Defiance graces every aspect of Akimbo Bookshop, from its birth story to its book selection.
At the height of the pandemic and with a sick son at home, an overworked Rachel Crawford got booted from her job managing Sulfur Books in Clifton Springs, which she helped open but did not own. She named, branded, renovated, painted, and curated the shop.
The owners did not have experience in bookselling and the relationship “went to hell,” in her words, but the experience was a kind of trial by fire that gave her the tools needed to start her own business. So, with a chip on her shoulder and a child to raise, Crawford founded Akimbo as an online source for titles published by small presses—the kind of juicy, subversive, and award-hoarding books not always available at chain stores, with a particular focus on leftist titles, though the shop specializes in literature and translations.
Even the name spells defiance. To hold your arms “akimbo” is to stand with your hands on your hips and elbows turned outward, a reference to the historical use of the pose in feminist art.
Crawford saw some success during Akimbo’s online phase. Even with a limited audience, it managed to generate around $1,000 in monthly sales, and soon Crawford dipped her toes into pop-up vending. This caught the attention of local media and her audience grew enough for her to launch a crowdfunding campaign boosted by social media and newsletter advertising that saw quick success.
Crawford’s connections with other booksellers did not hurt either.
“I had friends all over the country who owned bookstores, and Book World is really sweet,” she says. “It’s not like Coffee World or other industries. Like, people in Book World are like, ‘Oh, you’re starting a bookstore? I’m going to throw $300 at you.’ And this was people all over the country.”
Now, patrons can walk into Akimbo, run their fingers along its shelves, and rifle through the shop’s niche selection in full public glory. Crawford secured a lease for the second-floor space at 318b East Ave. in March. The shop was fully opened to the public in May thanks to the nearly $16,000 raised by the campaign.
Since opening, Crawford has hosted everything from open mics to yoga sessions to campaign meet-and-greets to food drives to art shows, all with free admission. Akimbo is a community spot.
The next event will be a “creative coloring and doodle jam” on July 9 inspired by Us & We Art’s new coloring book. There will be a $15 charge, but it comes with a copy of the $20 book. In the future, Crawford wants to organize book and film club nights where books get paired with screenings of indie films with similar themes or vibes.
Crawford studied literary translation and publishing at the University of Rochester. She knows books, particularly the small press translations and literature dominating the Akimbo catalog, and talking to her gives a sense of the obsession (not necessarily a bad thing) that goes into Akimbo. Every little aspect of curation is intentional.
Anything you stumble upon at the shop should raise one question: What is Crawford’s thesis here?
The Akimbo collection includes the types of books you might expect. Palestinian liberation, feminist sociology, Indigenous Land Back, police abolitionism, community organizing in the digital age, and much else in that same political vein. Crawford says she wants Akimbo to be a leftist bookshop, but she has some hesitancy with that category due to the catalog’s focus on literature.
Indeed, direct political treatises from outfits like AK Press share shelves with works from presses like Transit or Sublunary Editions that blur the lines between literature and an express call for liberation. This is a reflection of Crawford’s philosophy on representing marginalized peoples’ stories without merely instrumentalizing them for other peoples’ educational processes.
“Being inclusive is the most important thing in a bookstore,” she says. “We have to make sure of that, and not just in nonfiction where maybe someone wants to read a little bit more about Indigenous Land Back or something. Not every Indigenous person should have to educate you. Read Indigenous poetry that has nothing to do with educating you, … just support the artist for the artwork also.”
Navigating “Book World”— a term that emerged online to describe the interconnected small bookstore and small publisher community around the world—is complicated by considerations like these that can seem small but pack big consequences. Categorizing books can get dicey, and there is a complicated theory behind shelving and grouping works. Translation sections can get saturated with European authors, pushing out voices from the Global South. Crawford says the curation process is “insane and maddening,” but she appreciates being able to rely on the pre-curated catalogs of many small presses to balance some of those representation ratios for her.
“Bookstores are 100 percent of the time political by nature,” she says. “Every bookstore is making a statement. Even if they’re a general bookstore that carries everything, they’ve made a statement. If you’re only carrying the top five big publishers in your store, you’ve made a statement. If you’re carrying modernist white male authors because that’s what you think the demographic is going to want to read, you’ve made a statement. … Every bookstore is making a statement all the time because they carry content.”
Opening Akimbo came with big considerations as well. Rochester’s new book vendors like Hipocampo Children’s Books and the Noire Reading Room are Black- and Brown-owned, and Crawford did not want to step on any toes. She immediately ruled out any locations in the South Wedge near Hipocampo and sells only a small number of children’s books.
Then comes a philosophical debate at the very core of Akimbo’s mission—how does Crawford reconcile the concept of a “leftist business”? It is a question that keeps her up at night. The socialist and anarchist theory she subscribes to says owning private productive property is wrong. She does not own her building and does not have employees, but she owns the Akimbo branding, controls access to the space, and sets prices on the books. She also needs to feed her son and herself. The tension caused a bit of an internal crisis. She rallied the folks with whom she organizes to gain some perspective.
“My most radical friends, I think, were saying, ‘Even your collectives have issues, your co-ops have issues, and they’re not always without hierarchy even though they’re designed to be,’” she says. “And, ‘It’s not like you bought the building,’ or ‘It’s not as though you’re building this empire or this chain, it’s just a small business.’ Unfortunately, what I had to come to terms with is that I live in a capitalist world.”
The reality of that world has been most apparent in her event-planning process. Akimbo has hosted two public readings of Ravi Mangla’s novel “The Observant,” both for no admission cost. Writers & Books, a local nonprofit, is hosting the same event with a $20 admission fee.
Crawford says she could do that, but she has instead decided to offer accessible programming while finding revenue elsewhere, like renting out her space for wedding showers. She calls this the “grimy” side of business ownership and says it brings discomfort.
“I feel like a fraud. I feel like a liar,” she says. “But, how different is it from working for corporate America? What is the solution? How do you work in a capitalist society? Owning something feels really gross. It feels disgusting.
“But, the best thing I can do with having ownership of something is to make sure I give back as much as possible, especially with mutual aid efforts held in the store, especially with teach-ins and educating our community, especially with offering artistic services that aren’t educational and are just fun so people can be there, and making it as accessible as possible. Those are the things that I can control. I get to make those choices.”
Justin O’Connor is a Rochester Beacon intern and a student at the University of Rochester. The Beacon welcomes comments from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name.