carry. Oppression and gentrification are more than ideas – they live and breathe, they transform towns and they quash independent thought.
While we ultimately learned how to balance the needs of the bookstore with those of the community center, the strain put on our volunteers during the heightened cleansing of Kirkwood was immense and many left. The extreme pressure we felt from our landlord, the police, and, most fiercely, our neighbors to make our space off-limits to people without homes, combined with our own emotional ability to handle constant crises, made it hard for us to focus on what we love about running a radical collective bookstore.
When Boxcar started in 2002, we paid $350 in rent for a storefront at 3rd and Washington. We were able to expand our collection and even start renting the storefront next door during those years. Then, in 2008, the building was demolished to make way for the new downtown bus station, and we were forced to find a new location to house both Boxcar and Pages to Prisoners. We found a new space closer to IU campus, and our total rent for Boxcar and Pages to Prisoners nearly quadrupled overnight. Since then it has steadily gone up, and we are now paying 725% more rent than we paid 15 years ago. We now pay more rent than Bluestockings infoshop in Manhattan, NY. Our sales, and bookstore sales in general, could not and cannot compete with that staggering increase. We’ve definitely had some good times, but for many years we have been burning through savings to keep the space going. We got to the point a year or two ago where we could no longer afford to buy new books. Our only new titles were from donations. Even as we sold titles from our shelves, we could not afford to restock the books we were selling because every dollar earned was being spent to pay for rent, utilities, and supplies to keep the place open, leading to a situation where our sections have been shriveling over time. This then fed the problem because having less new and interesting titles, and a constantly shrinking collection, made the store less exciting to browse and led to even slower sales.
Prior to our renovation of the space in 2016, which followed a protracted hunt for a new location, we knew that staying afloat at our current location would be a struggle, but with downtown rapidly changing and prices increasing, our rental options were very limited. We came close to renting a new exciting space, but at the last moment it was sold to an “anonymous investor.” Out of options and not able to move, we decided to continue our lease with an increase in rent. It’s not news that bookstores have been feeling the heat to stay relevant in an ever digitized world. We have been told countless of times by shoppers that, while it was easier and cheaper to get books off of Amazon, they come to Boxcar to support us and our mission. That’s a wonderful thing and we wholeheartedly thank those people, but we also see which way the wind has been blowing.
Unfortunately, our declining sales, constantly rising rent and bills, and a neighborhood that no longer has space for places like Boxcar has finally caught up to us. To say that we have tried everything we could to remain open would be an understatement. From hosting numerous public fundraising events, online fundraising campaigns, special store sales, and adjustment of store hours to looking for new buildings and new partnerships, we have all but exhausted our ability to dream and feel inspired by the project we have committed years to. Boxcar and Pages to Prisoners volunteers have spent their own money buying supplies, sometimes even covering bills, in an attempt to buy us more time. After well over a year of operating at complete scarcity, we feel we are in a financial place that can’t be recovered from in the long term without a $20-30k investment in new books, new computers and software, and funds to pay off and leave our unaffordable rental space. We also simply lack the volunteer power to make good on these dreams. It is easy to get folks excited about helping out with a new venture; it’s much harder to get those people to stick around for years to do the hard work that has to be done to keep a project open, particularly when that work is all volunteer.
It is remarkable that the people that started Boxcar in 2001 were able to pass the reins off to new volunteers after only a few years. So many different groups of volunteers have come and gone and somehow the project has persisted. While we feel a definite sadness and weight at being the last group of volunteers, we also hope folks will take their sadness at the ending of this particular Bloomington place and not simply say “Oh well, Bloomington is changing,” but fight for a different kind of change – change for the better.
We understand, in a world that is forcing people to become ever more isolated, that nothing can quite take away from the charm of meeting people face to face in a physical space. We have valued being able to offer a place where people could exchange ideas freely and gather to discuss the storm that is the current political climate. Our most valued memories will be witnessing the awe young folks have in discovering zines and radical literature for the first time, being able to host outdoor and indoor movie screenings, readings, and political meetings, and, most importantly, being a place that strived to be a voice for prisoners. We understand the necessity of spaces like this to exist and hope another will again in Bloomington. Thank you to everyone who has supported us financially, materially, emotionally – you may not know it, but often your support came at a time when we couldn’t have continued without it. Our future projects may look different, but we’re not going anywhere. Whether under the moniker of Boxcar or not, we’ll be fighting for change and finding new places to meet. We hope to find you there.