Aaron Hall, Staff Writer
“Everything I know I learned in the garden,” said Al Brilliant, the 76 year-old proprietor of Glenwood Books and Coffee.
“I was different from a lot of the children of Jewish immigrants in my day,” said Brilliant. “A lot of my peers grew up in the city to become intellectual and overeducated, for some reason my parents bought a chicken farm.”
Though surrounded by books and instilled with a love for learning from a young age, Brilliant feels growing up on a farm during the Depression is the reason he never became enamored with the methods of education in this country.
“It’s all flim-flam, a con-game, a sham,” said Brilliant. “ Some man just stands behind a podium and then tests students on the B.S. they’ve just heard.
It was this philosophy that led Brilliant to walk away from teaching and found his own free university. This would later metamorphosize into what is now Glenwood Coffee and Books.
The store was originally known as Community Books, and was around the corner from the current location.
“We had one-fifth the space and one one-hundereth of the exposure,” said Brilliant.
The current location at 1310 Glenwood Avenue has a sizable front room filled with bookshelves, comfortable furniture, an espresso bar and an orange tabby named Glenwood.
Books are arranged alphabetically by author without being divided into categories, which is appropriate for Brilliant’s educational philosophy.
“You can’t learn one subject in isolation from all the rest,” contends Brilliant, “learning is a holistic, interconnected part of life.”
The back area of the store, which was once the workspace for a transmission shop, now houses the all- purpose community space that is a venue for bands, alternative theater, films and dance as well as teach-ins, lectures and poetry readings.
Brilliant later chose the current location because of the large windows that face a road and bus stop.
Passers-by can look in at customers reading, chatting or drinking coffee, something that was impossible at the store’s earlier sequestered location. On many weekends these same onlookers can see eager college students milling about outside waiting while a band sets up.
Brilliant’s interest in books goes back a long way. He wrote his initial book of poetry in his first year of college and in 1965 founded Unicorn Press.
“I hand set the type and did all of my own book binding,” said Brillaint.
This year, Brilliant plans to turn over the operations of Unicorn Press to Andrew Saulters. The two met when a mutual friend introduced them after Saulters became interested in bookbinding.
“I always learn something every day when I come to this store, ” Saulters said. “There is a great diversity of books that I don’t think I’d find on a shelf at any other store. It’s a unique place.”
Though there are books here and they are for sale, Brilliant feels that the mission of the bookstore isn’t to make money, but to provide a community space. One way in which the bookstore acts on this mission is by facilitating the general assembly meetings for Occupy Greensboro.
The Occupy Greensboro’s original meeting place was at the Glenwood branch of the Greensboro public library, and then later at the encampment at the local YWCA. When the YWCA asked the Occupiers to leave, Brilliant suggested they move the general assembly meetings to his store.
“This coming together was a blessing for this bookstore and Occupy Greensboro,” Brilliant said. “I’ve been in peace and justice work all of my life, and nothing comes close to the Occupy Movement.”
“Occupy Movement is the only democracy to be found in the United States as I’ve experienced it,” Brilliant said.
The bookstore has grown since its association with Occupy, but the movement is only one strand Brilliant hopes to weave into an authentic community center. The store’s function as a venue seems to only grow day by day.
Mo Kessler, who has recently become a partner with Brilliant, is focused on increasing exposure and bookings for the store. According to Kessler, word of mouth is spreading fast.
“I’m having touring bands from around the country emailing me saying ‘we heard about your venue and it sounds cool,’ ” Kessler said. “And I think, really, Glenwood Coffee and Books? How have you heard of us? I think our name is getting out because we’re one of the few places around that allows loud hardcore bands to play.”
Kessler thinks that it is important that the store is a home for alternative voices in Greensboro.
“We are a radical bookstore, and we’re interested in radical language,” Kessler said. “We are trying to create opportunities for things to exist that don’t have space elsewhere.”
Many community groups make use of the space, and often are not charged if they are non-profit. Kessler says it is important in building a real alternative community center.
“What we lose in money we gain in community,” Kessler said.