Independent bookstores are becoming centres of political resistance

Independent bookstores across the country are becoming hubs of the left’s resistance to President Donald Trump, organising social justice readings and action groups, hosting “pussyhat” knitting events, and donating their proceeds to the ACLU.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘We’ve turned our store over to the revolution,'” Hannah Oliver Depp, who works at Word, a bookstore in New York and New Jersey, recently told The New York Times.

While larger chain stores, including Barnes & Noble, serve a broad audience that falls across the political spectrum, indie bookstores are able to tailor their offerings to a smaller clientele, many of whom have become increasingly politically engaged since the election.

Politics & Prose, an independent bookstore in Washington, DC, frequented by President Barack Obama, has created a “Don’t Give Up. Stand Up. Read Up” book display, which features a selection of books “that promote political engagement and activism along with quite a few titles that try to explain the populist anger that has fuelled Trump’s rise to power,” the store explained on its website.

Political fiction and non-fiction alike, including classics like George Orwell’s “1984” and John Steinbeck’s “The Winter of Our Discontent,” and new works, like J.D. Vance’s “Hillbilly Elegy,” have become best-sellers since the election.

Many stores are promoting themselves as “safe spaces” to talk about or escape politics through books.

“In the aftermath of the election, many folks had their values and identities shaken to their very core, including me,” Matt Keliher, owner of SubText Books in St. Paul, Minnesota, told the Bookselling This Week blog
. “They flocked to the bookstore in search of a community that shared their experience and perspective.”

Other stores are taking a more activist approach. Off the Beaten Path, a bookstore in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, hosted a political letter-writing event
a few days after the election, where community members discussed policy issues ranging from immigration to the environment and drafted messages to their elected officials. The store plans to make this event a regular occurrence.

Still other booksellers have approached politics with humour. In November, a photo of a chalkboard outside The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, reading, “Post apocalyptic fiction has been moved to our current affairs section,” went viral on Facebook.

Indie bookstores in the United States have rebounded substantially since the financial crisis, increasing in number by 27 per cent between 2009 and 2015. The American Booksellers Association attributes this rise in demand to the demise of big box stores, like Borders, which declared bankruptcy in 2011, and Barnes & Noble, which has closed hundreds of stores in recent years, as well as the “buy local” movement and urban renewal taking place in cities across the country. The surge in political engagement on the left could make independent bookstores even more relevant in coming years.

The CEO of the Booksellers Association, Oren Teicher, asserted the role of bookstores in mending political divides in a November 9 statement.

“As citizens, attempting to comprehend what has occurred,” he wrote, “all of us in the bookselling community have a special obligation — and opportunity — to foster communication and to help reconcile our communities.”

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