Bookshops have been, for the most part, undervalued and overlooked. Their political significance has also been largely underestimated, due in part to the fact that they are routinely perceived as simply being ‘a shop that sells books’. Radical bookshops like Het Fort Van Sjakoo in Amsterdam, however, go beyond the mere function of a bookshop, and instead serve as a cultural centre that is shaped by the community as much as by the books within them. As one of the few radical bookshops which attempts to enact the very same principles that its texts set to promote, Het Fort is continuing to ignite inspirational possibilities for ways in which people can reimagine and enact alternative ways of living and working together.
Since opening its doors in 1977, the not-for-profit, volunteer-run anarchist collective has been shaping its own politics and economy in the heart of Amsterdam. On the surface, it may look like your typical anarchist bookshop - a little unwelcoming at first, perhaps - but the history embedded in this bookshop is rather unique. Amidst the rapidly shifting landscape of Amsterdam’s gentrifying neighbourhoods, Het Fort remains unchanged and keeps its roots firmly in the city’s centre.
A Written History
The building itself was originally squatted in 1975, by political activists protesting the proposed gentrification of the Nieuwmarkt area, and the bookshop was started two years later. Members of the squat felt the need for a space for radical political organizing and the sharing of knowledge and experiences concerning urban resistance.
Nieuwmarkt became a stage for the struggle between city residents and government. A series of urban renewal plans had been put forward by the municipality, including the construction of the metro, and the development of a major motorway through the Nieuwmarkt neighbourhood, in conjunction with office blocks and retail outlets. This would have meant eradicating large parts of the Nieuwmarkt and Waterlooplein neighbourhoods, in effect leading to social displacement and limiting affordable housing in the inner city, as well as irreversably damaging Amsterdam’s signature ‘look’.
These plans were met with fiery protests and organized resistance, in part by activists who were at the forefront of anti-gentrification campaigns, and this collective action ultimately destabilized the city council’s plans to build a highway. Squatting, both as a practical means of living and as a form of protest, apparent in places such as Het Fort, was a crucial factor in the community’s success in this instance; highligthing how countercultural practices and their resistances to neoliberal homogenization have been crucial in shaping Amsterdam’s physical and social identity.
In the late eighties, the squat was legalized and inhabitants of the building began to pay rent to a housing corporation. In 2002, in an effort by the housing corporation to push the counter-cultural business to the outskirts of the city, the building was subject to a 900% rent increase. With the help of community support and the stubborn dedication of the collective, various protests and intensive actions were staged over the course of a year. As a result, the housing corporation ultimately reduced the rent increase to 400%. Following this, the collective managed to raise €200,000 through other ‘legalized’ squats and private supporters in order to purchase the building.
Strength in Solidarity
Het Fort’s continuing existence and success is a testament to the strength of solidarity and collective support. Moreover, it serves to show that institutions with non-capitalist structures, that promote cooperation, horizontal organization and self-management, can be a viable alternative to profit-orientated businesses.
As radical movements face increasingly stricter policing from a neoliberal government, Het Fort functions as a bedrock for many alternative practices. These include using profit generated from the shop to provide financial aid to local initiatives which strive towards social justice, and offering other similar initiatives throughout the Netherlands the opportunity to order books through them in order to take advantage of scales of economy. During the recent refugee crisis, the bookshop was used as a temporary storage space for donated items, which were later taken to refugee camps by local activists.
Beyond the dynamic functions that the bookshop has provided over the years, what also makes them profoundly unique is that while they base their organizational and economic structure on anarchist principles, they are also not militant in their approach. Most members are, or have been, active in local activist movements, from the squatters’, anti-nuclear and peace, to the recent student protests at the UvA.
Organising a Cooperative, Organising an Alternative
Staff meetings are held on a fortnightly basis in order to discuss general housekeeping, the selection of new books, and, on rare occasions, unpleasant matters such as dealing with unwanted (fascist) customers. Sometimes, the selection process for ordering new books extends to a theoretical discussion, sparking the exchange and clash of political ideas.
The bookshop is a space for self-education and informal learning, where the exchange of political ideas through collective forms of education (conversations, zine-making, writing, collective reading etc.) are in themselves radical political acts which serve to empower and counteract our alienated existences. In a disjointing and ‘fake news’ based neoliberal economy, it is imperative to cultivate self-organized education projects. Radical bookshops, libraries, and social centres are great locations for these types of schemes.
A conversation with one active member of the Fort revealed the kind of learning which takes place on an everyday level. Previously a history teacher, he now actively seeks to learn from others, especially long-term customers. He also commits time to teaching anarchist history to a fellow volunteer, and attempts to inject conversations with customers simply dropping by for a cup of coffee with a dose of political discourse.
Of course, co-organised spaces are not without their interpersonal problems, as one long running member of the collective is quick to mention. Issues of accountability, accessibility, and exclusion are bound to come hand-in-hand with a collective attempt to share and negotiate a space.
Anti-capitalism doesn’t have to be just a moral stance. It can manifest itself in a series of practical solutions through the collective labour of building a commons. These social infrastructures are only strengthened by the involvement of keen participants; for a generation of millennials (including myself) who feel disempowered and paralyzed in our current socio-economic predicament, partaking in self-organized spaces and supporting local radical bookshops can bring us closer to politics and to each other. In doing so, we reclaim agency.
Let us not forget that the spirit of resistance remains very much alive today in the heart of Amsterdam, in the form of Het Fort. It is in the care of and the strengthening of these autonomous institutions that we can begin to (re)build social relationships, and strategize ways in which to enact and sustain practical solutions to transform our fragmented society into a collaborative one.
A version of this essay titled “Unlearning Capitalism: Self-organized Libraries and Bookshops as Spaces for Emancipatory Politics” first appeared in March 2018 in Underscan, an online visual research platform.