How I Got Here: Barbara Bick

An activist and writer with a million-dollar view.

I came to the Vineyard twenty-three years ago after my nest became empty. I had only visited the Island once or twice before; I thought it would be nice to have a place here. I told my friend Rose Abrahamson [the Tisbury artist], if you ever run across a shack on the water, let me know. I bought my house on Owen Park Way in Vineyard Haven for $100,000 in 1984. It’s only 450 square feet and the lot is 950 square feet. Now it’s assessed for $1.1 million, so I guess you could say I have a million-dollar view.

When I began to love the Island for itself – the Island and its people – I wanted my grandchildren to come here every summer. I bought another house on Franklin Street in Vineyard Haven in 1990, this time for $110,000, so they could get to know and love the place where their bubbe [Yiddish for grandmother] spends the summer. I have five grandchildren – two in Washington and three who are now on the Vineyard. I also own a third house; I rent it out. It’s the most expensive house I bought – for $220,000 in 2000, so I bought at the right time. I could never buy even one house today.

I live in Washington during the off-season. Mostly I’ve been a political and community activist. I helped found and then ran the national office for Women Strike for Peace [a network of women who promote nuclear disarmament, civil rights, and peace]. I didn’t receive my degree from Antioch until 2004, because I was suspended for leaking government documents about a Nazi-related company to the press while working on co-op in Washington in the mid-1940s. The degree happened after Antioch’s president met me at the home of Chilmark residents Bill and Zee Gamson.

I went to Kabul in 1990 after someone came up to me at a party in Washington and asked me if I wanted to go to Afghanistan. That’s when I realized there was a war going on there. There were three of us – women I had met in the peace movement. The trip lasted three weeks. We met President Mohammad Najibullah. Because we were lobbying for peace, we also met important people who were part of the Afghan communist movement.

I had just turned sixty-five, and I’m a great traveler. I’ve been to every continent – including Antarctica – several times. I thought: I’m getting old; I won’t have the energy to travel much longer. Now I’m eighty-two, and I’m finally starting to feel old.

I was fascinated by Afghanistan and began to read Afghan history. Then the Taliban came in and began treating women essentially like cattle. I joined NEGAR, a Paris-based international group that was working then to restore a constitutional government in Afghanistan and to get the United Nations to intervene, with all the bordering nations. I wanted to work in a more active way and joined Nasrine Gross to head the Washington office of NEGAR. Through this organization, I also met Connie Borde, who spends her summers in Oak Bluffs.

In 2001, I went back to see how Afghan women were faring. When opposition leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated, we were staying at a guest house in the same Northern Alliance compound as the assassins. The borders were shut down, and we had to be evacuated. It took days, and my medication was running out. The Afghan Foreign Minister took me out in his helicopter. That was the thirteenth of September, and I didn’t even know about 9/11. Later I challenged a Taliban leader in Washington, pulling a burka [a full-body garment for women] out of my briefcase and asking him if that’s how they treated women well. The incident appears in Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11.

I spend four months on the Island – June through September. Sometimes I come in the winter. I spent one whole winter here in 2003 when I was writing my book based on my travels to Afghanistan. The Feminist Press is publishing it next year.

Books and bookstores have always been in our family. My mother’s oldest sister and her husband bought books in Warsaw and Moscow and sold them in the Russian Pale, or ghetto. They were traveling book merchants in Jewish villages in Russia. In Washington, my mother was one of the incorporators of the [now defunct] Co-op Bookshop, started in the New Deal period. Eleanor Roosevelt and the Supreme Court justices went there. It had progressive, wonderful books. My cousin started the first discount bookstore in Dupont Circle; my son Robby started Bick’s Books, a bookstore in the Adams Morgan district. He and his wife Jenni met at the same bookstore.

My boys are Randy and Robby. Randy and my daughter Kathy are twins, and Kathy has suffered from schizophrenia since she was sixteen. Kathy comes to the Vineyard for two weeks every summer. In a writing workshop at the Nathan Mayhew Seminars, I wrote an essay about how it felt to have my daughter visit on the Island. It was published in the magazine section of The New York Times [“Two Weeks of Love and Resentment,” March 25, 1990]. Now it’s not as hard. By talking about it, I learned how to live with it. I bought a house in D.C. that I give the use of to a social service agency that takes care of Kathy and several others who are real companions for her.

For years, Randy and Robby shared my Franklin Street house in August. Then Robby and Jenni decided they wanted to live here, so they came in 1998. They wanted to be able to spend more time with their children and get them away from the malls. Ann Nelson [former Bunch of Grapes Bookstore owner] had followed Robby’s career as a bookstore manager and hired him.

For years Jenni sold handicrafts at the Artisans Festivals in West Tisbury. She makes one-of-a-kind books, and when she started a website, it transformed the business and she began to sell stuff she didn’t make herself. Now she sells a hundred different items – all connected with books and writing – at Jenni Bick Bookbinding on Main Street in Vineyard Haven. Robby left Bunch of Grapes to manage the business.

My granddaughter Rosie is at the high school, and the twins, Lily and Rayne, go to the Tisbury middle school. The twins were in preschool when they moved here, so the Vineyard is practically the only home they’ve known. The wonder of my coming to the Vineyard almost twenty-five years ago is that part of my family lives here now.