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The Essential Role Of Indie Black Bookstores In The Fight For Liberation

Photo: courtesy of Jeannine Cook.
During the summer of 2020, when streets were ablaze with fury and protest, and the Black community mourned George Floyd’s murder, something else was also rising: sales of anti-racist books across the country. Data shows the sales of social justice titles skyrocketed after Floyd was killed, and it was independent and Black-owned bookstores in particular that saw increased demand as many sought broader education about race and anti-racism in America.
Jeannine Cook, who owns Harriett’s Bookshop (named after Harriett Tubman) in Philadelphia, PA — and recently opened its sister store, Ida’s Bookshop (named after Ida B. Wells) in Collingswood, NJ — experienced this increase in demand firsthand. “Before the summer uprisings in 2020, there weren't a whole lot of celebratory spaces for activists,” says Cook, whose book stores were founded on a commitment to provide a safe space for activism and community building. 
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The opening of Harriett’s Bookshop in February 2020 filled a necessary void. When it was temporarily forced to close its doors just six weeks after opening due to COVID-19 lockdowns, Cook kept her business alive by focusing on supporting the community during the pandemic. Essentials for Essentials, for example — the shop’s first project after being shut down due to the pandemic — allowed customers to purchase books and send “prescriptions” to doctors and other essential medical workers, in partnership with local hospitals. 
“Instead of the doctors giving you a prescription in the traditional sense, community members sent doctors prescriptions telling them to read for an hour or take a 15-minute break every three hours. It was a way for folks to still be in community even though they couldn't physically connect,” Cook explains. “Doctors would write us back after they got their books and prescriptions and say, ‘OK, now I want to buy a book for the person who bought me this book.’”
Photo: courtesy of Jeannine Cook.
The initiative sparked word-of-mouth for the bookstore, leading to Harriett’s Bookshop hosting three additional rounds of the program and selling out of books each time. “Folks would be upset with me like, ‘I didn’t get to buy a book for somebody else!’ They were upset they didn’t get to play.” That enthusiasm, Cook says, is what kept Harriett’s Bookshop alive.
Despite print sales remaining high, sales have gone down for some Black bookstore owners, but the mission to serve remains intact. “[I] look at the trial of George Floyd’s murderer, and I wonder how many of those folks that were on that jury became better educated as a result of the moment of last summer and were able to make a more informed decision,” Cook reflects. “Not only did we go out into the streets, but we also [offered] online sales so that people could think about how they wanted to sustain their practice [post that emotional moment].”
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Books have been the center of educational hubs for Black folks for decades, particularly in spaces like Black-owned bookstores and Black-led book clubs — the latter of which commercially took off toward the end of the 20th century and played a pivotal role in Black liberation. In Forgotten Readers, Recovering the Lost History of African American Literary Societies, author Elizabeth McHenry notes that the way in which Black book clubs operate as safe spaces and activism centers dates back centuries. In the 19th century, many free Black Americans organized literary societies “as one way to arrest the attention of the public, assert their racial and American identities, and give voice to their belief in the promises of democracy,” she says. Some members of these groups were illiterate due in large part to legislative limitation of Black people’s access to education, so they relied on others to share pertinent information. Today, Black-owned bookstores and allied literary publishers act as vehicles for such information, distributing access to books through various events, programs, and philanthropic efforts. And in their commitment to providing storytelling resources, they have also become a catalyst for social change.
Since last summer, non-profit and independent book publisher Haymarket Books has also seen an uptick in customer demand for books on antiracism, Black liberation and abolition. And for publishers like the Chicago-based organization, making those ideas accessible to as many people as possible is top priority. “Our mission at Haymarket has always been to get radical books into the hands of organizers and activists on the ground,” says Dana Blanchard, who works in Publicity and Development at Haymarket Books. “The antiracist rebellions last summer that deepened the work of the Black Lives Matter movement and brought abolitionist ideas to larger layers of people really pushed us to think about how we could further support these important ideas.”
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Photo: courtesy of Kalima DeSuze.
Haymarket’s Abolitionist Starter Kit — a specially curated selection of five books by acclaimed organizers and thinkers to help sharpen analysis, ground strategy, and deepen one’s commitment to collective liberation — was created to allow people to get a set of core abolitionist books at a discount. The kit is just one of many ways the book publisher  has shown support and increased accessibility for its readers. “This mission to get radical political books to people in the movements has always been a core value and practice at Haymarket, but becomes even more critical and wide-reaching when the movements explode in the streets like we have seen over the last year,” says Blanchard. “In these moments, our books feel even more connected and relevant to the struggles for liberation happening around us.” 
Jisu Kim, who oversees marketing, sales, and publicity at The Feminist Press, notes how  stories, especially in conversation, are vital in providing narrative shifts or reframing a conversation in order to create social change. “Books are certainly not the only places stories exist,” she says, “but I do think because of their potential depth and scope they play an important role in pushing conversations forward but also holding new ideas to task.”
For bookstore owners, the task is just as evident. Kalima DeSuze, who owns Feminist community bookstore Cafe con Libros in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, infuses her activist roots into her store’s shopping experience in order to advocate for marginalized voices. “When speaking of sparking social change, it can happen in many ways as an owner of a brick and mortar,” she says. “When people walk into a bookstore and they see their issues and identities represented on the shelves, it can enhance their sense of self and their sense of safety in the world, and thus, possibilities expand. I really do believe that we play a major role in affirming identities and affirming cultural issues that people normally wouldn't see.” 
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In the age of social media activism, this sort of intentionality is crucial. For DeSuze, who says she’s not a fan of social media but has learned to use it in order connect with and inform her community, it’s important to foster an environment in which those wishing to contribute to the movement of social change be allowed the room to contribute in the ways that are available to them. “I've been on the opposite side of people's criticism, so I try not to criticize folks who are choosing to be those social media activists, because I think that we all play a role,” she says. “We all have a specific place in the movement. And there's no space for me, in my opinion, for policing other people in the way in which they choose to show up.”
Photo: courtesy of Kalima DeSuze.
But accountability also plays a part, she adds.
“You could be married to that movement in a way that's not healthy. It's OK to take a step out. It's OK to prioritize a family. And when you get back, then it's OK to say, ‘my activism is not going to look the same.’” DeSuze, who recently had a baby, believes it’s important to emphasize that it’s okay to meet activism where you are. “I'm not on the streets because I have a baby right now, but it doesn't make me any less of an activist,” she continues. “I want folks to know that your priorities change [and] it doesn't make you any less committed to the movement. It just makes our work look different and our way of engaging the work look different.”
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For many shop owners and publishers within the movement, engaging the work on social media includes sharing reading lists that ultimately end up pushing people to their stores and platforms. Amidst protest and hashtags, including #BlackoutTuesday — whose black squares sparked heated conversation surrounding performative allyship — shop owners especially noticed an uptick in anti-racism literature sales amongst white people.
“We’ve probably sold more books in the last month than we sold our entire first year in business,” Jazzi McGilbert, owner of Reparations Club in Los Angeles told The Washington Post in July 2020. Books seeing a rise in sales around that time included Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning and Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, which each sold close to 3,000 copies between March and April 2020, then skyrocketed to 139,928 and 191,262 copies sold respectively between May and June 2020. “Since the protest started, we are seeing pretty overwhelming support from what, based on the reading list, appear to be well-intentioned white folks that are trying to educate themselves about race in America and anti-racism.”
Photo: courtesy of Jeannine Cook.
And while intentions may be good, it’s going to take more than a well-curated reading list, says Cook, who has had customers make frantic inquiries regarding what books they should read in order to reach peak radicalization. “[They’ll read a book and then come to me and ask], ‘What should I read now?’ And I'm like, hey, hold up, pump the brake. If this was the doctor's office, you wouldn't come in here talking about ‘just give me some pills, give me some medicine, give me any medicine.’ We have to break down where you are, what's your quote unquote illness. I can't just produce a list for just anybody and say, ‘Here's the list and now you've got it.’ I think that's the problem,” she says. Sometimes, reading and educating yourself is a form of activism on its own, and this is what book stores like Harriett’s Bookshop are equipped to offer. “If you are self-emancipated, you are self-liberated, you figure out how to go find information on your own. If you look to other folks for your liberation, it’s never going to happen that way.”

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