by Jake Werrion
Near the end of 2013, the Bellingham Alternative Library moved into its new location at 1417 Railroad Avenue. The library is not for profit, and since its inception six years ago, the organization has had several homes in Bellingham, including a long stay at its infamous Forest Street location as well as at Make.Shift. Steadily gaining members and support from our community, they now have a commercial space all of their own in the heart of downtown Bellingham, next door to Casa Que Pasa, where they are more public and accessible than past locations permitted. Their catalog now exceeds 6000 titles, and this January they have exceeded 1000 members.
The consistent growth that the Alternative Library is experiencing, both in population and in catalog, makes one wonder what exactly the Alternative Library is, and what it offers that the public library does not. You only need to explore the library to see what’s happening there; an active calendar of events, ranging from rock concerts to book tours, art projects to standup comedy, and a growing collection of books that has been selected intentionally by library members through a voting process or book donation. “It is an experiment in democracy, a community space that flexes to the needs of the community and the desires of the members. It’s a cooperative with a focus on building a collection of books and connecting people through ideas, it is a venue for artists and active people. Artists are a sort of subset for activists, whether they identify as activists or not. They create the culture around us” Says the library’s founder, Cullen Beckhorn (AKA FutureMan). The library seems to serve as a reflection of that culture, artful and activist, in a way that something as broad and general as the public library cannot; where the public library will be selecting books and cultural items on a more global scale, the Alt-Lib will have primarily member based selections. The interesting part is walking in and seeing the types of books on the shelves and getting a feeling of familiarity, a sense of what Bellingham is reading.
There is something from just about every genre, but the autonomous nature of this library has left a lot of room for small, independent, self publishers, giving chap books with small publication runs a place for exposure. This is no accident. “The need that it [the Alt-Lib] was originally satisfying was the need for an intentionally radical space. A buyer’s cooperative for art books and a way of supporting small indie presses.” says FutureMan. A new element to the library is the addition of a consignment shop in the back of the store, where Artists, writers, musicians are invited to bring their work to sell and are provided with another level of exposure.
There is an incredible sort of DIY atmosphere inside the building, where most things are second-hand, repurposed, or salvaged to fit the needs of the library (such as the shelves), that welcomes local artists and writers. It is a fitting representation of the whole operation; things, people, and ideas coming together through need, generosity, and creativity to facilitate a community space that represents its community as accurately as possible. The entire staff is comprised of volunteer members, and support has come in the forms of sponsorship and donations; it is clear that Bellingham has embraced the Alternative Library, and its new location may open up new levels of active membership and support in the near future.