From 2004 to 2007,
the artists Ted Purves and Susanne Cockrell ran a store in their Oakland, California, neighborhood that sold nothing. Instead, the Reading Room was filled with loaner books about the area’s rich history, and—because that rich history included the planting of abundant orchards—it was also a place people could stop by to get some fruit, gratis. Before long, it was a bona fide local clubhouse. Purves gives advice for those who’d like to do the same.
Pick your vibe. “We wanted to create a convivial, public place that was open and equal—where there were no expectations of having to be a customer or a participant in some kind of art project,” says Purves.
Have a purpose. Because the Reading Room sold nothing, people would wonder if there was a catch. “It was important to be clear about our goal,” says Purves, “which was to share information and start a discussion about the neighborhood’s history. A fairly simple message, really.”
Make it inviting. Free food is always nice, but so are less tangible things like workshops, movie days, and a conversation-friendly layout. “Often people would come by and we wouldn’t even have to talk to them because they would start talking to each other,” says Purves. “I think having a dinner table in the middle steered them into that rather than into private experiences, as a cafe does.”
Have a bathroom people can use. “You can’t underestimate the importance of a bathroom in the city,” says Purves.
Tap other people’s talents. This article first appeared in The GOOD Guide to Better Neighborhoods. You can read more of the guide here, or you can read more of the GOOD Neighborhoods Issue here.
“When people would bring forward their interests we were quick to ask them to contribute,” says Purveys. “When someone brought up an idea for a group walk, for example, or a seed-exchange board, we’d say do it and we’d put some money into it.” Learn more:
Read up on The Reading Room and other projects by Purves and Cockrell at fieldfaring.org. Illustration by Trevor Burks.