Erin Petersen
Broad strokes

A new collaborative

By - Mar 2nd, 2009 12:27 am
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broad-strokes

The space at 2241 South Kinnickinnic Avenue that once housed Broad Vocabulary, Milwaukee’s first and only feminist bookstore, sits barren. The signature cornflower blue exterior stands out among other shops and restaurants, but inside, all that remains are stark walls and empty shelves … for now. Around Milwaukee, in conference rooms and libraries, in bars and coffee shops, a resurrection is in the works.

Enter A Broader Vocabulary Co-operative, a crew of … um, broads, bound and determined to get the shop back on its feet after former owners Tina Owen and Jennifer Morales were forced to close the struggling bookstore last fall.

The café we’re at is nearly full, and the air feels electric. Every table is a hotbed of excited conversation, surrounded by people with notebooks and agendas. We settle in just as someone in the back cranks up the stereo so that Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Green Onions” can be heard over the bustle, giving momentum to the buzz around us.

Once the announcement was made that Broad Vocabulary would close, friends and lovers of Broad immediately came together to try and save this vestige of the Bay View landscape.

“We [couldn’t] just stand by and let this happen,” says Hannah Wallisch, a former volunteer and board member for the new co-op.

Wallisch, along with other board members Annie Weidert, Stephanie Schneider, Patty Donndelinger, Janine Arseneau and Barbara Chudnow didn’t know each other from Adam (or in this case, Eve) when they decided to take on this formidable task.

And so the wheels began to turn. In November 2008, after months of research and a stack of paperwork, A Broader Vocabulary Co-operative was formed.

Wallisch says that the immense outpouring of support from the community and from other successful co-ops has been an inspiration.

“It’s a good kick in the pants,” she says. “ You realize that anybody can do this…you just have to work hard and educate yourself.”

The decision to go co-op seemed a likely progression, allowing the responsibilities of the shop to be shared among people who can pool their time and resources to meet the needs of running a small business. The ladies looked to other Milwaukee businesses that have flourished with a co-operative structure, like the Riverwest Co-op and People’s Books for guidance.

By the time Broad Vocabulary closed its doors on November 30th, the co-op had few resources and even less money – at least not enough to re-open immediately. The plan was in motion, but not quite ready to take flight. They decided to hold a fundraiser on the store’s last business day to build momentum for the project, and to give a face to the co-op.

“The Phoenix Rising fundraiser spread the awareness that something was in the works even though the store wouldn’t remain open,” says Stephanie Schneider, who also works as a teacher in Milwaukee.

The fundraiser was a huge success, allowing ABVC to raise enough money to make an offer on the store’s inventory – an offer the bank recently accepted.

Unfortunately, the bureaucracy extends far beyond the city limits and the “broads” are locked in a near standstill. Board member Annie Weidert puts it aptly: “The banks are in a lot of mud right now,” she says with a slight laugh, “and we’re small fries.”

Beyond that, ABVC’s goals reach much further than just re-opening the store. In an economic climate where it seems everyone is searching for that ‘quick fix’ – the proverbial Band-Aid to cover up the festering problem – this group is taking a decidedly wiser approach. Namely, the co-op is working to raise at least 2-3 months of operating expenses, estimated at roughly 10-15K, before re-opening.

The bottom line: secure stable finances, organize a structured co-op and stay out of debt if the new store has any hope of long-term success.

There’s also talk of relocating the new store to a place that can facilitate more than just a retail space. Think community meeting rooms, gallery space, workshops, maybe even a cafe. At this point, the possibilities are endless.

ABVC hopes that expanding what the physical space can offer will hopefully help the new space thrive.

“It’s not just a retail store that will live or die based on sales,” Annie says.

When the news broke that Broad Vocabulary would shut down for good, it almost seemed to be a sign of the times in what has become an all too familiar trend in Milwaukee. As we approached 2009, the icy reality of recession finally sunk in. We were shocked to see landmarks like Harry W. Schwartz and Atomic Records fall victim to the economic downturn, unable to compete with big, shiny corporations and online sales. Even now, the local businesses that make up the colorful tapestry of Milwaukee are in dire straits.

Local craft mavens and proprietors of Paper Boat Gallery and Boutique, Faythe Levine and Kim Kisiolek are feeling the effects with decreased sales and are struggling to keep the Boat afloat.

“Paper Boat needs the support of the community in order to keep its doors open,” Kisiolek says bluntly, “we’re hoping that people will support all local businesses…because they are a large part of what makes our city unique and enjoyable.”

Times far more challenging than most of us have ever faced, and it’s easy to feel helpless. And yet we’ve seen quite possibly the greatest example of the power of people this past year. Toward the end of 2008, passions were reignited, hopes renewed. We found ourselves in those same conference rooms and libraries, bars and coffee shops, huddled in groups laughing, crying and celebrating as we watched an American dream realized before us.

One can’t help but think of the old adage “when the going gets tough, the tough get going” at this point. But the struggle continues, and the question remains : what are we gonna do about it?

“We’re open to whatever people can offer,” Stephanie says with a chuckle.

At this point in the game, there’s still a lot of work to be done. If you’ve got the cash, become a member or make a donation to ABVC at one of their hoppin’ fundraising events. If not, email them or befriend them via Facebook and let them know what you can do – whether that’s planning events, canvassing the town or special skills that you can offer- any ideas are welcome. It’s all about people power, now more than ever.

“The co-op will be sustained by the time and energy of the people, and that will allow it to be successful.” Annie says.

“And with a larger group,” adds Wallisch, “all of those hands will be lifting it up.”

Categories: Arts & Culture, Books, VITAL

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