Behind the cash register at Bluestockings bookstore, high above a counter lined with tarot cards, stickers, and titles on Palestine, two shelves labeled “free store” hold bins of toothpaste, socks, pens, tampons, and opioid-overdose-prevention kits in the distinctive royal blue of the New York City health department. The bin holding the latter is the largest, with two strips of duct tape that read, “Free Narcan training! Only takes 15 minutes ♡.”
Raquel Espasande, a Bluestockings staffer in glasses and a faded teal ponytail, says that the Suffolk Street bookstore gives away these items to as many as 40 people every day. All they have to do is ask. Some regulars, like a 41-year-old man who goes by Batman, visit the free store for food and personal items like socks. Occasionally, he takes a Narcan kit. Batman, who has lived on the Lower East Side since he was born, said that he’s seen many locals die from fentanyl overdoses in the last ten years. Since the bookstore arrived, he says, “more people have the test strips and Narcan training, and they use it.” He himself took the training at Bluestockings earlier this year and has since used the kits to reverse a handful of overdoses: “This place has saved lives, period.”
These services, however, may get the store evicted. In late October, Bluestockings received a 15-day “notice to cure” from its landlord, the first step in a commercial eviction process. It lists lease violations such as “unauthorized use of the premises as a medical facility,” and states that the bookstore’s practice of “permitting homeless individuals to use the basement restroom” and handing out food are creating a “hazardous condition” for residential tenants.
Espasande, who’s part of the worker cooperative that runs Bluestockings, is sure that the neighbors are behind the eviction suit. Since last year, residents of surrounding apartment buildings have confronted bookstore staff and patrons, saying that Bluestockings’ arrival has increased the number of unhoused people on the block, some of whom use drugs openly.
“I don’t know how to address these fears because they seem to mostly be, ‘I find homeless people scary,’ to use their language,” says Espasande.
Resolving the alleged violations would require Bluestockings to refuse entry to anyone who appears to be unhoused or a drug user — in other words, to profile its patrons — and shut down its free store and harm-reduction program. Espasande says these activities are clearly allowed under the store’s lease, which stipulates that it can operate a “bookstore/café/community center.” As for the collective, Espasande says, these services are nonnegotiable. “We will never stop offering our completely legal, free resources to the community.”
Since its founding in 1999, Bluestockings has always been more than just a bookstore. It originally carried titles “for, about, and by women,” a purview that has since expanded to include books by queer, trans, BIPOC, and sex-worker authors, as well as other classics of the leftist canon. In its 20 years on Allen Street, the store doubled in size and offered a space where people could sit for as long as they wanted without purchasing anything. Rising rents, pandemic revenue losses, and outstanding building repairs finally forced that location to close in July 2020. The Suffolk store opened a year later, in April 2021.
The idea to expand its harm-reduction services had been planted years before the move. While hosting Narcan training in its Allen Street store, “we realized many of the people in our community in the LES may not need Narcan themselves, but often see people using drugs out in public and want to be ready to help if needed,” Espasande says. Then, lockdown began, and with it came an increase in opioid deaths that has since reached “unprecedented levels,” according to a recent city health department report. “A lot of us live or spend a lot of our free time in the neighborhood, and we saw so many more of our neighbors dealing with overdoses,” says Espasande. The six-person cooperative that collectively owns the store decided to register with the state health department as an OOPP (opioid overdose prevention program), which allows the staff, as laypeople, to offer on-the-spot Narcan training and hand out as many kits as visitors request.
There are seven other OOPPs within a 30-minute walk of Bluestockings, a reflection of the Lower East Side’s history as an area where street dealing and nightlife have often meant heroin, cocaine, and other drugs were readily available; the Department of Justice once called it the “drug capital of America.” But the majority of these overdose prevention programs close earlier in the day than Bluestockings, and few offer all-day seating. What most distinguishes it from the others is its location inside a business rather than within an organization that serves people who use drugs. As Espasande explains, Bluestockings didn’t want the harm-reduction resources or the community members who need them to be “siloed away” from the public or the for-sale portion of the bookstore.
Since opening the Suffolk Street location, Espasande and other Bluestockings staff have occasionally gone door-to-door in neighboring buildings to provide information about the shop’s services and invite neighbors to stop by for Narcan training or get supplies from the free store. Few residents have taken them up on it. Instead, since last winter, Bluestockings began receiving emails complaining about an increase in “threatening” behavior by unhoused people on the block and questions about whether it planned to open a needle exchange (it did not).
By May, around 150 people had signed a petition and presented it to local City Council representative Christopher Marte, asking him to “assess if this ‘business’ is duly equipped to provide the services they are offering.” Over the summer, warm weather drew more visitors to the bookstore’s outdoor seating, where people were sometimes visibly intoxicated or psychologically distressed. Neighbors came by to yell and threaten the bookstore, and one morning in July, a worker-owner arrived to find the lock glued shut.
Others took it even further. In July, a Bluestockings security guard filmed Gabriel Carpenter, an actor who lives a few buildings away, pour water from a teakettle out of his window onto the street below. Bluestockings staff had already called 311 on Carpenter multiple times in the preceding months after seeing him throw various items, including ice packs and bricks, at people outside his building. This time, they worried that he was pouring hot water onto people and called 911.
Carpenter said that the water in the kettle was cold and intended to clean vomit off his stoop, but he did not confirm or deny whether he had thrown anything else out of his window. He has lived in his nearby ground-floor apartment for six years, and says that since the bookstore opened, he sees “90 percent more” unhoused people and drug users on Suffolk, some of whom block the entrance to his building while they’re using. “I want it to get the fuck away from me,” he said. “I don’t want it. I don’t accept it. I don’t tolerate it. Go somewhere else.”
He added, “If this was a stepping stone to somewhere with more services, then that would be great, but they are not doing enough there.”
Dissatisfied by the response of local officials and the community board, the neighbors began to pressure the landlord. In an October 12 email chain among residents, one shares advice from a real-estate broker friend: “The lease can be broken if they are not operating as proposed — a bookstore,” the neighbor writes. “This may be the best route if things don’t improve?”
While needle exchanges and the city’s two supervised injection sites uptown are often the target of neighbor complaints, stand-alone OOPPs like the one at Bluestockings typically are not. A spokesperson for the state department of health, which administers the program, says she was not aware of another instance of a landlord evicting an OOPP, or of any complaint about any site since the program’s inception in 2006. In response to the complaints about Bluestockings, DOH officials conducted a surprise inspection in August and concluded that the bookstore’s OOPP “is not causing quality of life issues on the block.”
Since receiving the notice to cure, the bookstore has retained a pro bono lawyer who has gotten the window to cure extended several times while negotiating with the landlord’s lawyers. “We are hoping to avoid court action,” Espasande says. If that doesn’t work, the bookstore may seek a Yellowstone injunction, which would pause any eviction proceeding until a judge can rule on the validity of the violations.
For now, the bookstore continues to run its program and the neighbors continue to complain. Last month after work, Espasande was around the corner from the store, administering Narcan to someone who had overdosed, when a person walked by and said something to them as he passed. “Nice community you’ve got there,” Espasande recalls him saying. “That really, to be frank, fucked me up for a week,” they said. “I don’t know how to talk to people who walk past someone trying to keep someone else alive and think it’s time for a quip about how I’m causing issues in the neighborhood.”