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Rainbow Bookstore celebrates 20 years in Madison

You can understand the impulse to celebrate Rainbow Bookstore Cooperative's 20th anniversary. If it is not the most venerable book shop in a city dotted with small independent booksellers, it is, in chronological human terms, almost legal.

Scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Sunday, Dec. 13, at the Harmony Bar & Grill, Rainbow's birthday party follows the collective's annual meeting and will feature performances by singer-songwriter-guitarist Jim Schwall and the funky blues-rock outfit Bonobo Secret Handshake, along with cake, a selection of gift books for sale and, promises the invitation, "surprises."

No surprise that Marsha Rummel sounds a bit wistful. Now better known as Ald. Marsha Rummel (Dist. 6), she was one of about a dozen founders who launched the cooperative as a hub for progressive reading material and radical resources. As the paid staffer with the longest tenure at Rainbow, she is a primary carrier of its institutional knowledge.

"It's like coming to work every day and you do your routine for a week and a month and all of a sudden it's 20 years," she reflects, likening Rainbow to "a melting pot" of ideas in the book shop's niche. The shelves are stocked with history, cultural-theory, labor, social-justice, environmental, global-relations, LGBT and other titles reflecting the shop's core ideals. You will also find cookbooks here, and graphic novels, poetry and travel books, but Rainbow is foremost a destination to browse for volumes devoted to social change.

"We try to find the interesting books that you won't necessarily find everywhere," Rummel explains. "And then we want to have books that help people understand the world."

She cites a case in point: Ahmed Rashid's Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil and Fundamentalism in Central Asia. Published in March 2001 by Yale University Press, it was on Rainbow's shelves, Rummel remembers, months before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 boosted Taliban's sales and rendered its author a fixture on U.S. news networks. Eight years later - in the wake of President Obama's announcement early this month of his plan to send 30,000 more U.S. troops to Afghanistan - the acclaimed Pakistani journalist's prescience and Rainbow's foresight are re-emphasized.

Niche booksellers like Rainbow and A Room of One's Own Feminist Bookstore - a few blocks away on West Johnson - are more critical than ever to an informed public, Rummel argues. The great contraction of the book-publishing industry to "half a dozen truly big houses," she explains, have narrowed the mainstream publishing pipeline while niche publishers have proliferated. Rainbow has forged strong relationships with its favorites among these, including Pathfinder, South End and Verso.

While big-box booksellers may stock at least some volumes found on its shelves, Rainbow has other distinguishing characteristics. "We're a co-op, so our model is different," Rummel notes. "I think that's helped us weather 20 years." The co-op's egalitarian, non-hierarchical business structure is sustained by its corps of several dozen volunteers and more than 200 member-owners, including 40-50 stockholders.

Rummel notes that "we have built these things that are vital not just locally but nationally" thanks to Rainbow's initiative to establish itself as an online bookseller. "Not a lot of left-of-center book shops sell online," she points out.

Rainbow's ambitions for the next 20 years include figuring out "how to stay relevant to people," Rummel says, trying "to adapt to all the changes in the market and figure out ways to fit in that make sense to us."

But her crystal ball is no more clear than an e-book reader with spent batteries. "Are we the really nice buggy-maker at the rise of the auto?" she asks. "If the future turns out to be the Kindle, I don't know what our future is, but I'm interested in finding out."

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