Independent Bookstore as Essential Political Act
Veronica Scott Esposito on the Power of the Literary Community
I was recently in San Francisco’s Mission District with an hour to kill. In general I hate having to kill time—I never know what to do—and to make things worse I was tired and just wanted to be home with a good book. So I wandered along, trying to find something to occupy my attention, and then there it was: big glass windows with bright green trim, behind them row after row of books. Dog Eared Books. I had always heard of this store but had never visited. I smiled and made for its beckoning lights.
I have a tried and true method for testing the quality of a bookstore: how difficult is it for me to walk in and walk back out without buying something? In some shops this is child’s play: they have a sterile, corporate feel to them, and their sterile, corporate wares don’t tempt me in the least.
But my favorite bookstores are just the opposite. When I walk into, say, Moe’s in Berkeley, or Powell’s in Portland, it’s as though I’ve stepped into a unique place full of eye-catching beauty. Immediately my attention is drawn in five different directions, and before I know it I’m bending under the weight of five irresistible books. These stores cast a spell, and once I begin to hunting through their prodigious shelves I know I’m going to latch on to something and not be able to put it back down.
Dog Eared Books is not nearly as big as either Moe’s or Powell’s, but its curation and ambiance are so strong that it quickly put me into buy mode. My first stop was a face-out display of political philosophy: Benjamin, Arendt, Žižek, Rancière, Guattari, and other gems, themselves surrounded by so many more such jewels. I was seduced. From there I was hit with an international literature display: Julio Cortázar, Álvaro Enrigue, Svetlana Alexievich, Antonio di Benedetto, Basma Abdel Aziz, Magda Szabó . . . By that point I was completely taken, and somehow half-an-hour had slipped away. When I made it to the store’s history section, I was dying to find something to purchase. I immediately gravitated toward Wendy Doniger’s history of Hinduism. Did I need 700 densely printed pages on the Hindu religion? Of course not! And how could I even think of leaving without it?
Suddenly it hit me: how many bookstores could I just wander into, find a display of challenging philosophical theory, then an incredible selection of top-notch world literature, and at last an enormous history of Hinduism? Bookstores like this just don’t happen. They are only possible where the ground is fertile.
A bookstore is an embodiment of a community’s values. Looking over its holdings is as personal and intimate an encounter as walking into a friend’s home for the first time and sizing up their bookcases. (If you don’t see any bookcases at all, maybe you should reassess the relationship.) What you find in a bookstore is the food a society wants to feed its mind, the sorts of things its owners and employees (no doubt community residents themselves) hope their neighbors will support.
Out of the many millions of titles that a bookstore might stock, most will only have room for tens of thousands. The books that make it in are a direct reflection of the people around that store. Which ones will prove successful enough to be restocked and justify more such titles? Out of the thousands of new books released each week, which ones will get that coveted front table space? Will the bookstore adopt pay-to-play rules for good placement? What sorts of ideas, values, stories, and aesthetics will its books embody? What titles will the employees take the time to handsell, and will they be passionate about it or scripted? Will they see each book sold as spreading important thoughts, or just so much income on the ledger?
It is easy to see how quickly a bookstore’s profit motive can blur into its mission, and how this sense of mission bleeds over into the shop’s physical space. Is it beckoning and comfortable? Does it have that cultured ambiance that makes bookstores so charming? What kinds of people does it welcome, defend, and champion?
This of course begins with the authors, translators, publishers, and others it showcases for events, and the audiences they cultivate, but it also goes far beyond this: I think of Cody’s Books, which played a major role as a refuge and first-aid station during the Berkeley anti-Vietnam protests of the 1970s, and which in 1989 was firebombed for pointedly supporting Salman Rushdie’s right to free expression when a fatwa was leveled against him for his novel The Satanic Verses. (This was at a time when then dominant chain bookstore, Waldenbooks, with 1,200 nationwide locations, had bent to the fatwa by removing Rushdie from its shelves.) Or I think of the massive Seminary Co-op in Chicago, often referred to as having the greatest collection of academic titles on Earth, and which is a member-owned cooperative with 50,000 US participants and thousands more around the world. Matthew Keesecker’s description of the bookstore, collected in an enterprise called the Seminary Co-op Documentary Project, is worth quoting at length:
When you arrive, you won’t think you’re necessarily at the right place. Then you will see a little sign that guides you to the catacombs of this enchanted world of words. You will descend a set of stairs, and then you will simply stare. Books. Endless row upon row of books. You will duck pipes, dodge faucets, and squeeze between shelves and working furnaces, and you will love every minute of it. It’s as if the books were already there, firmly planted in their rightful spot, and suddenly a building erupted around them. But rather than supplant the books, the building decided to work with the books and have a symbiotic relationship. It’s as if it grew around the tomes of knowledge, integrating itself by weaving and threading its way through the volumes of pulp and ink. They co-exist in harmony, waiting to be discovered by us.
Who can read that and doubt that any good bookstore represents a unique, highly cultivated space that must be carefully tended in order to continue existing? Spaces such as these are only moderately compatible with capitalism, and they are not at all compatible with monoculture, restrictions on free thought, imposed uniformity, intolerance, and least of all authoritarianism. As institutions that need pluralism as much as we need oxygen, they cannot avoid having a de facto political stance.
Even if a place like Dog Eared Books or Seminary Co-op never declared a position for or against Donald Trump, certainly their very way of being makes a statement about their compatibility with the man who cannot name a single book he has ever read, who pledged to ban an entire religion from the United States, and who endlessly demonizes information that runs counter to his beliefs as “fake.” The values these bookstores embody constitute an indispensable rebuke to the sort of governance that President Trump has endorsed through his conduct, his allies, and his words.
Perhaps that in itself is enough, but I am very proud to say that many bookstores in our literary community have done far more than just exist: they have chosen to resist, finding their place in what is popularly called “the resistance” as it pursues its defense of American values and institutions against the wrecking-ball Presidency of Donald Trump. The New York Times has reported on the ways in which indie bookstores across the nation have responded to the President’s actions (pointedly, Barnes & Noble has chosen not to be among them), and Publishers Weekly has also reported on many others. Closer to home, I can say that City Lights Bookstore has opened a new section titled “Pedagogies of Resistance,” and Booksmith co-owners Christin Evans and Praveen Madan have established a new monthly series called “Booksmith Resists.” In my own neighborhood, Diesel, a bookstore that long predated the Trump resistance with numerous politically orientated book displays and events, and it has redoubled its efforts post-Trump.
I will predict that exactly no one is surprised to hear any of this. When hailing from a foreign country is grounds for suspicion, when know-nothing-ism is a core value of the nation’s highest office, when lies are passed off blatantly (the bigger the better) and “alternative facts” are the order of the day, the very act of spreading the information, telling crucial stories about the lives of others, and providing a meeting place for all kinds of people is necessarily a politicized gesture. Bookstores are one of the most politicized businesses we have. They have been the traditional home to the misfit, the free-thinker, the person who prizes knowledge above money and who aspires to wisdom. They are one of the easiest places for diverse cultures to intermingle and forge an understanding. They are a crucial repository of a nation’s ideas, narratives, and lives. Knowing this, it makes me proud to live in a place where the bookstores compete to challenge their audiences with the most intelligent, sensitive, beautiful thoughts they can find. I cannot think it is any coincidence that the places where you find many such bookstores are also places where virtually nobody votes for the likes of Donald Trump.
If independent bookstores really are a key component of a healthy democracy, then we should feel hope, for as I write this they are in the middle of a renaissance. The 1990s and the 00s were a bad period, as the rise of chain bookselling put many indies out of business, and over a thousand of them closed down. But now the business models of Borders and Barnes & Noble have proven short-lived, and once again indies are appearing in communities that prize the qualities a good bookstore brings to a neighborhood.
To take just one example: this is precisely why many of us in my community have invested nearly $200,000 in the future of our own neighborhood bookstore, as Diesel makes the transition to East Bay Booksellers. We are committed to seeing this retail space remain an intelligent, opinionated, very independent bookstore, and to we are ensuring that it remains under ownership that we trust and admire. And we are not alone: such community investment plans are becoming more and more popular as the next generation of bookstore owners takes over. In addition, more than 250 new independent bookstores have come into being since 2009, representing growth of 30 percent. And the US Census Bureau has found that bookstores sales have grown the past two years, reversing seven years of decline as more and more consumers are realizing the benefits of shopping at their local indie.
Books are different from other consumer goods—they contain facts, thoughts, and stories that help shape who we are—and so bookselling is different from other kinds of retail. When I think of bookselling, I think back to something that my friend Brad Johnson, the future owner of East Bay Booksellers, said about the name he chose for his store. He said that he wanted it to represent the fact that bookselling is an art, even at times a calling. Now, while all of us in the literary community have to make ends meet—and no one understands this better than the manager of a bookstore—I think that we are more fundamentally here because we want to see our literary vocation in those exact terms. And our vocation becomes very much a calling when our nation needs the help of our bookish culture to protect it from those who would destroy our civic values. So the next time you are in an independent bookstore, take a moment to think about why it is there, and why you are in it—think about those things, and ask yourself how you will pay those beliefs forward.
Books About Bookstores and Other Book Havens
Upstairs at the Strand: Writers in Conversation at the Legendary Bookstore, edited by Jessica Strand and Andrea Aguilar
Sixpence House: Lost in A Town Of Books by Paul Collins
Shakespeare and Company by Sylvia Beach
My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, edited by Ronald Rice
The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop: A Memoir, a History by Lewis Buzbee
The House of Twenty Thousand Books by Sasha Abramsky
Phantoms on the Bookshelves by Jacques Bonnet (tr. James Salter)
With Borges by Alberto Manguel
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead