1804 Books in conversation with Playground Coffee Shop: a home for books and mutual aid in Brooklyn

by 1804 Books

In the rapidly gentrifying working class and Black neighborhood, Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn, Playground Coffee Shop has become a hub, radical home, and bridge between multiple communities for mutual aid, cultural work, and breaking bread.

This space was originally a hardware store belonging to Zenat Begum’s, the owner’s father, an immigrant from Bangladesh. The store was passed down and transformed into a staple coffee shop, bookstore, library, greenhouse, art space, and radio station in the neighborhood, all run by young people of color from in and around New York City.

1804 Books visited Playground Annex (501c3) and the Take One, Leave One Library at Playground Coffee Shop to exchange books from our catalog and speak with Jaylen Strong, comrade, curator, and organizer. 

(Jaylen Strong interviewed by Tahia Islam from 1804 Books at The People's Forum)

* 1804 Books is a socialist bookstore based out of The People’s Forum in Midtown, NYC with accessible, internationalist resources for political education, organizing, and movement building. Our goal is to get political education into the hands of people doing the work out on the streets so we can continue the struggle for liberation! 


Tahia: Playground Coffee Shop is more than a coffee shop in the community, you’re a staple in the neighborhood for mutual aid. What does mutual aid mean to you?

Jaylen: Mutual aid is giving back, it’s providing communion, searching for togetherness, and it’s about giving, it’s about keeping each other afloat as the pandemic has laid bare so much broken infrastructure. A lot of us knew this naturally growing up in this city as Black, brown, indigenous, queer, but it took slowing down to re-register the issues of discrimination and inequality against our existences. What we try to do best is to combat that. Not always a bloody fight, though those days come too. 

Sometimes it’s about a tender fight and that’s a good way to describe the community fridge, the Take One Leave One Library, the Greenhouse, and all throughout the summer as we did protest supplies support. I’m always asking: what is the tender combat?

Tahia: How and why did the concept of the library and its programming start? 

Jaylen: It's a curated free library of books by BIPOC and queer authors or those pushing political education. Oftentimes when we see free libraries outside someone’s brownstone, it’s “How to Fix a 2003 Dell Computer.” Who wants that? People want something that will fulfill them, that will challenge them, and bring an internal revolution internally whether they know it or not. 


Jaylen Strong holding Gramsci's Notebooks

Tahia: Why did you choose Gramsci’s Prison Notebooks from 1804 Books to read?

Thinking about the working class, laboring class, keeping them where they are is what the state perpetuates. Creating a class of people, of intellects -- what does it mean to provide vocabulary to people who are seen as struggling or placed in an oppressed class because of external forces? 

What does it mean to read this theory and spread and disseminate information? Information provides a toolkit to survive and it’s always about survival. 

Tahia: True! At The People’s Forum, as a space for political education and the bookstore simply an extension of that, we are always centering how to tie theory to practice -- for organizers engaged in fronts of struggle all over the world. 

In Gramsci’s concept of “common sense,'' which is the making of conditions of inequality and oppression appear natural and unchangeable, we can see how mutual aid is talked about and co-opted by the ruling class: media pieces, politicians...

Jaylen: “This is cute”

Tahia: Exactly! But mutual aid is solidarity, it has a radical history behind it, it’s extremely political, and it’s filling in gaps for what the state has not provided. It’s giving people their own power and strength. Yet it’s getting co-opted and sanitized of those roots in mainstream culture.

Jaylen: Mainstream and ruling class’s infiltration of this is pervasive, dangerous, but it’s also ridiculously funny. Hilarious to see wealthy superstar models call the donation of thousands of dollars as mutual aid. Our communities -- we have had to learn to survive during a pandemic where we were neglected, and those mechanisms we built are mutual aid. 

But what we often forget about is that there’s much to be light about, we should laugh in the face of this deception, because it’s distracting and there’s still work to do. When we see things like our Playground team ending up on multinational corporations’ mood boards for campaigns while we’re deep engaging in a clothes distribution with our neighbors, we laugh and we keep it pushing.

Tahia: I take that from Playground - remaining true to values and optimistic, even as the capitalist class is putting you on mood boards, depoliticizing the roots of this Black and brown neighborhood, and changing the meaning of the work being done in Bedford-Stuyvesant.

What you are all doing reminds of this quote by Gramsci.

The challenge of modernity is to live life without illusions and without becoming disillusioned… I’m a pessimist because of intelligence, but am an optimist because of will.

— Antonio Gramsci (1891- 1937)

Tahia: Why did you choose this other set of books from the 1804 Books collection?

Jaylen: Of all the books in the 1804 Books catalog, an amazing curation, so much love to The People’s Forum... I chose these because I love thinking about books that converse with each other, seemingly from completely different realms in the world. This struggle informs this struggle, these people have taught these people. We learn from each other. We learn how to build a bigger fire. How specifically do we get free? How can we feel jubilance through our conditions of sorrow, crack it, find escape routes and passageways through these texts? I think about that every time I pick up a book. 

This specific selection, all these books, are about attaining some kind of freedom. 

 We thank Jaylen and Playground Coffee Shop for their work in their immediate communities. The reverberations are felt all over!

Let's build internationalist solidarity between our struggles, local and afar. This summer, take classes and attend events at The People's Forum and purchase books from 1804 Books to deepen our understanding and analysis!

Visit Playground Annex and Playground Coffee Shop at 1114 Broadway, Brooklyn, NY, 11216!