Isa-Kae Meksin and Jenn Witte

Jenn Witte and Isa-Kae Meksin are neighbors living in Los Angeles. They share food, articles, books, hand-me-downs, and free things found on the street with each other. All photos by Sarah Soquel Morhaim.

What do you do? How did you get started?

I share books with people, as a full-time bookseller and a part-time volunteer with the Feminist Library on Wheels (FLOW) at the Women’s Center for Creative Work (WCCW). It can be hard to get your first gig as a bookseller, silly as that may sound, because most bookstores look for previous experience. I got my first bookselling job in San Francisco in a moment of funny luck. On my first week in town, I walked to the nearest bookstore to buy a foldable transit map (this was before the days of smart phones). The people working there were all laughing, and I joined in and made a few jokes, then asked them, “Hey, are you by chance hiring?” Just like that, and I’ve been a bookseller for eleven years now. Later on, as a bookseller in Los Angeles, I was trying to find a way to take my job to the streets, on a bike— by delivering books, or with a cart to set up at events, or something— I kept throwing that idea around at work meetings and it never really stuck. When I was in a reading group through the WCCW that was discussing bell hooks’ Feminism is for Everybody I did the same thing. I suggested that one way to deliver feminism, in a fashion suggested in the text, might be to take books out on a bicycle. I got a much more enthusiastic response to the idea than I was used to, met Dawn Finley who became a committed co-founder, and the library took off from there.

What do you love most about your work?

Honestly, it is when little kids come up to me with questions. Even if they’re just looking for the bathroom, I love seeing kids feel confident and comfortable in the library and in the bookstore.

Is there a memorable occasion or story where you’ve worn our clothing?

I wore an Osei-Duro top the day that we assembled the FLOW tricycle, which ended at the magic hour with my very first ride, up and down the sidewalk on Sunset Avenue in Echo Park.

How do you style your Osei-Duro pieces?

I treat all of my clothing equally, interchangeably wearing things for work, special occasions, on outdoor adventures, and home days. Osei-Duro fits into this scheme really nicely.  

I don’t like to buy clothing. I’ve always been more comfortable in a hand-me-down system. A challenge of not buying your own clothes can be making things fit and making things work outside of their intended purpose. I met an amazing artist through the WCCW, Soyoung Shin, who introduced me to the concept of Fash Mash, essentially just transforming one piece of clothing into another, entirely different piece (sweatshirt into pants, for example). I did this for Isa-Kae with a special sweater of hers that was accidentally felted and shrunk— I sewed it into a hat, scarf, and mittens. Isa-Kae and I have been swapping hand-me-downs quite a bit lately, and anything that she passes on to me that I don’t end up taking, I bring to the WCCW to share. Osei-Duro is an exception to all of this. I don’t tear your clothes apart to make them into new clothes, I don’t usually pass them along to other people, instead I’ll wear them until they can’t be worn any longer. Over time, a couple of pieces have been worn down to the point where I’ve torn them to strips and crocheted them into a large rag rug that I’m working on.

 

Where do you find inspiration?

I like to work with what I have. If I am creating something, I prefer to work with materials that I can find around the house. At the bookstore I make drawings using our office supplies and cardboard from the recycling pile. At home I’ll look up clever tricks for creating household cleaning products, remedies, and other substitutes using ingredients from the garden and cupboard, rather than go to the store. I also always end up missing key ingredients when I’m following a recipe, but usually like the way things turn out. Inspiration starts with what I have within arm’s reach. Maybe you could call me a poor person who is into improvisation.

Isa-Kae challenges me in this regard because she is so deeply involved in the community and loves to connect people and share resources. Where I tend to fold in, she revels in opening out. There is an amount of my “working with what I have” that has its basis in my nature as a shy person who just doesn’t want to go out and do too many new things.  In contrast, nobody leaves a conversation with Isa-Kae without getting a list of people they should contact, articles they should read, and events they should consider attending. I believe she honed these skills during her time with The Correspondence (see Correspondence Publishing Committee <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Correspondence_Publishing_Committee> and its predecesor Johnson-Forest Tendency <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johnson%E2%80%93Forest_Tendency>) as well as a lifetime of involvement in education, advocating, volunteering, being a good neighbor, and pre-internet networking between all kinds of people who inspire her.

Is there any music you’re loving right now?

You know, I was just thinking today about how thankful I am that radio is still exciting and free. Earlier this afternoon, I got to stream my sister’s new Sunday Brunch show on a community FM station out of North Idaho, and immediately after that I streamed my husband’s band, L.A. Takedown, playing a live set on a noncommercial FM station out of Portland. Both Isa-Kae and I listen to a lot of public radio on the airwaves in Los Angeles. In case you forgot, it is still thrilling to hear something new being played by a human DJ.

 

You’re hosting the dinner party of your dreams. Who is invited (anyone, dead or alive) and what’s for dinner?

Salad party! Everybody bring a favorite salad. Off the top of my head, I would love to see what Nawal el Saadawi, Selma James, Grace Lee Boggs, RuPaul, Tove Jansson, Jim Henson, Ruth Asawa, Octavia Butler, Elena Ferrante, my Oma, all my siblings, a bunch of random kids, and Isa-Kae bring to the table.

 

Recommend something to us!

What kind of books do you like to read?

Anything else you think we should know?

You’ll have to print out a copy of this for Isa-Kae, because she’s not really on the world-wide-web.

 

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