Kevin Troy Swett filled a plastic bag with frozen meats and yogurt from a community fridge overflowing with produce. From the adjacent free pantry, he grabbed face masks, wet wipes, a Lipton iced tea, a flashlight and batteries.
It was an April afternoon and Swett, 54, was making his weekly visit to All Power Books – a co-op bookstore, art space and community center in the historic West Adams neighborhood. Next to shelves displaying books on socialism and communism were boxes of donated food – avocados, pastries, fruit – arranged on tables along the wall.
A few months ago, Swett, a Navy veteran who lives across the street, started visiting the bookstore to browse its free clothes rack and buy essentials. It has since become an integral part of her life; the store organizers even gave him money to buy medicine.
Swett was less concerned with his own needs that day than with the unique hybrid showcase he was relying on. “This place is awesome,” he said, “and it needs help.”
All Power Books is more than a bookstore: it’s a radical, volunteer-run, community-supported space committed to helping its neighbors. Its services include – for starters – a free store with food, toiletries, cleaning supplies, menstrual products and books; access to a computer and a printer with free Wi-Fi; a sanitary facility open to all; resources on workers’ and tenants’ rights; a twice-weekly community clinic; and a meeting space for other activists. Organizers also handed out free bikes and school supplies, drove residents to the DMV or doctor’s appointments, raised funds for specific individual needs (from vans to cellos), and offered babysitting — free of charge.
“We are by the people, for the people,” said co-founder and co-organizer Savannah Boyd.
It’s the kind of place many Angelenos might be surprised it exists – and indeed, its existence is precarious. Last month, the organizers learned that their lease would not be renewed; the nearly 100-year-old mixed-use building is in need of major renovations. They will remain there until at least the end of May before eventually moving to a new, smaller location next door.
The booksellers recognize that the building is in poor condition. Just a few weeks ago, a water heater from an empty upstairs unit leaked water into the store below, damaging up to $2,000 in equipment and merchandise. If building permits are approved, repairs will include the installation of a new beam and footings and restoration of the foundation of the building, according to the city’s Building and Safety website.
The landlords of the building are offering a rent reduction during construction and, afterward, a new three-year lease with a 38% rent increase followed by 3% annual increases, according to an email that the property manager sent to All Power. The organizers submit a counter-proposal with, among other things, one year at their current rate and a 20% rent increase without an annual increase. In any event, they have already signed a lease for the neighboring space.
News of a rent increase is not new to West Adams. Organizers fear this will perpetuate the region’s accelerated gentrification and endanger spaces like All Power that serve longtime residents as part of their mission.
“It’s not necessarily about All Power, it’s about what happens to these places, to these neighborhoods as a whole,” said co-founder Jesse Barnett. “Why it’s wrong in this case is because we’re one of the only things in the neighborhood that just gives back.”
The building’s property manager did not respond to a request for comment.
One of LA’s oldest neighborhoods, West Adams is a working-class, middle-class neighborhood that has grown in popularity over the years, becoming a hotspot for young newcomers and developers. Today, there are dozens of new construction projects in various stages of construction. Familiar businesses disappear to make way for new ones; longtime residents are evicted from their homes.
As the COVID-19 pandemic began to spread through Los Angeles, these growing socioeconomic disparities were magnified.
“During the pandemic, the veil has been lifted, and we’ve all seen that a lot of things aren’t working the way they should,” said co-host Gage Nguyen.
As the city’s luckiest workers shrunk their orbits to home offices, volunteers fanned to provide mutual aid across the city – mostly in encampments. The future organizers of All Power were among them, and that’s how they met.
“We were just talking to people, and if they said they needed something, we would do our best to get it to them,” Barnett said. This often meant providing them with food, toiletries or tents; sometimes it helped them complete their stimulus check paperwork.
Barnett, Boyd and others finally realized that the community needed a permanent space to seek help.
In June 2021, they opened this space, between a hair salon and a liquor store, and called it All Power Books. It’s now run by six friends – musicians, activists, graphic designers, non-profit workers – who spend their free time giving back to the community. (Co-hosts also include Catherine Quach and Andrew Muro.)
The company operates on an anti-capitalist model, Boyd said. Among the products they sell are mugs, sweatshirts, and tote bags, as well as books by Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Vladimir Lenin, and other radical thinkers. Sales pay store rent, free goods and services. “We don’t keep a single penny of the profits for ourselves.”
In a country struggling to even cope with a shortage of infant formula, All Power is a stopgap in the absence of a safety net.
“It infuriates me that it takes six people who are just trying to live their own lives, to keep a roof over their heads, to have to take over a city, one of the wealthiest in the country, who can’t provide those things for people,” Barnett said, recalling a mother who recently walked into the store worried that she wouldn’t be able to feed her children.
“We’re not doing any of this because we’re like, ‘Oh, we think people would benefit from it,'” added co-host Kai Nguyen. “They’re the ones telling us, ‘I could really use some help with this, I could really use some help with this. “”
Comedian Tuesday Thomas has lived in the All Power building for eight years. In the short time the store has been open, she has noticed a positive change in the neighborhood.
“These guys here,” she said, pointing to some of the locals hanging around inside the store, “are a lot calmer than when I first met them.” She often saw them angry and fighting. But now, “they come here and they talk to somebody, and these people listen to them,” she said. It made all the difference.
Damien Harripersad agrees. The 25-year-old local has been coming to the store almost every day since it opened. “I read, I hang out. It’s just peaceful,’ he said one recent afternoon, munching on chicken he’d bought at the store. A Palestinian flag and framed pictures of Che Guevara and the slogan “Destroy the patriarchy” hung nearby.
“It’s the busiest place,” he added.
Harripersad has come to rely on the bookstore for essentials: groceries, diapers for his friend’s child and even clothes for himself. On the day he spoke to a Times reporter, he was wearing jeans, a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of trainers he had bought from the free clothes rack.
Damien Jr. is also a frequent visitor. After a long and tiring day at work, Harripersad drops off his 5-year-old son at the store so he can take a shower and catch up on household chores. Others in his building are also daily visitors.
“If this place closed it would put a lot of people in a bad place,” he said.
Kai Nguyen was there to reassure him that, store or no store, they would find a way. “Anyone who needs help, we will help them,” Kai said. “It’s a philosophy that we have kept all this time.”