Inside a building full of art galleries and artists’ studios in the northern edge of Chinatown is Iffy Books, a small independent bookstore filled with all things “hacking, free culture, gardening, zines.” While they may seem unrelated, this tagline summarizes the many passions of founder and Penn alum, Steve McLaughlin (C ‘08).
At Iffy, Steve explores the beauty of hacking as a form of resistance and anti–capitalism, the importance of free culture—which includes the anti–copyright movement to abolish copyright laws and regulations—and showcases the power of gardening and zines as it relates to the climate crises and the interconnected struggles to present day politics. He founded Iffy in the hopes of creating a space to share knowledge and radicalize reading, and the intertwining of his background in arts and culture with his passions in technology and digital media cultivated the quirky and eccentric bookstore that his community knows and loves today.
For Steve, Iffy Books goes beyond just a “bookstore.” Iffy Books exists, resists, and reimagines what it means to be an independent book space in Philly. Iffy Books is a verb, an action, and a growing movement.
Steve founded his bookstore to welcome "a wide range of folks from a wide range of backgrounds.” One way he does this is by drawing in those interested in technology or the tech industry—not the stereotypical bookstore denizen—through hosting hacking workshops or technical projects. Steve explains that he wants to introduce techies to “ideas about ecology [and] ideas on organizing politically.” He also wants to confront the world of computer science and programming. "The barriers to entry are pretty high—historically, if you're not a cis white male, the barriers are even higher," he says. "But learning these [computer] skills is really empowering, so part of my goal is just to introduce technical ideas in a way that's really beginner–friendly to welcome more people into that space.”
Iffy Books endeavors to foster community by cultivating creativity. "Whether we're making a solar powered synthesizer, or a tiny website on a chip you can carry around in your backpack … Every workshop should be not just putting knowledge into people's brains, but also inviting them to explore further and learn more on their own and be creative with it," Steve says.
But creativity–building aside, Iffy is also simply a place to make friends: a place to talk to people who don’t want to sit around and wait for change; a place to feel less alone.
Community building had been a big part of Steve’s vision for the book store. He was inspired by the small, radical bookstores he’d been to like Monkey Wrench Books in Austin, Texas, where vibrant community spaces flourished alongside book collections on the shelves.
Founding Iffy Books meant making things up and doing things differently. Here, profit is not the priority. “We're following a business model that would not pass muster in business school,” Steve notes. “Our events are, by and large, completely free. You can donate if you want to. Sometimes there's a cost involved in the hardware for the project. But we really want to be as welcoming as possible to pretty much anybody.”
As Iffy Books comes up on their two year anniversary, this business model continues to persist. “[When] you're artful about it, you can set up a shop, put on a little show—even with pretty limited resources,” he says.
According to Steve, the biggest challenge as an independent bookstore is “keeping costs down and getting people in the door.” His struggles are a common sentiment amongst many small, independent bookstore owners. Without a corporate marketing team or chunks of money thrown for advertising, Steve shares the strategy that is commonly used across Philly communities: flyers. “I just started printing a lot of flyers—hundreds and thousands. I bounced around the city; just kind of did a rotation. People actually showed up, and we were able to build the community," he says.
The mission of Iffy Books is to offer an alternative way of life, out from under the pervasiveness of capitalism. This means finding pockets of hope. For Steve, the way to fight against the murderous, capitalist machine is to "make your own culture." "You can't flip a switch and change the entire culture or the entire U.S. culture or world culture," he explains. "You can't just go to a political leader and suddenly fix the problems that we face. You have to start with the people around you.” Organizing, resisting, and revolutionizing through books, workshops, and events are all part of Steve’s vision.
By operating very differently from what a bookstore is “supposed” to be, Iffy Books experiments with intention and evolves with purpose. “It's really much more about building community and helping people meet each other and share skills among themselves," Steve says. While he acknowledges that the world's problems can't all be solved at Iffy Books, he also believes that change starts from your own skills and personal network. "We can definitely help the people around us," he says.