Bowed But Not Broken

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

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."

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.

"Generally speaking, though, we didn't have a lot of problems with the police," he continues. "But we did hear from the ACLU when Sarah Bardwell got approached by the feds," he adds. Bardwell, a young Denver activist, was harassed by FBI agents at her home in July 2004, an act that resulted in a lawsuit against the bureau by the ACLU. "The FBI document that the ACLU got ahold of mentioned Breakdown as the next place they were going to visit. But they chose not to, because whatever objective they had was realized with their interaction with Sarah."

Ultimately, it didn't take anything as dramatic as a G-man conspiracy to bust up Breakdown. Amid lagging volunteer support, weak event attendance and mountains of bills, the possibility of shutting the space down started being openly discussed this May. By the end of summer, the collective was unanimous: It was time to give up. And while the doors of Breakdown will close on October 31, members like Simmons and Kallas see hope for rebirth -- even if it's in a wholly different incarnation.

"I had this idea for the Breakdown Suitcase Collective," Kallas says, "where we'd make our lending library portable and take it around to different places. We still need to raise money to pay off bills, and we want to keep this name that people can organize events around. We also want to reclaim spaces, like when we have bike-in movies and find walls around town to show them on."

"Even just setting up a table on a street corner downtown would be good," Simmons notes.

"That approach lends itself to the way our society is so ADD," Kallas adds. "Maybe Breakdown started to fail because people got used to seeing it, so they stopped seeing it. They stopped being excited by it because it wasn't some new thing."

Of course, the collective is still open to the idea of finding another, more conventional storefront for Breakdown and has been talking to sympathetic entities such as the Derailer Bicycle Collective, the Denver Zine Library and Sisters of Color United for Education about renting a common base of operations and even selling coffee and vegan pizza. But for Kallas and Simmons -- who traveled the country last year filming a documentary about info-shops titled Living Room: Space and Place in Info-Shop Culture -- projects like Breakdown have a spirit that transcends four walls and a front door.

"We end the movie with a volunteer in front of the Long Haul in Berkeley," Simmons says, citing the legendary info-shop that served in part as an inspiration and a model for Breakdown. "He's saying that sometimes info-shops might not seem to serve much of a purpose; they're empty, or they aren't used that much. But there are certain points in history when it's really important they're there, so people can organize and interact. But you don't always need a physical space to keep those ideas going."

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