There was something fresh about Akimbo Bookshop. Maybe it was the meticulously curated collection of books that graced its white shelves, with one copy of each choice awaiting your touch — as if it was for you and you alone. Maybe it was the makeshift art gallery that spread across the walls or the smell of potted plants and book pages and pumpkin spice pastries from local artisanal bakers Black Cat Baking Company. Maybe it was the comfortingly jarring fizz of cracking open a Happy Gut Sanctuary kombucha bottle in the midst of a silent reading night, or the murmuring crowd after a book talk, mutual aid open mic night, or social hour. After the fire, though, 318b East Avenue was full of nothing but soot and smoke.
Akimbo owner Rachel Crawford talks with me over the phone, haphazard but focused. She always wanted to open a bookstore as a child, and fell in love with the realm of indie presses and publishing as a student of the University of Rochester. Now, a couple weeks out from the fire, she’s still got a 16-year-old to take to doctor appointments. The world has both ended and kept pushing her along, and the “doing life stuff” never ends, especially not as a mother. However, the three-alarm fire that occurred in Akimbo’s building on Jan. 4 still rings in her ears.
According to the Rochester Fire Department via the Democrat and Chronicle, the blaze started just before dawn, with an electrical issue in the back of neighboring restaurant Veneto Wood Fired Pizza & Pasta. Veneto was the only storefront to bear the brunt of flames, but the smoke spread its way into nearby businesses and residences. No one was hurt, but for Crawford, it’s as if her whole life has gone up in flames. The smoke damage rendered the majority of the contents of the shop unsalvageable, and her insurance lacks the coverage to properly clean and restore everything.
What she remembers most is walking into the store in the afterglow, armed with a flashlight, a respirator, gloves, and a pair of goggles. The stench of smoke, emblazoned into the facade of her only source of income, made her eyes water. She remembers seeing the photos of her son at her desk and the congratulations cards she got for opening the store as the insulation in her store bled out smoke. She remembers standing there as everything was thrown away, holding a small box of saved soot-covered books. “There’s something deeply, existentially, phenomenally, traumatizingly — traumatizing isn’t even a good enough word to describe it,” she says.
A crowdfunding campaign on GoFundMe was started after the fire, which has now raised $29,012. The crowdfunding isn’t all that’s happened, though. The push Akimbo made to include local businesses in their own endeavors — food and beverages from local artisans, local art blinging out the storefront walls, events and events and events for demographics far and wide — has come to back them in turn. Tiny Fish Printing created shirts as an incentive for the Akimbo fundraiser, Ugly Duck Coffee has posted about the fundraiser on their social media pages, Kitty Box Press has created new tote bags (all the proceeds, of course, go to Akimbo), and the list goes on.
Comments on Akimbo’s social media range from the supportive and kind bystanders to the downright devout supporters, both reflecting what this place was — a safe space for Rochesterians to cultivate culture and community. On a post from Jan. 4, Pawsitive Cat Cafe comments, “If you need kitty snuggles feel free to come in on us.” Charco Press sends “positive vibes from Scotland,” and Good Neighbor Books suggests reaching out to a bookseller relief foundation.
Elora Kang, an NYC-based artist, mentions on the Akimbo post that promotes the store as “closed until further notice” that “we are here for you.” Her entire comment is full of “we,” which is echoed by many others in the comments section. To her, Akimbo was — and is, she notes in our Instagram direct messages — a safe haven for anyone and everyone to access. “It was only open for [eight] months and felt like it genuinely was already a pillar of the community,” she says.
As we talk about the local support for Akimbo, Crawford sighs into the phone, and I can almost see her shoulders untense. “I’ve, like, lived a couple lifetimes already,” she says. “Out of all the things I’ve been through, this is the most support I’ve gotten.”
This outpouring of support from the community has emboldened Crawford to think about the future of Akimbo: opening Akimbo 2.0, pushing forward with social media and fundraising, taking all of the things she learned here at the University in her publishing classes, throwing it halfway out the window, and making her own rules. She is already in the process of launching writing workshops (to be hosted at Happy Gut Sanctuary) and taking the next steps. She’s not going to hold back. Now, more than ever, she knows that anything can happen, but envisions a bright future for Akimbo going forward.
Editor’s Note (1/31/23): The title was changed from “Burnt down local business Akimbo Bookshop has the community at its back” to better reflect the state of the business subsequent to its closure from smoke damage.