Burning Books Buffalo

New on Connecticut Street, a bookstore specializing in radical history, literature, films, and lectures

On a sweltering night in mid-July, more than 50 people crowded into a small, anonymous storefront at the corner of Connecticut and 15th Streets on Buffalo’s West Side for a screening of the new, award-winning documentary about the Earth Liberation Front called If a Tree Falls. A couple dozen more milled about on the sidewalk, unable to find seats inside, and people continued to arrive on bikes, in cars, and on foot. Along with his partners, Leslie Pickering, a co-owner of the space and a former spokesman for the Earth Liberation Front who appears in the film, announced that there would be a second screening later that night to accommodate those waiting on the sidewalk. That screening, too, sold out: In all, 107 people came to learn a little about one of the most successful radical environmental campaigns of the past 20 years.

For Pickering and his partners, Theresa Baker (to whom he is married) and Nate Buckley, the success of that event was proof that Buffalonians are eager to receive the project they’d been working on for three years: a bookstore specializing in literature and events related to social justice movements, radical environmentalism, and freedom struggles.

This week, on Friday, September 9, the anonymous storefront gains a name, Burning Books, and officially opens its doors to the public. The date is not arbitrary: It’s the 40th anniversary of the Attica uprising. Burning Books will mark the occasion with a screening of the hard-to-find 1974 documentary Attica by Cinda Firestone. That’s on Thursday, September 8, at 7pm. On Tuesday, September 13—the 40th anniversary of the bloody assault in which New York State troopers retook the prison, leaving 39 dead—Burning Books will host a talk by John Boncore, a.k.a. John Hill, a.k.a. Dacajeweiah (“Splitting the Sky”), a participant in the uprising and veteran of the American Indian Movement. Boncore, a Mohawk, lives in British Columbia now, but the attempted robbery that sent him to Attica took place in Buffalo.

On Monday, September 12, Burning Books will screen The Spirit of Annie Mae, about the 1975 murder of the American Indian Movement’s Annia Mae Pictou Aquash, a crime whose repercussions continue to divide Native American activists. That screening, which starts at 7pm, is sponsored by the Buffalo Leonard Peltier Defense Committee. Burning Books will also host two more screenings of If a Tree Falls at two other venues: Wednesday, September 14, 7pm, at Squeaky Wheel (712 Main Street); and Tuesday, September 27, 9pm, at Merge (439 Delaware Avenue).

These events are not meant simply to be educational: They’re intended to raise the consciousness of a community and thus create a market for the materials and information Burning Books purveys.

“We’re creating our customer base through these events, and through the organizing we do,” Pickering says. “We are reaching out and saying, ‘These are exciting people, inspiring things that have gone on, are going on, in the world. Check them out.’”

Maybe, Pickering says, the person who comes to see If a Tree Falls will come back to learn about Leonard Peltier, or be driven by curiosity to buy a DVD about Robert F. Williams and Radio Free Dixie. Or perhaps a documentary about the Zapatistas, or a pamphlet about pre-Civil War resistance to slavery. Maybe something on the Puerto Rican independence movement, the Black Liberation Army, Emma Goldman, or Sacco and Vanzetti.

This is not the group’s first effort to open a reading room for radicals. Several years ago, all three were active in a group called Arissa, which was similarly committed to educating audiences about radical movements. Among Arissa’s many activities, the group sponsored two films each month, one in a community space on the East Side and one in a community space on the West Side. “Places where people were already congregating,” Baker says.

When the not-for-profit Massachusetts Avenue Project took over a former library on Grant Street, Arissa offered to staff the building with volunteers and stock it with reading material so that it could remain an educational resource for the community. A Buffalo News reporter asked questions about Pickering’s past relationship with the Earth Liberation Front (he was a spokesman and a supporter but never a member; he and his partners received ELF’s communiques anonymously), and MAP’s new executive director spooked and pulled the plug on the project.

So Baker and Pickering continued to look for their own building, concentrating on sites on the West Side, where they live. In 2008, they bought 420 Connecticut Street at the city auction.

“We wanted to be in this neighborhood because of its diversity,” Baker says, referring to the West Side’s burgeoning population of refugees, many of whom have taken part in or witnessed freedom struggles firsthand. “We hope to carry materials that will interest those populations, too,” she says, and to become a bridge between the region’s variously interested activist communities.

Baker, Buckley, and Pickering all have deep activist roots themselves. In addition to her involvement with Arissa, Baker is a board member of the Subversive Theater Company and a performer with the Real Dream Cabaret and nimbus dance—all three committed to addressing politics through art. She was host of Speak Easy Radio, a show similarly dedicated to exploring social justice movements here and across the country. She also was a caregiver to social documentary photographer Milton Rogovin for the last four years of his life.

Buckley was active with Arissa and organized against the beginning of the current Iraq war. He is active with Prisoners are People Too!, the Stop the Violence Coalition, and the Erie County Prisoners Rights Coalition. This spring he was maced and arrested by NFTA police at a peace march in downtown Buffalo. He has refused to take a plea deal, opting instead to fight the charges in protest of his treatment. So far eight of the 11 charges against him have been dropped, and his next court date in September 19.

Pickering’s unusual relationship with ELF was preceded by activism in a similar vein with other groups in Portland. He relinquished his role as a spokesman for ELF in 2002 and eventually returned to his native Western New York. In addition to work with Arissa and PUSH Buffalo, he has written extensively about his experience with ELF and published a biography of Sam “Mad Bomber” Melville, whose campaign of bombings in protest of the Vietnam War landed him in Attica, where he was killed during the uprising.

“A lot of the social movements we’re focusing on, the people have been delegitimized and criminalized,” Buckley says. “We’re out here saying that there’s nothing illegitimate about struggling for your freedom. That there’s nothing criminal about struggling for your freedom. And that the real criminals are the ones wearing suit and ties, and the people in the White House. The people who are in jail and the people who have sacrificed all their lives for those of us out here—those are heroes. Those are not people who should be in jail.”

One goal for the store is that Burning Books become a required stop for authors and activists who are making circuit tours of the country. “We don’t want Buffalo to be skipped over between New York and Chicago or New York and Toronto,” says Pickering, adding that Buffalo is already receptive to those sorts of events: When they’ve held one-off events in the past for radical authors and filmmakers from out of town, their guests have been surprised to find the audiences here to be as large or larger than those in bigger cities with ostensibly more active and progressive communities.

Word is spreading, Baker says. She says they hope to organize at least one event each week themselves, and will rent out the space to likeminded groups and individuals for their events, and to become an asset to those dedicated to achieving change, locally and nationally.

“We’re hoping to build a community within Buffalo that already exists to an extent,” Buckley says. “To strengthen a community that is dedicated, active, and powerful, to bring about the change that we seek in the world. This will be a space for doing that.”

To keep track of the store’s hours and activities, visit burningbooksbuffalo.com. The site is currently under construction but there’s a signup for an email newsletter.