Knowledge is free at the Madison Info Shop

It’s March 2011, and the protests against Gov. Walker’s Budget Repair Bill are in full swing. In the Madison Info Shop, the phone rings, and a volunteer answers.

The caller at the other end of the line works at an art museum in San Francisco that collects and archives political literature. The museum would like copies of the different posters and graphics from the uprising.

“Can you send some?”

Days later the volunteer mails the materials out. No questions asked, no red tape to untangle. Such is the power of info shops.

Info Shops located in cities across the country are increasingly part of a global movement to share resources, according to John Peck, Info Shop volunteer and Madison Area Technical College professor. They connect citizens of all races, ages and professions organizing in support of activism, ranging from political to environmental. Info Shops also serve as access hubs for legal advice, pamphlet collections and art supplies.

“I think there’s really a need for these autonomous spaces, since a lot of the stuff we do here, you might not be allowed to do any other place. We provide alternative information. A lot of the stuff here isn’t even in the UW library, for example,” Peck says.

A place to “be yourself”

The Info Shop on Williamson Street has operated in Madison for 20 years. It offers guidance for newcomers in town and a common space for anyone who wants to work to improve the community, Peck says.

It has hosted meetings for mental health wellness groups, citizens organizing against mining practices, and even organizes an annual “alternative hippie Christmas.” Anyone can call to reserve the space, and unlike many other meeting spaces in town, it’s free.

Inside, the room is cloaked in comfortable disarray, the kind that results from years of collection and less than careful organization. Boxes stacked four deep on a desk burst with zines. So do the bookshelves. T-shirts folded next to the literature are covered in a layer of buttons bearing political slogans.

“If this place ever did close, for some reason, a lot of this stuff would go to the Historical Society, because a lot of [it] is unique, not found anywhere else,” Peck says.

A plaid couch greets visitors, offering respite to anyone who walks in the door. Posters cover the walls. One reads, “No Weapons Allowed;” another, “Eat the rich.” Pastel colored cranes hang from the ceiling alongside a rifle cut from cardboard with the words “Made in the USA” handwritten in black marker.

Former probation counselor and social worker Hannah DeVelmon began volunteering at the Info Shop because it reminded her of the Black Panther headquarters in Chicago. She says it offers a change from her past as a working professional.

“I hadn’t even worn jeans in 15 years. Now, I could come and just sit down. No one’s judging me on how I look or what I’m wearing. You just come and be yourself,” DeVelmon says.

Although today, the Info Shop resides in the basement of Nature’s Bakery Cooperative, it hasn’t always been a part of the Williamson Street community. Before 2002, it was located beneath the Pres House on the UW campus, and later, nestled in the warren of buildings on East Campus Mall that predated the Lucky complex. It was funded by the Associated Students of Madison.

But in 2002, the Info Shop lost UW funding due to university cuts.

Since then, it has survived by writing grants and selling homemade buttons.

Getting involved in the community

The Info Shop works to maintain a visible role in the Madison community. In addition to hosting regular meetings and events, it also organizes a “free store” during the citywide move-out every August. Volunteers collect and offer reusable items discarded by residents to anyone in need.

“Everything is for free…you can just come here and see if there’s something you can use. We’re trying to be a space for everybody,” Peck says.

The Info Shop also publishes a “Dis-Orientation Manual,” covering issues from a different perspective than those in mainstream and University presses. Previous issues have explored the roots of tuition hikes, sweatshops and diversity, according to Peck.

“It’s the whole joke about how if lions told their own history it would be very different than the history the hunters would tell. The hunters have this story, right, about the hunt, and of course the lions always lose and never get to tell their story,” Peck says. “…The University has this story about what's [happening] on campus, but what's also going on?”

Besides publication and collection, the Info Shop also supports projects like Books to Prisoners. In Wisconsin due to concerns about contraband items, books must be sent to inmates directly from a bookstore.

Enter the Books to Prisoners project. The Info Shop collects used books in collaboration with Rainbow Book Cooperative and sends them to prisoners around the state.

“A lot of those people in prison will be coming back to the community when they get out. Why not give them a chance to educate themselves while they’re there rather than just sitting,” Peck says.

DeVelmon even had the opportunity to send books to her son serving time in the Wisconsin prison system.

The Madison Info Shop also offers visitors a lending library, fax and copying capabilities and Internet access.

“We’re sort of in the middle of a lot of different communities here. We have people [visiting] who are new to town and want to find out what’s going on. We have people who are marginalized in the community. They have a safe space,” Peck says.