News: Steal This Bookstore

Extremism is no vice at Hobo Books

Sean Hughes/

While blowing up Indian Hill would be against the law, writing about the benefits of doing so is protected by the First Amendment — for now, at least.

The American right to freedom of expression is at the heart of a new Northside bookstore. Nestled between the Serpent Lounge and Rose of Sharon Apostolic Pentecostal Church on Hamilton Avenue, Hobo Books opened three months ago. The store offers an eclectic variety of books, magazines and other materials not usually available in mainstream bookstores.

Owner Lenore Parker says she chose to locate the store in Northside because of the neighborhood's economic and racial diversity as well as its support for small businesses. Decisively bohemian, dressed completely in black with a beret and pigtails, she reflects on what motivated her to open Hobo Books.

"I recently came across a quote that kind of summed it up by Einstein: 'Those who have the privilege to know have the duty to act,' " she says. "It was time to share my knowledge — not to sound pompous or anything. I was just pretty upset about what was going on in the world and the media and the government control of the media, only getting one point of view. So I decided it was time to offer some other points of view."

By embedding pieces of her own life into its confines, the store resonates elements of Parker's personality throughout. A display case filled with exotic tobacco and rolling papers alludes to the owner's many years as an employee at Straus Tobacconist on Walnut Street. An expansive collection of her favorite classic novelists, which she has a penchant to quote, occupies a significant section in the rear. A large poster of banned books stands just by the register, reminding customers of the First Amendment.

"I'm a big supporter of the First Amendment in all forms," Parker says. "I might not always agree with it, but like Voltaire said, 'I will fight to the death for the right to say it.' "

At first glance, the bookstore might seem like one of its innocuous mainstream counterparts until customers notice such titles as Holy Homicide: the Encyclopedia of Those Who Go with Their God and Kill, by Michael Newton; Bomb the Suburbs, by William Upski Wimsatt; and X-Rated Bible, by Ben Ackerley. Most bookstores shy away from such controversial material for fear of legal ramifications, according to Parker.

So far her clientele have gravitated toward the more polemic offerings, but she also receives a steady business for her conventional material, she says.

"I'm trying to deal with small publishers, books that you can't just walk into Barnes & Noble and get — books I'm sure their lawyers would not let them put on the shelves," Parker says. "But then again I'm a general book store. I've got fiction, I've got cookbooks, I've got kids' books. I have a whole array. I love books, and that had a lot to do with me wanting to do this."

While the store doesn't boast a spiffy espresso bar serving up $5 lattes, Hobo Books does offer coffee, juices and snacks. Unlike the larger chains, customers are welcome to sit in overstuffed chairs while they have a cup of coffee and a cigarette, perusing through the collection.

For publishers like Loompanics in the state of Washington, stores such as Hobo Books are too few. The publisher specializes in controversial material and does a great deal of its sales online.

"I think any customer we have is important, and we want to take the best care of them as we can," says editor Gia Consindas. "I applaud any bookstore that, in this kind of climate, takes the initiative and courage to open and sell these kinds of materials."

Consindas says Loompanics' popular titles include Secrets of Methamphetamines Manufacture, by Uncle Fester; Drink as Much as You Want and Live Longer, by Fredrick Beyerein; and Theatre of Hell: Dr. Lung's Complete Guide to Torture, by Dr. Haha Lung and Christopher Prownat.

"A lot of people are upset by the direction the country is going right now," Consindas says. "People's interests ebb and flow. They drift away for a while, then they look at what's going on in the country and it upsets them, so they turn to the underground again. Our business really ebbs and flows, depending on what's happening."

Business at Hobo Books has been a bit slow after the holidays, Parker says. But when things pick up, she hopes to have book signings, poetry readings and other events at the store.

"I would like this to someday become a meeting of the minds, an exchange of information," she says. "I love to talk to people. I love people and all their diversity. You've got something to learn from everyone." ©