By: Frances Molina
Amidst the hodgepodge of North Loop Boulevard, Monkeywrench Books does not immediately strike the passerby. The blue brick building seems to squat where it stands, nestled in between a sex boutique and a resale shop overflowing with distracting clothes and curios. The glass door to the bookstore is propped open with a traffic cone when I arrive and the pair of people sitting inside seem to be welcoming in the beautiful weather along with whoever else might want to stop by. I sit in my car for a moment before I go in, smearing Vics on my nose to help my congestion and thinking about the last time I was here.
My best friend had come to visit me in Austin. She asked me where all the radicals met and I admitted that I had no idea. After a little research, she found Monkeywrench, one of the only bookstores of its kind in Austin. I dropped her off at the bookstore for an hour or so, while I ran errands on a Friday morning. When I came back to fetch her, she had made herself at home, chatting happily with the owners, eating what food they could offer her, flipping through their zine library. I sat down with them and it would be another two hours before we left.
Instead of a dark, dingy hole in the wall full of white dudes loudly shitting on “the Man,” I had found an unthreatening electric blue room full of good books and sunlight.
The bookstore had made an impression. I had never been in any anarchist spaces, but Monkeywrench didn’t fit my misconceptions. Instead of a dark, dingy hole in the wall full of white dudes loudly shitting on “the Man,” I had found an unthreatening electric blue room full of good books and sunlight. The people there were kind, welcoming, and interested in me. It had been the first place outside of the classroom where I had seriously discussed race and gender politics without two or three whiskeys in me. I knew (or at least I hoped) that there were other people looking for a place like this to engage, to listen and to learn but who had simply never heard of the store or were too intimidated by the word “anarchist” to come inside and check things out. I sat down with two people from Monkeywrench in the hope of creating a clear and positive profile of the shop for curious, political folks like myself.
Ketchup, a self-identified anarchist and volunteer at the bookstore, moved to Austin last September and got involved with Monkeywrench in November. Ketchup admits that she had been “cyber stalking” Monkeywrench for two years before she made her move. “I moved here from Chicago where there was no real place to plug in,” she explains, “It’s nice to have a place to physically go, with like-minded folks.”
As a volunteer, she helps in any way that her free time will allow. The majority of the work that has to be done to maintain the store falls on the collective. The Monkeywrench Collective is a social and political project that operates out of the bookstore. This group of individuals are not only interested in creating a physical space to have critical conversation, but creating an intellectual space as well. They made up a sort-of hierarchy in the formlessness that was Monkeywrench, organizing volunteers as well as house shows and fundraising events.
Currently, the collective and the volunteers are mainly concerned with raising enough money to keep their doors open. “Money is a necessary evil,” Ketchup laughs, acknowledging the obvious irony. An anti-capitalist bookstore having to rely on capitalism to stay afloat.
I spoke next with one of the members of the collective, Tom*, who has been involved with Monkeywrench since the summer of 2013. He and I were able to have a more in-depth conversation about the Monkeywrench project, its origins, its politics, and its people. The project started on the tail-end of a national trend of opening anarchist bookshops in the mid-to-late 80s – zine artists and writers in Austin were inspired to start tabling at punk shows to raise money. Eventually, they gathered enough funds to buy the “brick ‘n mortar” in 2002 and have been in the same space on North Loop Boulevard ever since.
om tells me that the name “Monkeywrench” developed out of the radical environmentalist movement as a term for sabotaging machinery. After the publication of Edward Abbey’s The Monkeywrench Gang, a novel about eco-passionate misfits fighting against land developers, the term became synonymous with sabotage and intentionally breaking the smooth function of a machine.
The “machine” in the case of Monkeywrench, which became clear upon my first visit, is the dominant white heteronormative culture that exists in our society to exploit and marginalize those deemed “Other” – women, LGBTQ individuals, the black and brown, the poor, the disabled, etc. The books and zines offered to visitors in their library serve to stimulate and facilitate this destruction through learning and conversation, while the store itself serves to provide a safe and positive space for members and non-members to meet and organize.
The library is made up predominantly of books and essays focused on critical gender and race theory. “Books that come out of revolutionary movements….critical literature, propaganda, and philosophy…anything that shares a biting critique of white supremacy, patriarchy, capitalism, and so on,” Tom explains. The library also includes informative and political zines and pamphlets, many of which had been produced in-house at Monkeywrench. The zines are curated by the zine committee, a team which Tom initially organized, that accepts submissions from small presses and organizations who agreed with Monkeywrench’s socio-political message and community intention.
The store also operates as a space for groups and organizations looking for a place to meet, organize, and operate. In the last year, for example, Monkeywrench has served as the host for hangouts, org meetings, book talks, study groups, letter writing sessions for prisoners, herbalist workshops, and a few selective punk shows. Most of all, Tom says, it’s “used a space for people to congregate”, a place to build relationships and community around positive, empowering information and action.
his is where the politics comes into play. I ask Tom: what is anarchy? How does it work in the shop and in the community of Monkeywrench? In the city of Austin? Tom explains that for him anarchy is a “garbage term” – one that “doesn’t denote anything in particular”. He gives me a brief run-down of its history. There are anarchists that are advocates of political philosophy, but there are also other anarchists who unify under an ethical position that stands against the particular order of things. “(This kind of anarchy) pursues a path that undermines the dominant social order and attacks that which seeks to manage or control us in our oppression and our pain,” he says.
Anarchy is a negative word. To define it or to define yourself by it is to say you are “not this” or “against that.” Tom says this creates possibility. “We may not have (the word) right now (for what we are), but we could make it. (We’re) interested in creating spaces where we can do something else.” Personally, he defines anarchy as “everything for everyone, fuck the police”. It’s a politic that’s corrosively critical, “avoiding easy answers and refusing to compromise”.
I bring up the exciting paradox of his definitions. How anger and destruction, emotion and action typically coded as dangerous and selfish, could be wielded as tools to create safety and hope for Othered individuals trying to survive. He calls it “tension” – the desire to be an agent in a world that denies you, the impossibility of this unrelieved tension. “It all comes down to power. How can I connect my form of life with others to make me more powerful? To make us more powerful?”
As for how the shop and the collective operates with its politics in the city of Austin, Tom explains that the entire project “was an attempt to intervene, to share the ideas of people who live here”. Monkeywrench wants to act as a resource for organizers and like-minded individuals looking for an inclusive and cooperative community. “It’s about keeping the doors open, making yourself available. Everyone who comes here has some relation to the anarchist think space. You don’t always need the word or the identifier, but similar world views, an affinity. Who has the same fire inside them, who’s burning?”
“Who has the same fire inside them, who’s burning?”
*Name has been changed by request.