History of the Midnight Special Bookstore

In the early part of the century, a train would leave El Paso, Texas every night at midnight. According to music historian, Alan Lomax, legend has it that this train would shine its light through the barred windows as it passed by Sugarland Prison on its trip north. The prisoners believed that if the light from the train shone on them, they'd be the next to be set free. The Midnight Special, as it came to be called, became a legendary symbol of freedom.

The Midnight Special Bookstore opened in 1970 in Venice, California in the midst of the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. We were one of hundreds of small bookstores that sprang up all over the united States in response to the demand from young people for history, politics and literature that was about people and events that were known to them. For the first 15 years, the store was run predominantly by volunteers, men and women who believed that knowledge was freedom, and that the price of that knowledge and freedom was worth the countless hours they put in. By 1985, our long-time accountant (also a volunteer) estimated that one million unpaid hours had been donated to the Midnight Special.

In 1980 the store moved from its location in Venice to a sleepy outdoor shopping mall on Third Street in Santa Monica. Here the Midnight Special had an opportunity to branch out and take its place among the other excellent independent bookstores that served Los Angeles. We became a center for dissension during the Reagan Years. Specializing in history, political and social science, we also developed a reputation for our cinema and music sections. We put on countless events both in and among our bookshelves and off-site. Maya Angelou, Oliver Stone, Dave Marsh, Margaret Randall, Jello Biafra and Frank Zappa were some of the people who appeared under our aegis. One year we mounted an ambitious month of Sundays devoted to panels and discussions about censorship. We began a long-standing and warm relationship with an artist who was papering the streets with posters of Men with No Lips and Women with Teeth (Robbie Conal). We were the rallying point for the National Coalition of the Homeless.

In 1992 we moved just up the street to a location twice the size and infinitely more beautiful. This move was prompted in part by one of the store's most dogged supporters, our landlord at this new location. His devotion and unflagging dedication to the store's mission cannot be overemphasized; we quite simply could not have endured in that space without his generosity. It was this move that really brought the Midnight Special into its own, largely because this new place afforded us the luxury of our 1000-square-foot space Cultural Center, which allowed us to expand exponentially the programs we could present to the public. It is through these events that we have had our most active and visible interactions with the many communities we serve. Over the years, we have been fortunate enough to welcome hundreds of writers, including Octavia Butler, bell hooks, Paul Coelho, Slavoj Zizek, Eduardo Galeano, Viggo Mortensen, Dave Eggers, Elaine Brown, Lalo Alcaraz, Khaled M. Abou El Fadl, Walter Mosley, Trinh Minh-Ha, Edward Said, Junko Mizuno and Tariq Ali.

We also instituted reading groups, panel discussions, video screenings, internet and computer demonstrations, seminars, writer's workshops, open poetry readings and publication parties. Additionally, our windows and walls are often used for temporary art exhibitions. Our events are always free and open to the public, and they have been taped and broadcast by C-SPAN, local cable TV and our local public radio station, KPFK. When circumstances have demanded it, we have given over our space to the immediate needs of the greater community: events related to the Gulf War and the reactions to the Rodney King verdict were put together spontaneously, advertised by word of mouth and attended by hundreds of Angelinos.

Our principle objective here at the Midnight Special is nothing more and nothing less than to reflect the real world of Los Angeles: to present old, new and lesser-known works to the public, and to learn from our customers. This goal is what fuels our daily activities at all levels. The Midnight Special has evolved and grown from the input and contributions of its staff and customers as much as from any one buyer, manager or owner. Our staff is diverse in all aspects: age, ethnicity, sexuality and formal education levels. The bookstore has always been graced with highly educated, multilingual staff people working alongside those whose knowledge does not come from an academic education but who give us the social grounding we need.

The Midnight Special is a general bookstore with specialties in the political and social sciences, history and science, including conservation and environment. We also have a strong cinema section, which is the highest turning section in the store. We have one of the few disability studies sections in the city, which was developed by a staff person who consulted with one of our customers, a political science professor from USC. We have learned that developing a section is not about titles and topics; it¡¯s about understanding a culture and a world that is invisible to many of us.

One of our greatest assets is that we continue to learn. At this writing (February, 2003), we are faced with yet another move. We are certain that this next move will present us with even more opportunities to serve the communities who rely on us to shine as a beacon of freedom. Even though our doors may be closed for a little while as we look for and prepare our new home, we'll be listening and learning - please feel free to communicate with us.