The Big Idea bookstore gets a little national attention. | Literary Arts | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

The Big Idea bookstore gets a little national attention. 

Most of the Pittsburgh shout-outs in The Nation Guide to The Nation (Vintage) -- the venerable lefty rag's new guide to all things progressive and radical -- focus, deservedly, on our history. The "Left Heritage Trail" feature, for instance, notes 1892's Homestead Strike; the Rachel Carson Homestead; and Maxo Vanko's still-stunning mid-century protest murals in Millvale's St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church.

Yet while radio talker Lynn Cullen is in there, she's currently off the air. That leaves Bloomfield's Big Idea bookstore, a side-street nexus for radical and alternative literature and community. Amidst entries for everything from farm co-ops to new media, the Guide lists Big Idea under "Bookstores for Left-Brained People" alongside such legendary spots at San Francisco's City Lights. And when the magazine's Jan. 26 issue ran Guide excerpts, Big Idea was one of the fewer than 20 of the 384-page book's listings to make the cut.

"We have no idea" how Big Idea got the free press, says Michael Hellein, the all-volunteer operation's financial coordinator.

Inside the assuming storefront at 504 S. Millvale, you'll find everything from classics like Marcuse's Reason and Revolution to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 Reader; Food Security for the Faint of Heart; and zines (Defecating the Oldies). The shop's specialty is anarchism: How Nonviolence Protects the State; No Gods No Masters: An Anthology of Anarchism.

The inventory is small enough that 400 donated volumes (from a defunct radical bookshop in Omaha) warranted rearranging the whole shop. But Big Idea -- which plans a training session for new volunteers on Sun., Feb. 8, and marks its fifth anniversary Feb. 14 -- lives less on sales volume than on community spirit. During a reporter's brief recent visit, a young guy stopped by about using the space for an anarchist reading group.

Big Idea ( draws lots out-of-towners, including "bands on tour," says Hellein. "They're gonna come here, because, 'Oh, yeah, that's the radical bookstore in Pittsburgh.'"

Locals sometimes have a harder time spotting this venue for unconventional thinking: "There are a lot of people who have been walking past who've never noticed the Big Idea."


Readings this week: Samuel Hazo, the venerable educator and prolific writer, reads at the International Poetry Forum, which Hazo himself founded in 1966. Hazo's latest works include The Song of the Horse: Selected Poems 1958-2008 (Autumn House Press). (8 p.m. Wed., Feb. 11; Carneige Library Lecture Hall, 4400 Forbes Ave., Oakland; $8-12; 412-621-9893 or ... The Pittsburgh Contemporary Writers Series hosts a Microconference on African American Poetry, with daytime talks and an evening reading by visiting poets Arnold Rampersad (also a biographer of Ralph Ellison and Langston Hughes); Mendi Obadike; G.E. Patterson; and Carl Phillips (7 p.m. Fri., Feb. 6; Baker Hall, Carnegie Mellon campus, Oakland; free; 412-624-6506 or ... Renowned National Park Historian Emeritus and Civil War expert Edwin Cole Bearss marks the 200th birthday of the nation's 16th president with his talk "Mr. Lincoln Comes to Washington," at the Andrew Carnegie Free Library & Music Hall, in Carnegie (7 p.m. Mon., Feb. 9; 300 Beechwood Ave., Carnegie; $10; 412-276-3456, x2).



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