Courtesy: Brookline Booksmith

Revolutionary Reads: Boston bookstores rally readers with political displays and collections

Photo: Brookline Booksmith

After U.S. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway referenced the nonexistent “Bowling Green Massacre” in defending President Trump’s executive order banning refugees and immigrants from seven majority-Muslim nations from entering the United States, Harvard Book Store staffers fired back with a cheeky display commemorating the “victims” of the incident.

Titles on the shelf included Richard Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in American Life; Lies, Incorporated by Ari Rabin-Havt; and Assholes: A Theory by Aaron James.

The tongue-in-cheek collection is one of several politically minded displays the shop has arranged since Trump’s inauguration to make it clear the bookstore is a place where all are safe to come, browse, relax—and get educated.

“We want to be welcoming to everybody,” said Meghan, a Harvard Book Store bookseller. She said there was never a formal staff meeting about what the store could do, but it was something of a “continuous consensus” among the booksellers.

“Whether it’s women or people of color or immigrants, we all need to stick together and help each other out,” she explained. “He’s coming after us all, so here—here’s the book to help you understand how we got here and understand how we move forward, what we do next.”

It’s a sentiment that’s been echoed by bookstores throughout Boston since Trump’s inauguration. When news of the immigration ban broke, Brookline Booksmith staffers filled the shop’s front window with works by authors from those seven countries. Porter Square Books recently posted a shot of Rebecca Solnit’s memoir Hope in the Dark to Instagram; tucked between its pages is a purple “Staff Pick” bookmark with “Nevertheless, she persisted” scrawled on it. (Another recent Instagram post: John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.)

Kate Layte, who owns Papercuts in Jamaica Plain, gathered together some of the politically minded reads she had on hand—including Matt Taibbi’s Insane Clown President and Our Revolution by Bernie Sanders—for a display that’s been up since the inauguration. She says that in these uncertain times, people are finding comfort in the certainty of books: a tangible, physical product that’s been carefully researched and edited.

“I think people wanted to turn to real books, and not something that’s written hastily online in a tweet,” Layte said.

She was right. Her small shop quickly sold out of several of the titles in the display, which tackled topics from climate change to the prison industrial complex to anxiety disorders.

Layte also placed copies of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence next to the Papercuts register, both of which hit the shop’s bestsellers list during the first week in February.

“We have the written words,” Layte said of these founding documents. “We can actually look to that ourselves and not just be told [about them] by people who may or may not have read them or studied them.”

Courtesy of Harvard Book Store
Photo: Harvard Book Store

Other shops, such as Trident Booksellers and Cafe on Newbury Street, have offered up their spaces for events like a Feb. 7 “Write Your Reps” gathering.

Assistant bookstore manager Clarissa Hadge explained that the evening of postcard writing was an easy way to connect people with their representatives, fostering a sense of community while giving those who might feel helpless or unsure of what to do next a chance to take action.

“We definitely feel like we need to be more political in these times,” she said, “because we do want to be able to have our doors open to everybody and provide a space for people to come, get knowledge and have good conversations and good discussions.”

People wrote more than 250 postcards throughout the evening, and Hadge said the remarks were thoughtful, insightful and well-researched.

Independent bookstores operate on slim profit margins, but area shops are finding ways to give back financially as well. Hadge said Trident will begin collecting donations for nonprofits in Greater Boston and larger organizations such as Planned Parenthood beginning in late February. Papercuts donated 10 percent of sales on the day of the Women’s March to the ACLU. Layte said she thinks the shop sold more books than it would have on a normal Saturday, and she believed people came out looking for a way to support both a local bookstore and a national movement.

Of course, while the people behind your favorite Boston bookstores want you to stay informed and active, they want you to take care of your mental health, too.

As Papercuts posted on Facebook on the day of the inauguration: “We also have plenty of fantastic fiction should you need an escape.”


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