Tucked in between the Chinese Immersion School and the Twisted Thistle Apothecary on San Francisco’s Haight Street sits a relatively unassuming bookstore. One of the forty-year-old signs outside reads “Bound Together” in a scrawling blue font. Beneath that, another sign reads in red, “Anarchist Collective Bookstore”.
Bound Together Bookstore has been a staple on Haight Street since 1983, though it’s been in the city since 1976. “It initially served as a community bookstore, focusing on alternative survival. There was a big focus on poetry, local periodicals, and publishing,” said Tom Alder, one of the collective’s members. The bookstore used to be located within a drugstore on the other side of the panhandle at 1901 Hayes Street. There it lived for 7 years, before moving to 1369 Haight St in 1983.
Alder joined the Collective in the late ‘70s after he moved to San Francisco from the Midwest. “A friend of mine told me about it. They said, ‘There’s this interesting looking bookstore, but it’s hardly ever open. One day, I was walking by and it was open, so I came in and talked to the people at the counter. I found out it was run entirely by volunteers and asked how I could get involved.” Alder said. He has been an active volunteer for over 40 years.
Anarchy is a political philosophy that rejects hierarchical authority and is skeptical of authority and all justifications for it. Bound Together is run by an anarchist commune of volunteers who take care of everything from running the cash register to ordering books from local publishers. “It’s a way of operating the bookstore in a democratic way, avoiding hierarchical structures,” Alder said. “Of course, there are differing degrees of experience and knowledge. Somebody who’s been involved in the collective for a long time may know more about certain aspects like ordering books or managing finances than newer people.”
The collective’s volunteers vary in age from teens to people in their nineties. Volunteers must attend a trainee intake meeting, an all-member meeting, and eight training shifts before they start working, a process which former collective-member Aaron Cometbus describes in his zine, Cometbus, as being “run through the gauntlet in my case.”
The bookstore hasn’t always focused on anarchist literature. Describing how the store was when he joined the Collective in 1979, Alder said “We had some political books, but they were more liberal counterculture. There were also actually, for some strange reason, a whole bunch of Maoist books. At one point, I found out there was another person in the Collective who also had an interest in anarchism, so we decided to build up an anarchism section.”
In addition to anarchist literature, the bookstore has a wide collection of zines, a used fiction section, books by local authors, and books on local and queer history. “We have a lot of people that are involved here who know a lot about non-mainstream books,” Alder said. “I actually know a lot of the small presses and alternative publishers—whether they be anarchists or culturally on the fringe, like surrealists.”
Bound Together Books also hosts community events, including author talks and philosophy discussions, and helps organize events like the Anarchist Coffeehouse, a “social get together that rotates from space to space.” They also ran the Anarchist Book Fair from 1995 to 2012 before handing the event off to other groups that have continued it to this day.
The store has also been a place for community projects, including the Prisoners Literature Project which sends books to incarcerated people. “Initially, the focus was to send books and resources to gay people in prison because I was inspired by a similar project on the East Coast,” said Alder. He initially started the project over thirty years ago, just as the AIDS epidemic was becoming a more serious problem. They sent AIDS information packets from the San Francisco AIDS Foundation in both Spanish and English, along with the books and letters. The project has gained more traction in recent years, moving to Berkeley, but Bound Together continues to encourage customers to buy books for the project from a shelf under the front counter.
Some of Alder’s favorite books include The Dawn of Everything by David Graber, Scratching the Tiger’s Belly by Ron Sakolsky, and Semi-Permeable Membranes by Julian Beck. Collective member Jack Curtis recommends Anarchism and Other Essays by Emma Goldman, and member Nico Di Iulio recommends Gender Queer by Maia Kobabe. For people trying to get into reading about anarchy, Alder recommends ABC of Anarchism by Alexander Berkman, The Operating System by Eric Laursen, or anything by David Graber. The bookstore also has lots of little pamphlets on anarchism at the front desk.
Bound Together Bookstore is a uniquely San Franciscan institution. If you’re looking to get into radical literature, this is a great place to start.