Wooden Shoe collective runs on the energy of volunteers

Photo by Margo Reed

Photo by Margo Reed

Anarchist Book Nook

by Emily Kovach

You might not expect to find a radical bookstore among the pawn shops and window displays of sneakers and jewelry on South Street. But at 704 South, there it is: the storefront for Wooden Shoe Books and Records, an all-volunteer collective that’s been a mainstay of the local social justice and anarchist communities since 1976. 

The shop existed first at 20th and Sansom, and after a devastating electrical fire in 1997, it moved to 5th and Bainbridge, and then to its current home in 2010. The collective is named after the sabot, a symbol of the proletariat: During early industrial capitalism, it’s sometimessaid that French peasant workers would throw a shoe into factory machines to jam the gears, in protest of their inhumanely long working hours. The symbol reflects the core values of the collective’s members, past and present: “to overturn capitalism and the state by using its weaknesses against it,” according to their website. They call themselves an “anti-business”: Every penny they earn goes back into putting more (often obscure academic) books on shelves and helping other people doing similarly aligned work in the city. 

The shop, which primarily carries radical literature, records and how-to zines, is a nonprofit and has no paid employees. Joshua Hupp, a South Philly resident studying biology at the Community College of Philadelphia, is in his sixth year with Wooden Shoe. He asserts that though the collective has a “crust punk” image, the group of volunteers is rather diverse. 

“It’s a good mix: punks, liberal arts students and professionals,” he says. While volunteerism is essential for the shop’s model, Hupp notes that their group of dedicated participants is at an all-time low. After the Occupy Wall Street movement fizzled out, he notes, “People just seem burned out on activism.” 

But, he believes that the spring weather and the upcoming presidential election will re-energize the space. The shop also acts as a free meeting space for direct action groups, workshops and events, which help introduce people to the philosophy of the space. 

For Hupp, whose passion is eco-activism, the draw is being around like-minded people and getting to interact and converse with the flow of humanity that South Street brings through their doors. 

“Sometimes, you hear people passing by who are confused about an anarchist bookstore,” he says. “Occasionally they come in, and that’s when you get to have cool conversations… there’s never a dull moment.”