Over $30,000 Raised in Revolution Books NYC Summer Fundraising: A Great Beginning

October 28, 2013 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us


From staff members of Revolution Books, NYC:

Over this past summer, Revolution Books in New York City made a great beginning in meeting the challenge of not just surviving, but sustaining and expanding its mission. Over $30,000 was raised, going against every conventional notion and assumption about the revolutionary possibilities in today's world and against the prevailing political and cultural climate. How did this happen?

First, the world has been in turmoil through the whole summer: millions watching the Zimmerman trial were slammed with a verdict which brought thousands into the street and many more to a hot simmer; the whole world learned that the U.S. government is spying on pretty much everyone with a computer or phone; Obama was threatening a major military assault on Syria; the planet heat-up hit another sickening milestone.

Second, as this summer unfolded, the store was at a critical juncture. The lease had expired, and to keep Revolution Books open was going to require an immediate and gigantic leap in fund raising. In fact, everything—donations, sales, traffic, events, and publicity—had to jump to another level to save the store and get it in position to become self-sustaining by 2014.

Just holding on was neither desirable nor an option. Revolution Books is needed more than ever. Where else in New York City can people explore why the world is like this, and how the future could be radically different? Where else will someone dare to tell you about this movement for revolution and its leader Bob Avakian who has forged a way out of this madness?

In July, Revolution Books announced a drive to raise $30,000 through a combination of one-time donations, increasing net sales by 20% each month, and signing up 50 new monthly sustainers by September 30. This fund drive challenged the view that raising this kind of money cannot be done when other bookstores and centers for intellectual inquiry, alternative spaces, radio stations and media of all kinds are closing right and left, from the small and progressive to the big-box and mainstream. The bookstore also resisted advice to tone down the revolutionary politics in order "to invite more people in." Revolution Books is not just another, or even the most radical, indie bookstore, failing along with the rest. It is entirely different: home to a movement for revolution that is urgently and seriously taking on the largest problem facing humanity—this people-crushing capitalist-imperialist system. Which is exactly why the bookstore can potentially be saved.

Revolution Books, New York City

In launching the fund drive, the bookstore went out to its many friends and customers and to the wider world with the call "Humanity needs revolution, revolution needs Revolution Books, and Revolution Books needs you." This was more than a slogan. Over the summer many people found out about this strategy for revolution and Bob Avakian through screenings of clips from the new film BA Speaks: REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! in the store. Youth who'd been in the streets for Trayvon or in university classes when Revolution Books delivered course books, folks from Harlem and the suburbs who learned about this movement for revolution when they encountered the BA Everywhere van, neighbors who had been by the store many times, decided that now was the time to come on in. They discovered the uncommon collection of books, provocative dialogue on why capitalism cannot be fixed, and the most advanced revolutionary theory in the world.   

A wide range of people—professors, social workers, artists, students, business people, retired people in the area and new young interns placed through a public program—started to think about what it would mean to lose this bookstore where the biggest questions get debated and real answers are being scientifically put to the test, with great consequences for humanity. As people mulled all this over, agreeing with some things, disagreeing with others, they started to contribute. Some people who'd been buying books for years decided to become monthly sustainers. For some new to the store, the campaign challenged precepts—do we really have to accept this horrendous society as normal, permanent? Can we really do nothing to change all this? One woman who contributed said: "I've been a registered Democrat my whole life, and most political discussions I have with friends are about fixing different parts of the system. No one thinks maybe we should have a different lens altogether, we should be talking about a different system…"

Hidden Lives, Human Possibilities

Some extraordinary authors also responded to Revolution Books' call. The Haitian-American writer Edwidge Danticat was the first to sign on to the bookstore's new fundraising series "Hidden Lives, Human Possibilities: Authors Present to Save Revolution Books." Edwidge remembered meeting Revolution Books soon after arriving from Haiti as a teenager, and the store has been a destination for friends over the years. "So it means a great deal to me, and I am one of many people who are concerned about what's happening to it." Edwidge spoke on July 24 and was followed by Walter Mosley, Henry Wiencek and Eve Ensler—all nationally known writers who stepped out to be part of this effort and to advocate for Revolution Books from their own perspectives. (To view videos of these amazing evenings, go to http://revolutionbooksnyc.org/videos.html)

The efforts around the series helped put the bookstore on the map around the city. Announcements of the author events and the fund raising campaign appeared multiple times in Time Out, the New York Times, Chelsea Now, Media Bistro, on WBAI radio, and in many Twitter feeds, blogs and Facebook pages.

Different audiences showed up to the events. One filmmaker who came said, "When I heard that Edwidge was doing a fundraiser for Revolution Books, it was like a double-whammy"—a chance to hear one of her favorite authors at a bookstore she'd hung out in for years but had lost track of. Among those who came to see Henry Wiencek talk about his book, Master of the Mountain: Thomas Jefferson and His Slaves: a woman who runs a Black genealogical group, a middle school history teacher who brought two of his students who'd been reading the book. A fascinating fundraising dinner with Walter Mosley before his talk at the store drew people who had never been to Revolution Books, including a dean at a Black college, two filmmakers and a union organizer. A number of people bought $100 benefit tickets to the events (general admission was $35). Some people became monthly sustainers after experiencing the bookstore for one evening. A longtime supporter of the store was inspired to contribute $500 at the first event. Several people came to their favorite author's evening and then returned to hear others they weren't as familiar with in the series.

These evenings both revealed and provoked. Andy Zee, the spokesperson for Revolution Books, talked with Walter Mosley about Little Green, his newest Easy Rawlins novel in which the Black private detective gets to know the mostly white hippie scene in late-'60s Los Angeles. Andy asked about this new connection between white hippies and Black people: "what began to change, and what didn't?" 

Mosley answered: "The things that [Easy] notices about the hippies is that they're experiencing for the first time being kept out of places because of the way they look. They say, ‘You look like this so you can't come in here. You look like this, so you can't work here. You look like this so I'm going to arrest you and search you and beat you up and fuck your girlfriend.' OK. But the difference is, there's a kind of an acceptance in a large part of Black America of this kind of oppression and this kind of world because this is something that we've experienced for generations so we just know it happens. And you say, "Well, that's not right, but you better still take your hat off, motherfucker.' So this is the thing, the white people actually believe that they can change the world, and in believing they can change the world, they have an impact on Easy. There's an optimism that's almost catching and he brings this optimism in to himself. He runs into a lot of hippies who are not worth it, but there are some people, who the fact that they feel so open really makes a difference in their lives."

One thread running through the contributions by these authors: a shared intolerance for human suffering, a passion for the oppressed, and the refusal to flinch from confronting hard reality. 

Henry Wiencek's book on Jefferson had been lambasted by mainstream Jeffersonian scholars over the past year for exposing the bitter reality hidden under the durable myth of Jefferson as the "flawed giant"—a great man and brilliant thinker who was trapped in his time in the system of slavery that he actually hated. No. Wiencek revealed how Jefferson's overseers, with his full knowledge, whipped young boys of 10 and 12 to get them to work harder in his plantation nail factory; how Jefferson made written calculations on the 4% profit each Black baby born into slavery brought him; how Jefferson's slaves (he owned 600 human beings during his lifetime) would have starved on the rations he allotted and had to grow their own food in the hours before dawn and after dark. Yet, "to his dying day, Jefferson insisted he was one of last true holders of revolutionary virtue." (Wiencek)

When Wiencek was asked about the relativism employed by many in what he calls the "church" of Jeffersonian historians who despise his book, his answer stunned the room: "It took me a long while of reading [these people's books] to come to a kind of moral cracking point where I got the sense, there's something wrong here and [they don't] seem to sense it. So when [they] come out and say [what I've written] is ‘old news repackaged,' it is. And that's the scary thing. They have all known this for a long time. And you know what? They got used to it… It didn't bother them anymore. And that's the mental moral process that a slaveholder went through. You see people getting beaten, you see women getting raped, you see children in slavery who are your kin, who look like you. You see it over and over… you get used to it. After a while there's nothing wrong, it's the new normal. That's the way it is with those scholars…"

Edwidge Danticat was asked by the audience about her memoir Brother, I'm Dying, which ends when her elderly uncle flees to Miami from Haiti in 2004 and is sent directly to Krome, an infamous (still-operating) U.S. detention center. He was refused his medicine, interrogated without mercy, and died hours later, still incarcerated. She said, "Watching the whole Trayvon Martin thing, just watching that family, I kept going back to that time, being part of a family where you've lost someone to a great injustice, and I completely understand the desire, you really want to make sure that doesn't happen to someone else." She told how she fought to get the documents on her uncle's case through the Freedom of Information Act. "I wanted to write the book in a way that their words themselves would indict them… You think at any moment someone could have made this turn out differently… someone who is thinking about humans as opposed to thinking of immigrants as pests. You are recreating [in your head] the whole thing with another outcome, but it never has one."

Some heavy questions were debated at these events: what will it really take for the world's people to get out from under this monstrous system? Can capitalism be undermined from within, or do people need total revolution? Is shrinking your ecological and privileged footprint—just doing some good things in a bad world—all that's possible for the time being? Or is now the time when people of conscience need to seriously check out this revolution and get with the movement preparing to lead millions when they're ready to rise up and there's a chance to get rid of this system? These evenings could be unsettling, even as doors were opened. It was probably the first time many people heard a clear defense of the first wave of socialist revolutions, their great achievements and their shortcomings. This too was contended and people listened keenly.

Making the Goal—How Was It Done?

It might have seemed counter-intuitive to undertake a major fund drive simultaneously with launching an ambitious author series. But really, does any revolutionary advance, or any significant development for that matter, happen sequentially bit by bit? Going all out for a breakthrough brought on a synergy that was electric. The "Hidden Lives, Human Possibilities" events brought in $1,800-$2,500 each, and stirred enthusiasm among store volunteers who went all over the city, from the Harlem Book Fair to lines at the Jon Stewart Show, publicizing the bookstore, the fund drive and the events.

The campaign inspired other new forays. Some 2500 postcards were snail-mailed to residents in a five-block area surrounding the store, prompting visits and contributions from neighbors. Testimonials on "why I gave" took over a wall in the store. A weekend used book sale attracted 200 people and raised $1200. Traffic in the normally slow late-summer started going way up, and stayed up, a result of increased promotion, and Revolution Books and the revolutionary movement hitting the streets as the political scene heated up. Net sales income for September was up 90% over June.

But even with all that, by mid-September, the tally was still at $12,000—with two weeks left till the deadline to raise $30,000. Where would the rest of it come from? The staff and volunteers stepped up calling, emailing, Facebooking and tweeting potential supporters and talking to everyone who came in the store. Right about then, a $10,000 donation came in from someone who had never contributed to the bookstore before. This put the goal well within range, brought in more donations, small and large, including one for almost $4000, which took the total to $32,299 by midnight on September 30.

This was a huge victory. And a sharp rebuke to the commonplace thinking that you'll be hard pressed to find someone with means who will give to the movement for revolution or its bookstores.

" …There are people today in every strata, including the very wealthiest, that are looking out into the world, seeing the horrors and wondering, as BA poses in the film REVOLUTION—NOTHING LESS! ‘How long?' How long will this nightmare continue for humanity?... The biggest contradiction here lies in the fact that these same people don't yet know about Bob Avakian, and so they don't yet know that the world could be a radically better place. And this is our responsibility…When you open up the possibility of a radically different world for people, the terms of what people want in their lives and what they want their lives to be about can become very different. And when we bring to people the understanding that BA has brought forward, it will influence what they see as right and wrong and what they want their money to support." (from a recent letter to Revolution, "Will People Go for Something That Will Disrupt Their Whole Lives?")

Reaching and surpassing this initial goal has allowed the bookstore to remain open over the summer, stock many new books, and buy time to increase sales as the word spreads about this irreplaceable revolutionary bookstore and as plans are laid for the next, even more major initiatives to make this bookstore and its mission known and supported on a whole new level. 

The goal of 50 new monthly sustainers wasn't reached, however; 24 new sustainers signed up, and there's now a push to bring in the additional 26 (and 100 total by the end of the year) so that this not-for-profit all-volunteer bookstore can negotiate a new lease and meet monthly expenses.*

Still, all this is only a beginning. Way too many people don't know about Revolution Books and, while the store reached a level that allowed it to remain open over the summer on a month-to-month basis, it has not yet achieved on-going of self-sufficiency. The next critical phase in the fund drive is beginning with meetings with potential funders and sustainers, getting out in the city with 50,000 cards, maybe launching a national crowd-sourcing campaign. In late September, a designer volunteered to build a beautiful new website which will also allow RB to sell its unique collection of books online.

At a time when critical thought is an endangered species and revolution is urgently needed, the great objective of self-sustainability for Revolution Books by 2014 is within reach. One progressive publisher who has been following RB's emails remarked at a recent book festival that the success of the fund drive is "a testament to how many people feel about the mission of that bookstore." 

Indeed, persevering in the fundamental mission of Revolution Books has been critical to the recent advance, and was a matter of struggle among the staff, volunteers, and everyone involved, and continues to be.

Andy Zee spoke to the stakes in a fundraising talk during the evening with Eve Ensler:

"Two of the ten principles that Eve mentions that govern at the City of Joy [a center in Congo supported by V-Day for women raped in the ongoing civil war there] are Tell the truth and Stop waiting to be rescued. That's not a bad place to begin to tell you about Revolution Books and what we're doing here and why it matters that you're here, and making a deep commitment to not just to support Rev Books but to actually spread it all over the city and, given where we're located, the world…

"We're governed here and we engage the whole world not by how much force is behind any of our ideas, not what can be marshaled to get you to agree with our ‘narrative.' Like ‘America is the shining city on a hill'—they're backing that up with drones. This is part of the problem in the world. But here we have a method and approach that looks at the world as it actually is, in its motion and development, and this approach is essential if we are to get to a point where we get beyond where might makes right. And that's what we're all about: getting to that world, actually a communist world. This scientific method that's infused by the poetic spirit has been developed by Bob Avakian. At RB we have the spirit, the critical inquiry and the theory that the people need—people like Cindy [the nurse's aide who cared for Eve], and the people in Rwanda and the Congo and Bangladesh—the theory that they need to be able to change the world so that there aren't the divisions that Eve spoke about so eloquently....

"At Revolution Books we get to the root of why the world is this way and how it could be different… Bob Avakian has brought forward a new understanding of communism, a different way the world could be ... He's gone deeply into the history of communism, its great achievements, its shortcomings, at times its grievous errors... And we have a new understanding of communism. And why am I telling you this now—when we have Eve Ensler here? Because it really matters that there's a way out, and this store is about engaging that, and engaging all of reality in doing that.

"Humanity cannot wait to be rescued. This takes people acting consciously on the reality we face, and Revolution Books is a site for that…"

For more information, and to become a sustainer or contribute to Revolution Books in New York City, go to http://revolutionbooksnyc.org/Donate-sustain.htm.


* A regular sustainer is $20/month for which you get 10% off books, free admission to most events and an RB mug or tote bag. This past year, the store launched a popular "6 Books a Year" program: people who sustain at $35 or more per month receive a free new book every other month (they select from 4 books chosen by RB staff). [back]


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