2011 was a big year for the decade-old Big Idea. The radical bookstore moved to a larger, more visible storefront on Liberty Avenue, and adopted a worker-owned cooperative model. That summer, the Big Idea was granted a Seed Award from The Sprout Fund to create community curated sections of the bookstore as a way of reaching out and establishing formal connections with other local activist organizations.
The Sprout Fund caught up with two of the Big Idea’s worker-owners, Lars Petersen and Ashley Brickman, to talk about the bookstore’s evolution into a café and event space, the success of the Community Curation program, and why one visitor said, “You don’t have to be an anarchist to like this place.”
What inspired the Community Curation program?
Ashley: As a socially conscious bookstore, we are interested in collaborating within the community, and connecting people with really good organizations. We have space for events and meetings, so we thought it would be really great to partner with other organizations to co-host events. The Seed Award helps pay for events if we need to stay open extra hours, print PR materials, and provide food and beverages.
What are some of the events you’ve hosted?
Ashley: We have about a dozen local organizations we partner with, from the Women and Girls Foundation to Planned Parenthood to Burgh Bees to Bloomfield Anarchist Action—so many! We’re having an event in late September in collaboration with Burgh Bees and Tammy Horn, an author who wrote a book about women and beekeeping. In addition to her reading and conversation, there’s going to be a honey and tea tasting.
The Community Curation Program is really exciting. It not only brings people to us, but I get to go out to Burgh Bees and say, “You are a nonprofit that I know and love, and I’d really like to involve you in this other part of my life, this radical bookstore.”
What are the “big ideas” that the bookstore promotes?
Lars: We try to represent as many sides of social and political struggle as there are. We’ve requested a book list from all of our partner organizations; it’s made our selection far more well-rounded. For instance, the latest book list I got was from Planned Parenthood; they submitted books ranging from fiction to health and feminism.
Ashley: The reading here provides a lot of views of how people can live whether it’s through D.I.Y. or green techniques, or how different people express their social, political, even spiritual beliefs. And when it comes to anarchism, we try to be approachable, so that people can learn more about its history, continued misrepresentation in mainstream media, and how truly expansive and inclusive it can be.
What prompted your move to a new location and new business model?
Lars: The Big Idea used to be a collective with an open membership. There were a couple issues with that model—we had insanely high turnover, and because of that, the responsibility fell on the people who were there the longest. In 2011, we had our first business meeting to figure out how to transition to a closed cooperative. Now, there are 8 worker owners. We’re looking to expand.
The Big Idea initially shared space with the Roboto Project in Wilkinsburg, and moved to Bloomfield in 2004. The space at 504 Millvale Avenue was so small with no air conditioning. The idea of coming here was that we could expand our book selection, start a café, and have more events. The first night that we held an event, we literally outgrew the space. It was an event for Robert King, a former black panther. We had to turn people away because it was so packed.
Congrats on your recent B Corp designation! You’re one of only two B corps in Pittsburgh, right?
Lars: Yes, our lawyer wanted to make us one of the first in Pennsylvania to become incorporated. It kind of fell into our lap.
Ashley: A benefit corporation, or B Corp, is meant to straddle that weird area between nonprofit and for profit, because there’s definitely a middle ground where you are earning money but not interested in excessive growth. I feel like we—and B Corps in general—are more community and sustainability focused.
Any hopes and dreams for the Big Idea?
Lars: It would be nice if we could have book clubs or a children’s hour. There’s an endless amount of things we could be doing if we just had enough people.
Ashley: One day, a zine library. I would love to have more readings with local authors, and an event that happens weekly or bi-weekly or monthly. Now that we have fallen into a nice, solid rhythm, we can look into doing fun things like that.
Visit The Big Idea online for more information, including a calendar of upcoming events and activities. They’ve got something for (almost) everyone!
Written by Courtney Patterson