Homeless cats and unconventional books have found a common refuge at the Radical Cat bookstore in Reno. At that new shop, both the felines and the volumes can find forever homes.
The radical bookstore/cat lounge and community space is a welcome addition to the Wells Avenue creative oasis which already includes The Holland Project, KWNK Community Radio, Laika Press, the Our Center LGBTQIA+ community center and Magpie Coffee. As with the gay and feminist bookstores of yore, the collective goal of The Radical Cat is to elevate and make available previously silenced and under-appreciated voices.
“Our mission it to have this inclusive, cozy space where you can find books by people who have historically been marginalized and on topics that have been historically marginalized, which would include feminism, LGBTQIA+ issues, social justice issues, anti-racism and policing issues,” said Rosie Zuckerman, one of the four founders and co-owners.
This collective spirit helped to make curating The Radical Cat’s initial collection an organic and free flowing experience, she said. The inventory includes many of the founders’ favorites, volumes suggested by community members, and ideas from the shelves of existing radical, collectively-operated bookstores, such as Firestorm Books and Blue Stocking. The shop not only features titles on marginalized identities and underrepresented writers, but also includes tomes on living a more sustainable, radical life, including sections on technology and labor, trauma and healing, farming and gardening, community organizing and more. The shop also carries many titles with lefty political subjects like anti-capitalism, police reform and anarchy.
Though all members of the collective share book-buying responsibilities, co-owner Ilya Arbatman puts a lot of his attention on stocking underrated and less appreciated writers. “I read the work of a lot of women authors who really deserve to be on the classics list but aren’t, partially because they’re women, and also because once the canon is established, it gets hard to change it,” he said.
One of Arbatman’s biggest motivations for being involved in physical bookstore was its ability to feature an eclectic collection of current and out-of-print books that can be handled and browsed by patrons standing in front of the shelves. He is a proponent of the intimate, tactile experience of reading a printed book and said the internet isn’t a proper home for most literature.
“I feel like there is something special that happens when all the books are here together,” Arabatman said. “You can see and interact with them.”
The physicality of books makes them more immediate and relatable, he said. They became physical maps of ideas and stories waiting to be explored. Arabatman is an author and his book, Covid Comix is on the shelves. The work is an intimate and often hilarious daily account of his experiences during the pandemic.
Cats and books: a classic combination
And then, there’s the cats.
Like the bookstore, the cat part of The Radical Cat was designed to be an inviting and welcoming space, supportive for both animals and people. “I think we see the cat part of it as creating a venue where people can take advantage of this mutually beneficial relationship we can have with animals,” Zuckerman said, “(a place) where we can care for them and love them and reap the emotional and physiological benefits that come from hanging out with them.”
The cat lounge is separated from the retail part of the store by recycled window frame walls that give the felines some private space and keep the books from collecting cat hair. Everyone is welcome to come spend time with the four-legged residents, and lots of cat toys are provided to facilitate engagement.
The space can shelter up to five felines, though it is more common for two or three to temporarily be call it home. So far, more than 13 cats have found new families, including Stormy, Brooklyn, Smokie Joe, Little Debbie and Mercury.
Zuckerman connects with each cat in residence, no matter how long they stay.
“I do sort of identify as a crazy cat lady,” she said. “I feel like dog people are maybe generally a little more normal. I feel like cat people are a little weirder.”
When store patrons select their new cat overlords and take them home, the SPCA supplies more animals for adoption. The organization also covers the expenses related to caring for and feeding the animals. “For those cats and for those people adopting, I think it’s like the best case scenario, because the cats are more comfortable than they might be in a loud shelter environment; you can spend time with them; you can visit them,” Zuckerman said.
The self-described crazy cat lady also is the mastermind behind PussyCat pop-ups, which held cat-adoption events in partnership with the Holland Project. Zuckerman has a rapport with felines, who allow her to put drops in their eyes without resorting to attempted murder. The cats are up for adoption, but many of the folks who hang out with the tabbies aren’t considering taking one home. They are there to spend quality time with the animals and, they hope, to receive some purrs and happy head butts in return.
“I see hanging out with animals as a huge mental health component for people,” Zuckerman said. “I mean, it’s not going to find you affordable housing, but maybe it will make your afternoon a little bit better.”
The Radical Cat also is home to many of the books that are being challenged and sometimes removed from schools and libraries across the country. According to the American Library Association, five of the top 10 most commonly challenged books in 2021 contain queer or transgendered themes. Racial and sexual themes also were controversial and commonly cited among the more than 1,600 books that were challenged or banned around the country last year.
“The big inspiration for me was the book banning that’s been going on across the United States for the last year,” said co-owner Melissa Hafey, “the particular targeting of books that are promoting positive self-image and confidence for kids particularly and people who are trans, queer, LBGTQIA+.”
Hafey wanted to create a space reminiscent of the gay and feminist bookstores she frequented in the late 1990s. “I felt like something was missing,” she said, “something that was specific in speaking to people who didn’t identify with a very mainstream identity and needed to know that they were welcome in a community where they could be themselves, their whole selves.”
Hafey runs the business side of the operation and takes the lead on budgeting, accounting and compliance issues. She also brings a lot of start-up knowledge to the endeavor. She has been involved in the early phases of other community organizations including Reno Food Systems and The Great Basin Community Food Coop. The fourth partner is Melissa’s husband, Mike Hafey, who took the lead on building out the space, but, sadly, is highly allergic to cat dander and is unable to spend much time in the shop.
The collective approach
The collective organization of The Radical Cat is a model of business ownership rapidly gaining in popularity.
“I don’t feel any ownership. I hope to steward the store, but I don’t expect that it will be my personal thing. I hope that lots of people come here and find great books that change their lives for the better,” Hafey said.
The Radical Cat concept rapidly progressed from idea to brick-and-mortar. The owners said the two-pronged idea of radical books and adoptable cats was hatched in December 2021. The concept of a cat adoption lounge came first, but they knew it wasn’t viable on its own. They needed a retail business as a partner. The Wells Avenue space became available at a reasonable rate, and the owners signed the lease in January. After a quick build out, their soft (and furry) opening was in March.
“It’s kind of shocking, really,” Zuckerman said. “I think it’s the only thing in my life that’s been like this. We set a deadline to plan on opening at the end of March, and I think we opened before we even planned. It was a very quick evolution of things.”
In keeping with its collaborative, why-the-heck-not spirit, The Radical Cat has already teamed up with several local arts organizations and creative individuals to put on special events, including a monthly children’s story time with the Holland Project, a queer-themed book club with Our Center, a cat toy crochet workshop, an intro to Tarot Card reading workshop, and writing workshops. Arbatman also manages the Radical Cat’s always-expanding event’s calendar, which lists an eclectic slate of offerings including specialized book clubs, craft workshops, panel discussions, write-ins and live music. The founders encourage community members and organizations who have an ideas for an events or workshops to pitch them.
The Radical Cat proprietors also want people to just come by and hang out in a safe, inclusive space. The business needs to make money to survive, but it’s not necessary to buy an eco-friendly handmade cat toy or queer, sci-fi graphic novel. The shop welcomes folks who just want to hang out with cats and books, books and cats.
“Our mission is to nurture a revolution in Reno/Sparks by promoting positive mental health, radical inclusion, a love of great books and meaningful connection, ” Zuckerman said.
Arabatman agreed: “We want to give cats, books and people a place to belong.”