Mondragon: it’s not your typical crusty punk scene

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A FOLKSINGER STOPS In for a coffee while a radical filmmaker makes a pit-stop on his Vespa; a local bike cooperative founder emerges from her subterranean workshop for lunch; and a member of Copwatch walks over from her office across the street–this is a familiar scene on the front steps of a local leftist hangout on Winnipeg’s Albert St.

Located in a three-storey Edwardian building and swathed in a graffiti-style mural, Mondragon Bookstore and Coffeehouse rises like a beacon among the buildings of Winnipeg’s historic warehouse district.

Indoors, graffiti gives way to vaulted tin ceilings, neutral colors, and a homespun collection of wooden tables and chairs and frayed couches, often occupied by sprawled readers or crawling babies. On the far wall a banner declaring “Labour Is Entitled to All It Creates” watches over the former warehouse space from a height of twelve feet.

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Founded as an anarchist collective in 1996, Mondragon welcomes radicals of various backgrounds, while providing vegan food, progressive books, and local organic groceries to the broader community.

“Our clientele has become so varied over the years, with students, suits, artists living in the area, radicals, environmentalists, punks, and couriers,” said Eton Harris, a member of the collective since 1998. “It’s not your typical crusty punk scene.”

But while catering to radicals and local residents, Mondragon still displays some of the punk edge that defined it in its infancy. David Camfield, a labour studies professor admits that some leftists feel mildly alienated by the anarchist style and subculture. Nonetheless, Mondragon’s value as an informal gathering space and political venue for the Left is undeniable because “in so many cities there is such a premium on space.”

Since its founding, the space has evolved from a large, fully-stocked bookstore and vegetarian cafe, to a full restaurant and info shop carrying a select number of titles. This spring the collective converted a portion of the space to an organic grocery store stocking produce, fair trade goods, and a variety of vegan staples. They call it Sacco and Vanzetti.

With the advent of the grocery store, and as the restaurant has increasingly become the focus of the business, food politics is now more central to its mission.

“Basically we provide food that’s grown as locally as possible with producers we’re dealing with face to face. If it’s not local then it’s definitely organic. If it’s from far away we’re going for fair trade,” says Harris.

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“A lot of businesses may do that, but we’re trying to back it up with a nonhierarchical structure.” That structure has forgone not only bosses, but also managers. Members learn and perform all jobs in a rotated schedule. From one month to the next they prepare meals, balance the books, and serve customers. And this commitment to workplace democracy has paid off, as radicals and other locals alike continue to support the space.

“I do think of it in terms of being a worker cooperative and evidence that worker co-ops, anarchist co-ops, are not a Utopian concept, but a real place where people from various class backgrounds can choose to participate,” said Kendra Ballingall, a Cop-watch member who works in the neighborhood at an artist-run centre. “That’s really important to me.”

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