Bowed But Not Broken

Breakdown Book Collective looks for a new space and new life.

After half a decade of triumphs and tribulations, Breakdown Book Collective is closing up shop. A fluctuating stream of funding and volunteers sustained the activist group's space for radical literature, lectures, music and community, but there are pitfalls to organizing anarchists and running an anti-capitalist business. The irony isn't lost on Bob Choflet, the collective's remaining founder.

"There's a need for a space like this to be fully engaged in the capitalist world while at the same time trying to create an alternative institution," he says. "But Breakdown never really established itself as an actual bookstore. We didn't attract a very broad group of people. It wasn't a place like Tattered Cover, where people would come in, browse and hang out for a couple hours. People rarely came in to buy a book, and when they did, it was someone already familiar with the place.

"When you're a 501(c)(3) like us, you can't have more than a fifth of your income be from the sale of products. But that was never an issue with Breakdown," he adds with a laugh. "It would have been nice if we'd had that problem."

Bob Choflet and Sarah Slater hope Breakdown can 
Mark Manger
Bob Choflet and Sarah Slater hope Breakdown can rebuild.

Breakdown, broke and understaffed, is being put on ice. Following a farewell celebration on October 22, the current collective of Choflet, Ellen Salvadore, Lisa Knoblach, Liz Simmons, Courtney Kallas and Sarah Slater will start liquidating books from the shop at 1409 Ogden Street in an attempt to mitigate debts to publishers that Choflet estimates at more than $4,000. What's left gets packed up and thrown in storage. And although Choflet will be leaving Colorado soon to focus on a teaching career and impending fatherhood, the rest of the group is determined to somehow, somewhere, put Breakdown back together again.

The original group of eight college students and activists came together in the fall of 2000. Galvanized by the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle the previous year (in which some of them participated), the members envisioned and began drawing up blueprints for a radical bookstore and community space known as an "info-shop" -- an idea that Denver groups like the Radical Information Project had implemented with varying degrees of success in the past.

"When people got back to Denver [from Seattle], they seemed to agree on what they didn't like, but no one was really able to say what they did like," Choflet says. "Our objective was to create a permanent or semi-permanent space that reflected the goals of the anti-capitalist movement that was building at the time."

So in March 2002, Breakdown Book Collective opened in The Other Side Arts gallery complex, at 1644 Platte Street. That residence was to be short-lived, however.

On May 18 of that year, Breakdown held an "anarchist prom" that, according to Choflet, "was our attempt to create kind of a counter-institution with different values than a regular prom." At around 11 p.m., just as a DJ was firing up the turntables for the hundred or so peaceable attendees, a police helicopter and eleven squad cars arrived, reportedly in response to a noise complaint. "They basically told us that if we didn't break it up, they were going to get the dogs out and break it up themselves," Choflet remembers. "At the time, it was a little terrifying; in retrospect, it's almost funny."

Less hilarious was the fallout. Although no arrests or fines resulted from the raid, it aggravated existing tensions between Breakdown and TOSA. Within a month, the collective was asked to find a new home. Choflet and company came close to signing a lease for a storefront at the corner of 13th Avenue and Marion Street, but a last-minute clash with the landlord quashed that plan.

"One of the owners of the building saw that the Colorado Campaign for Middle East Peace was one of the groups that might potentially use the space for meetings," Choflet says. "I think he was Jewish, and he called CCMEP an anti-Jewish organization. I told him, 'No, they just support Palestinian human rights; they're not anti-Jewish.' He just became furious with us. Eventually he said, 'Okay, we'll let you move in, but you're going to have to pay $400 extra a month for the insurance we'll have to buy for allowing potential terrorists to meet here.' I was like, 'You're insane.'"

The Ogden Street site was a more sympathetic fit, and Breakdown reopened in October 2002. Although members had already begun dropping out and being replaced, the collective became ambitious, ordering a large stock of books from publishers and giving organizations like Denver Copwatch, Ladyfest and the Colorado Prison Book Project a place to hold meetings, lectures and workshops. Breakdown also quickly became known as a venue for live bands -- which again brought down the wrath of the authorities. In June 2003, a month after the now-closed downtown art gallery Linoleum was raided by police for throwing a punk-rock show, Breakdown was issued a warning by the fire department for having punk bands play in its basement.

"The fire marshals said they got a noise complaint, which sounded a little fishy," Choflet remembers. "It's rare for anyone to call in a noise complaint to the fire department, plus the show hadn't even started. Some people thought they saw a couple of undercover cops in the crowd. We assumed that someone saw a flier and wanted to apply some sort of pressure on us.

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