By Royal Bonde-Griggs, Special to   Published Jun 11, 2011 at 11:03 AM

People's Books Cooperative, 2122 E. Locust St., has been selling books for a long time. It became a community-owned cooperative in 2007, but previous owner Chris Chiu opened the progressive bookseller on Farwell Avenue in 1974.

"I had a good time for 30 years. It was a lot of hard work," says Chiu. The cooperative runs on donated labor and Chiu can still be found nearly every day volunteering his time at the bookstore he loves.

People's sells social justice oriented books, with sections on education, progressive philosophy, cultural studies, Marxism and socialism and much more.

"People's doesn't offer the status quo. The book selections are different than any other bookstore I've ever been in. Scandinavian fiction, Latino/a fiction, there's a taste of everything," says Emma Schroeder, another People's volunteer.

People's Books Cooperative and A Broader Vocabulary Cooperative, which is located in the basement of People's, are hosting the Midwest promotional tour for AK Press, which is an international worker-run publishing company. The event will be at the Riverwest Public House on Thursday, June 16, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. and will include music by the Rust Belt Demons, a Racine working class punk band.

Wisconsin has many cooperatively run businesses such as rural electric associations and farmer collectives and, like all legal cooperatives, People's is organized according to bylaws maintained by its members as provided for by the Wisconsin Cooperative Association Act.

According to its bylaws, People's mission is, "to provide books that stimulate the intellect and spirit in a way that supports the community in building a just and sustainable society. The cooperative will serve as an example for other cooperatives and be governed in an open and democratic manner."

In other words, People's doesn't sell books only to make money.

But the cooperative does make a profit, which is put back into the store and used to pay one part-time employee. This employee has the title of operations director, and there have been two of them in the cooperative's history. Current operations director Seth Schuster started at the co-op as a volunteer in summer 2008. He then became the volunteer coordinator and he's been the only paid employee of the cooperative since April 2010.

Schuster says that People's sells books in order to provide the community with a free and open space.

"The goal of the co-op is to provide literature on social change, lit that offers alternative ideologies, lifestyles," Schuster says. "But we are a public space, we'd like to be the community's space," he says.

Bookshelves on casters can be pushed to the walls, opening up the one-room store to various political, activist and community groups for meetings. Currently, the Milwaukee chapter of Move to Amend, which is a group dedicated to overturning a U.S. Supreme Court decision providing corporations equal treatment as real people under the law, meets in the bookstore every Monday. The graduate employee union at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee used to rent the store's basement for its offices.

The now basement-based A Broader Vocabulary assumed the identity and mission of Bay View's defunct feminist bookstore Broad Vocabulary, reincorporating as a cooperative in 2009. A Broader Vocabulary has "a great community that comes out to support them whenever they're open," says Jim Draeger.

Draeger was the first operations director of People's. In fact, he's the reason there's a bookselling cooperative in Milwaukee at all.

Draeger first stopped into Chiu's store in 2005 after moving to Milwaukee for graduate school. "I was searching for a book by Baudrillard for a class and no one else had it. There was a sign in the window that the store was for sale, saying that Chiu wanted to clean up the Milwaukee River and bike across the country but couldn't do it while owning the store," Draeger says.

When Draeger finished school in 2007 he says he was directionless. "I had no job, I was going to move to a farm in Stevens Point," he says.

But instead, one Monday night in early 2007 at Nessun Dorma, while drinking whisky with friend Brian Rothgery, Draeger came up with the plan for a community owned co-op on a bar napkin. Draeger says he presented the idea to Chiu in May 2007, who bought into it, but also said they would have to do all the work. That summer, with a list of loyal customers provided by Chiu, Draeger, Rothgery and some dedicated friends organized a committee of 15 people and started writing bylaws and articles for incorporation as a co-op.

Chiu gave the start-up co-op a $10,000 loan and an additional $6,000 in publisher credit to get them going. The cooperative assumed full control of the store in November 2007, when Chiu's lease was up. The loan from Chiu has since been repaid and, according to Schuster, the co-operative is doing well.

"But we have taken a hit economically. Textbooks are our bread and butter and students just don't have the money to buy their books anymore. They trade a lot," says Schuster.

"The initial idea for the co-op was to increase textbook sales and change the niche bookstore from progressive books to textbooks with progressive on the side," says Draeger. "We started with 19 and got 36 (course textbook orders) that first semester as the co-op. We're at over 70 courses now."

"We're not here to make a profit, but to sustain the space for the community, for the organizations that use it," says Draeger. "We're local; we're part of the community."

People's Books and the wider collective of co-op members at the Riverwest Co-op Grocery and the Riverwest Public House support a vision for a Wisconsin-wide cooperative federation that would include all similar co-ops as well as the various farming cooperatives in the state. Such a federation would raise money for political programs and educational programs to support cooperative growth and consciousness and offer interest-free micro-lending to people who want to start other co-ops, along the lines of what Chiu offered the People's Books Co-op so it could get its start.

People's Books Cooperative is operated as a collective, with a board of 10 members making day-to-day decisions. "The collective is everyone, including the board members and other volunteers, and they focus on the non-financial aspects, the cultural aspects of the store," says Schuster. The number of volunteers fluctuates between 15 and 30, especially with the school year, according to Schuster. The cooperative helps sustain itself with memberships.

Dues-paying members have as much say as the board does, according to Schuster. And the board is made up of members, who are elected each year. Membership costs $20 per year -- and with $100, or five years paying dues, comes a lifetime membership in the cooperative. Members receive a 10 percent discount and have a say in how the cooperative is run.

"But you don't have to be a member to make suggestions and be a part of the collective," says Schuster.

Schuster encourages non-members to take part in board meetings and operating decisions, as part of the wider community that People's Books is in.

As for book buying, Schuster says there are trends in radical literature, that books on socialism and progressive movements have always been popular at the co-op but especially, he says, "after the whole mess in Madison."

The store also specializes in "experimental literature, especially in the novel form," says Schuster. "We have speculative fiction, from writers like Vonnegut and Burroughs, and deeper selections that move beyond Vonnegut, with popular sections of DIYs (Do-It-Yourself), graphic novels and books on anarchism."

The cooperative is a "a really great gateway for anybody who's interested in meeting people with different backgrounds. Being near the university is important for that," says Schuster.

Schroeder, who has been at the co-op for six months, says she volunteers at the co-op because of the atmosphere, the book selection, and because "it's something to do, plus I get to meet people." She rings up sales, straightens things and "personalizes the store," which covers everything from putting art up on the walls to planning events.

"I try to make it a welcoming place," Schroeder says. "But the best part about volunteering here is I get to read all the books for free."