The Midnight Special Bookstore has been providing a voice to writers, artists and poets since 1971, when a cooperative of students and activists started it in a tiny storefront in Venice.
This Westside institution, now in Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade, has been the bookstore of choice for readers looking for the latest word on Chicano politics, labor movements, gay rights and other topics not usually found in mainstream bookstores.
But store owner Margie Ghiz always wanted to provide more than just books for her customers. She had a vision of her store as an intellectual gathering place. And of late, her vision has become a reality.
In the last few months, the book shop has been sponsoring informal weekly discussions where anyone with an opinion on Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates, Soviet politics or women and AIDS can have the floor.
Bookstore staffers decided to start the forums, called "What's Happening and Why?" and held every Tuesday, after a series of discussions on the Gulf War drew respectable crowds. Additionally, a "Native American Forum" is held one Sunday a month.
Staffers choose the topics for the forums from newspapers and other media, but participants do the rest.
"This is an attempt to bring people together and learn, not so much from a speaker, but from each other," said manager Daniel Hendrickson. "They go home and turn on the TV every night, but no one listens to what people have to say. All of us have a voice. We're providing a place to use it."
On a recent Sunday night, a group of 25 people listened attentively while Native American activist Elsie James described living conditions on a Mohawk Indian reservation in Ontario, Canada, where intra-tribal violence last year claimed two lives and left untold thousands of dollars in property damage.
"Almost every week the police do house searches with metal detectors and they check under beds, in closets, intimidating families and scaring the children," James told listeners who had wedged their folding chairs between bookshelves and tables. "We have a great responsibility . . . to do something about how native people are being treated. That's why I'm here."
One forum participant, Michael Rogers, a 29-year-old management consultant, said he was thrilled to have a place to discuss the issues of the day.
"It's so wonderful to walk into a room and hear people voicing thoughts you've been thinking, but had no one to tell them to," he said. "Those situations are rare. We've lost our basic units of democracy, like the town hall meeting where people get together and brainstorm and figure out how to change things. That a bookstore can bring that back gives me hope."
The Midnight Special occupies a cozy but aging space sandwiched between an eyeglass boutique and a vitamin store. Posters and flyers announcing upcoming readings and political events hang near the doorway, and the latest environmental books are displayed in the windows.
Inside, there are no cardboard Danielle Steele displays and no traces of Kitty Kelly's bestseller on Nancy Reagan. Instead, the tables are stacked with books like, "Law, Gender & Injustice," "Radical Sociologists and the Movement," "The S & L Debacle."' And if you need a dictionary of dead languages or are researching the social history of the potato, Midnight Special is the place to go.
The store that was born out of a '60s consciousness has survived a number of changes, not the least of which is a dramatic face lift that has taken place along the promenade. Once a barren strip of run-down shops, it is now a bustling walkway of movie theaters and chic boutiques.
Ghiz, who took over the bookstore in 1982, said business is good, but she's not sure that all the changes along the promenade have been for the better.
"I think (the changes) exclude more of the people who used to come here," she said. "I think some people are intimidated by the atmosphere. This is a big money crowd and most people don't have the money to come here anymore. I think it might be alienating for them."
But the increased foot traffic generated by the promenade has brought the store new customers. Some of them need a little time to warm up to the off-beat atmosphere they encounter.
"One lady came in, took a look around and asked me where we keep our "normal books," Ghiz said, breaking into a grin. "A man and a woman came in and saw the Robbie Conal posters of George Bush and Jesse Helms and when they left I heard him whispering to his wife: 'This is a really liberal bookstore, really liberal.' "
Just the way many of the Midnight Special's devoted clientele of teachers, students, writers and activists like it.
And they seem to like the chance to exchange opinions as well.
"The calls we've been getting on the forums shows me that people really want to have a place to come and discuss things and we as booksellers have an obligation to expose them to a reality they may not know is there," Ghiz said while smoking a cigarette at a nearby cafe. "We see a city where people are moving, acting, painting, learning, writing. All we want to do is bring those voices out and get them talking to each other."
At a recent gathering, eight people, including two poets who kicked off the event with a rap, discussed the effort to recall Gates with an attorney and member of the recall committee. The group included Anastacia Stewart, a 57-year-old Mar Vista resident who said she has been attending the sessions since the Gulf War forums.
"What is great about tonight is that everyone basically agrees on the issues, but even when we don't, people have a respect for one another," she said. "This is a true democracy. That's why I come. I get strength from interacting with other people."