The following article, "Reading the Revolution: Hanging out in a Pico storefront with Malcolm, Che and Karl," is excerpted from the May 12-18 issue of LA WEEKLY, a free paper that is widely distributed in the Los Angeles area. Sub-headings are by the Militant.
It is early Saturday evening. As twilight deepens into darkness, the city seems to take in a breath as it transitions into the hours of drink, dance and revelry, hours that will serve to efface the drudgery of yet another work week.
Along mostly shuttered Pico Boulevard near Vermont, one shop window is bright, its doors tinkling open as people file in. Hardly would-be revelers, they come seeking satisfaction of a radically different sort. They thread their ways through the neatly appointed bookstore, past the shelves into a backroom set with folding metal chairs and a podium where a thin, serious-looking man prepares to update the audience of about 25 on the so-called nuclear threat in North Korea, framing it in background history about the country and its fateful post-World War II split. A handful of Spanish speakers adjust headphones so they can listen to the simultaneous translation the bookstore unfailingly provides. There is no mood music, no mingling. A table spread with coffee and Cremora is the only concession to social niceties.
But there is a palpable hunger for information that propels people slightly forward in their seats, some scribbling notes, as the speaker delivers the goods in plain- wrap fashion. So much for aesthetics at Pathfinder Bookstore, a.k.a. Librería Pathfinders, for 20-plus years a beacon of revolutionary light in the grittier Central Los Angeles cityscapes that don't show up on post cards.
Emblazoned with yellow, the Socialist Party pamphlet covers read like a wish list for the growing denizens of America's economically oppressed. In Pathfinder's airy confines, these and a wealth of other materials trumpet hope of imminent political change, of a long-awaited, monumental shift of power to the working class and socially subjugated ethnic groups.
Faces on the covers of other books raise a silent choral voice of popular revolution: Nelson Mandela, Fidel Castro, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Rigoberta Menchú, W.E.B. Du Bois, Karl Marx.
Here is that rare secular place in L.A. where age, skin color, gender and country of origin - in a word, image - matter far less than a common spirit and fiery ideology. Here, a '90s newspeak word like multicultural is rendered embarrassingly simplistic and beside the point.
Vibrant socialist optimism
Yet Pathfinder's vibrant socialist optimism seems at distressing odds with its neighborhood: a corridor of the Pico-Union district crammed with storefronts that beckon pedestrians with faded piñatas and 98-cent goods, while men and women with too much time to kill linger outside minimarkets and liquor stores, modern outposts for the unemployed and other dwellers on society's ragged fringe.
Drug users and pushers often wander in off the street, refugees from police-patrolled MacArthur Park to the east. But bookstore volunteer William Jungers says he has a mutual understanding with such visitors; they always leave without incident. "They pretty much respect our wishes," says Jungers, a fluent Spanish speaker and like many volunteers a member of the Socialist Workers Party. "Everyone around here knows who we are, that we're a political center and we do things." Jungers recalls a neighborhood gang called the Playboys that used to hang around and at one time seemed poised for trouble. "But," he says with a shrug, "they moved on."
His voice has a hint of pride. 2546 Pico Blvd. is hardly considered a prime commercial spot, but Pathfinder would have it no other way. The bookstore, a retail outlet of Pathfinder Press in New York and a gathering place for local ranks of the Socialist Workers Party, has a history of locating in decidedly working-class neighborhoods.
Pathfinder moved from North Broadway to Pico-Union 13 years ago, and, in the heart of a Central American community populated by Nicaraguans, Salvadorans and Guatemalans familiar with the ravaging effects of war, it seems to have found its niche.
Sandwiched between an abandoned electronics outlet and a discount store, Pathfinder is a well-lighted respite from the boulevard's smalltime capitalist hustle and bustle. The space is small but dense, the walls filled with reprinted speeches and essays by political figures as high-profile as Mandela and Malcolm (Pathfinder owns the copyright to many of his speeches and carries the city's largest selection of his material) and lesser-known agitators such as Grenadian Revolution leader Maurice Bishop.
Fully a third of the stock is Spanish-language. Mindful of its potential clientele, Pathfinder has filled one section with elementary-level primers on Marxism, feminism and other topics for Spanish-speaking adults with low literacy skills. A reproduction of the New York Pathfinder building, painted on one side with a grand, sweeping mural of working-class heroes, hangs above the entrance to a large back area that encompasses a library, a kitchen and a generous-size room where the store hosts weekly Saturday forums.
Impressive and efficient operation
It is an impressively efficient operation, though not quite back to its usual strength, says volunteer Eli Green....
Green, 43, says that the riot-related fires in 1992 decimated the store's inventory, including a collection of out-of-print books and newspapers dating back to the 1930s. Uninsured but undaunted, Green and fellow Pathfinder volunteers set up a table outside the charred remains of the store three days after the riots to sell what few books were left, to begin raising money and also to administer to the burning souls of the dispossessed.
Their efforts did not go unrewarded. "Before the embers quit smoldering, we had relocated two doors west of here in a storefront church that had just vacated," says Green, a Georgia native with a hint of a drawl and an easy smile. "There was a genuine outpouring....People brought back books they had just bought. Folks came by to give $1, $5, said they were so sorry. And they have no money. Not around here, anyway."
With local aid and donations from several publishers, Pathfinder was able to recover from its $20,000 loss and reopen in December of 1993 at its new location, which was designed and built largely by a core group of about 50 volunteers.
Devoted to change
Alvaro Maldonado, head of the Pro-Immigrant Mobilization Coalition, says Pathfinder is as relevant today as it was when he discovered it in the early '70s, during its heyday at the fore of the antiwar movement and his formative years as an activist. "They're devoted to change. They're very good about involving themselves in issues and not relying on politicians," says Maldonado, who frequents the forums and drops by the store to pick up literature on one of his heroes, Leon Trotsky. "They always base themselves in communities of color, working-class communities."
But he says also that Pathfinder volunteers, reaching out to an American population more disaffected than at any other time in history, have their consciousness-raising work cut out for them. "Movements now are hard to get going," he says. "People are more automated, more demoralized. They're not getting help in facilitating solutions."
Which is exactly why 24-year-old Vanessa Knapton sacrificed a Saturday night to attend the North Korea forum. Knapton is a study in the kind of new blood Pathfinder is seeking: young, disenchanted with government, a recent college graduate and former union organizer impatient with bleak job prospects. Knapton started subscribing to the weekly socialist newspaper The Militant back in March; she joined the Young Socialist Organizing Committee shortly after.
"Young people are coming into the world with no future,"
says Knapton, taking a drag on a cigarette during a post-
forum discussion break. She is standing outside the store,
dressed down, her blond hair pinned up carelessly. Latin
music pumping from sidewalk speakers at a store down the
block fills the night air. "Me and my friends, we have no
benefits, no security, nothing. Wages are low. We don't see
hope. We need to hear what people are doing, from their own
perspective, which you don't get in the media. But when I
hear that, when I think about what we can do
collectively...Well, I start thinking things might happen.
Things might change."
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