From the Ground Up

How Groundwork Books led co-op culture.


It’s only fitting that it should start with a squeaky wheel. “I can remember sitting in class hearing the cart being rolled over,” says Roberto Riley ’90. Rattling its way across campus, eventually that sound would stop in Revelle Plaza, or make it over to Muir Quad, where the cart, shelves brimming with leftist literature, would serve to feed the minds of a campus already steeped in social change and activism.

Radical, leftist, revolutionary—the origins of Groundwork Bookstore came from ideals of the era, as energized student activists and community members wanted to empower others with texts that might not be found on college reading lists, anything from Marxist theory to community organizing to how to fix your own car. “Knowledge gives power,” says Chia Wood, a former student of the ’70s and founding member of the collective. “We wanted to give people power over their own lives.”

The name spoke to the “groundwork” they hoped to build—a foundation of community and autonomy, adhering to the core values of a co-op by having no organizational hierarchy or power structure, but in which everyone’s opinion was valued equally. For the first few years, these ideals centered around a simple bookshelf on wheels. But once the Student Center was built in 1976, Groundwork found its new home as a brick-and-mortar, student-run business.

The bookstore debuted as a rustic, cozy spot, with mismatched furniture adding to the charm. Volunteers kept the shop running and organized events like International Workers’ Day celebrations, activist reading groups and movie nights for thought-provoking films like Attica and Hearts and Minds. As for a business with no formal hierarchy, the collective was able to function through consensusbased governance. “I was interested in the working through relationships and decision-making without the hierarchical financial and power structure around us,” says Riley.

Of course, no radical bookstore comes without its clashes. When Groundwork added textbooks to its inventory, the university administration took notice and made moves to divert students back to the university-owned bookstore. And yet plenty of professors decided to order through Groundwork, and long lines of students with reading lists were a regular sight outside its doors every quarter. Groundwork stopped selling textbooks over the years, but it still remains a hub for students and a nexus of social and political activism.

To visit Groundwork Bookstore today is to take a trip back in time, with political posters and slogans of yesteryear hung alongside flyers for modern movements and contemporary calls for action. Couches and armchairs—maybe the very same it started with—invite you to sink into something off the shelves, with the smell of books wafting up to your nose as you flip through the pages. The collective still holds film showings and grassroots events, with dates and times and calls to action painted onto the windows, hoping to catch the attention of students passing through.

That Groundwork remains is as much a testament to its significance on campus as it is a thing of awe for those who started it. Many of the founding collective members are surprised that the bookstore still exists almost 50 years later. “I never dreamed it would continue as long as it did,” says founding member Lincoln Cushing ’75. But its longevity is owed to the generations of students who sought to make a difference and saw the collective as a means to make it. Whether on wheels or with decades of roots beneath, Groundwork has been a place to start for anyone who has felt similar to Wood way back when—“I often thought, ‘Someone has to do something,’” she remembers. “And then one night it occurred to me: I was someone.”

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