Community Roots

Courtney Bennett: Community Roots, Liberation Cafe

"I felt like zines were going to be a dying medium because of the internet. And this was in like, ‘97. And so I wanted to collect zines because I felt like they weren't going to be around much longer and people were going to be making webpages instead of making zines. I wanted a place where the community could come and read zines from all over. The collection was taking up a lot of space and I was like I would rather have everybody share this than then it just be like boxes in my living room, which is how I ended up starting the zine library at the Liberation Cafe."

Former Evergreen student in the '90s

Founder of the Olympia Zine Library at the Liberation Cafe

Courtney Bennett (Photo from Liberation Cafe archives)


Courtney Bennett: [Music begins playing in the background.] I felt like zines were going to be a dying medium because of the internet, and this was in ‘97. I wanted to collect zines because I felt like they weren't going to be around much longer and people were going to be making web pages instead of making zines. I wanted a place where the community could come and read zines from all over. The collection was also taking up a lot of space. I would rather have everybody share this than it be boxes in my living room, which is how I ended up starting the Zine Library at the Liberation Cafe.

Kelsey Smith: Welcome to Community Roots, a community oral history project about how people come together to make change and create new possibilities for themselves and their neighbors. I’m Kelsey Smith and we’ll be learning about the Liberation Cafe in Olympia, Washington. 

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I first became aware of the Liberation Cafe through my friend Pat Tassoni while working on a project related to Olympia’s indie music scene. Pat made good use of his time during the COVID-19 pandemic and scanned all of the flyers, newsletters, and ephemera related to the Liberation Cafe. He emailed me a link to a gigantic file, which simmered on a back burner while I continued my music work. Still, I found I couldn’t stop thinking about Pat’s document. When my music project partner Elaine Vradenburgh presented me with an opportunity to interview activists for the Community Roots oral history cohort, I returned to the concept of the Liberation Cafe. I am honored to have interviewed several of the people who made this ambitious and loose collective a reality.

Today we hear from Courtney Bennett. Courtney grew up in Pennsylvania in the 80s and 90s and moved to Olympia to attend The Evergreen State College in 1996. She was one of the many artists and activists who found a welcoming space in the Liberation Cafe after moving to town. Courtney still lives in town, and organizes lots of cool events. She has a graduate degree in Library Science and has worked as a librarian and in related fields since. Here’s Courtney. 

Courtney: I was really interested in organizing, and I had read a lot of books about different political movements and organizing. I was really interested in nonviolent protest, and different political movements. Coming from Philadelphia, we were like “Free Mumia [Abu-Jamal]!”  was a big thing that I was involved in in high school. I really wanted to get involved with changing the world. I think that was happening everywhere in the late ‘90s. The counterculture did have a lot of hope and wanting to change the world.

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I became aware of the Liberation Cafe because I was friends with the anarchists at The Evergreen State College my freshman year. We had a class “Anarchism 101,” sponsored by Peter Bohmer, and we actually did it as individual contracts, but he oversaw it as a group contract. Part of our class was that we volunteered once a week with a different organization, and quite often it was Books to Prisoners in the Liberation Cafe. So that's how I got off campus and started getting involved with what was going on there.

Kelsey: The Liberation Cafe was an activist space that was established in the mid-nineties as a place for people to work, collaborate, host events, and engage with community. There were literally hundreds of events and workshops in that space in the few years it operated. The cafe occupied the top floor of Bulldog News in downtown Olympia.

Courtney: In the late ‘90s in Olympia there was a lot of energy to get together. Because of the weather, there's a lot of times when people wanted to be indoors, but also to build community with other people, and the only way you could do that was in person. The concept of the Liberation Cafe was a community space, where people could get together and talk about their lives, and also politics, what was going on in the world, and make change, and form groups.

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And a space to keep your stuff and keep your records and keep your books and your projects and all the physical things that you needed back then. You needed a typewriter at your desk sometimes. There was a phone number for the Liberation Cafe that we were allowed to use and make phone calls on. It was very pre-internet. All the Liberation Cafe was run offline. So all these different groups had their little cubicles and their projects going. That kind of community is really hard to build. But we had this collective space that was just very active. I always say it's like a beehive, but maybe there was the queen bee and we were all the worker bees being active in this space. [laughs]

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My interest in zine culture began early because I was a pen paller. So there are these things called friendship books that got passed around in the pen pal scene. It was a booklet and you put your address in it. You decorated your page about what you wanted your pen pal to be into, and you’d send it on to somebody else. But you could also write to all the people that had their ads in the friendship book before you. So I started writing to people that were interested in riot grrrl and punk and zines and music.

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The first zine that I remember getting was from Sassy magazine zine of the month, and it was called Plume. I was like, ‘Oh, this is really cool. I can see myself making this kind of thing.’ Once I started my zine, and I started ordering zines and trading zines, and through trading zines, I got hundreds of zines, which is how I ended up starting the Zine Library at the Liberation Cafe.

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People were really excited about the Zine Library, and we had volunteers that would come to meetings. We tried to catalog zines, which was such a nightmare. It was my library school essay on why I wanted to go to library school was to learn cataloging, because trying to catalog zines without a background was like … how do you make categories? And how do you sort them? Everything was alphabetically sorted, but I wanted a card catalog, and we tried so many iterations of card catalogs. It was just really difficult to try to keep them organized.

Once people found out we had a zine library, it was just like, “Let's give Courtney all of our zines!” It wasn't unusual to get 100 or more zines at a time. We had some really good significant donations I want to shout out. Tony Perkins was a zinester from New Jersey who moved to Olympia, and he gave us a bunch of his zines that he had collected that were of the emo-rock variety, poetry, things like that. There was a show at the Aerospace that Kathleen Hanna curated that had a rack of her zines in it, and then her zines ended up at Dumpster Values for people to read in kind of a proto-zine library, and then that rack ended up at the Zine Library. We also got zines from Kill Rock Stars. They had saved every zine that had reviewed their records, and they put paper clips on the pages that had anything that had to do with Kill Rock Stars. They brought over a truckload of zines in crates. It might have been like 10 crates. It was a lot of zines. [laughs] They just didn't have storage for it anymore. But also we were running out of space real quick with all these big donations.

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But for better or for worse a lot of those zines got stolen, so that was like a sad part. [Music playing in the background ends] We wanted to have a loaning system, but it was very much like if you want to borrow it, leave us a note that you took it. [laughs]

The Zine Library stuck around until I moved to Athens, Georgia in 1999. It actually ended up at Last Word Books, and I hear they have it out again. So it's really surprising to me 25 years later that they're still around and people are still interested in it and that it's still there.

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Kelsey: The need for affordable space is a theme that comes up repeatedly in our conversations with activists and creatives in our town, even as property costs continue to rise exponentially. The Liberation Cafe lost momentum and ended in 1999 when their hosting business Bulldog News closed down.

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Courtney: As real estate gets more and more expensive downtown, and more and more places are pushed out, it just sucks. It sucks. There's so many empty buildings downtown when there could be so many projects and vibrant things going on. And there are some. Lamplighters is a good example of a co-working space that has things open to the community.

It's hard to find a public meeting room space in Olympia. It's hard to get people together if you don't have public meeting space and community space. The organizing is done a lot online. But I do appreciate that things are more accessible to people online. I think it's just changing with the times what a space like that would look like today. Office space is kind of a dying concept. Any kind of space that brings people together is really important. So whether it's for a rock show, or protest, or whatnot. We were just really lucky to have that kind of space.

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Meg Rosenberg: Community Roots is produced by Window Seat Media. This story was a collaboration between Courtney Bennett and Kelsey Smith. Kelsey is one of our Community Roots cohort members. She brought this story idea to us and interviewed Courtney. Elaine Vradenburgh did the audio editing for this story and Steven Suski produced the music for this series. Funding for this series was provided by the Thurston County Heritage Grant program, the Marie Lamfrom Foundation, ArtsFund, the Community Foundation of South Puget Sound, and from community support from people like you. To learn more about Window Seat Media, hear more stories, or make a donation to support this series, visit

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