Bookstores stoke Trump resistance with action, not just words

Hannah Oliver Depp, the manager of Word bookstore, writes a letter to Sen. Cory Booker thanking him for his resistance against the Trump administration, in Jersey City, N.J.

A hundred people packed a bookstore in New York to write postcards to elected officials and, as the invitation urged, “plot next steps.” In St. Louis, bookstore owners began planning a writer-studded event to benefit area refugees. At a bookshop in Massachusetts, a manager privately asked his senior staff members how the store should respond to the Trump presidency.

“Go hard,” they told him.

In the diffuse and suddenly fierce protest movement that has sprung up on the left since President Donald Trump took office, bookstores have entered the fray, taking on roles ranging from meeting place to political war room.


Many stores have distributed information for customers who are mobilizing against Trump’s actions: his Cabinet choices, his threat to cut off funding for sanctuary cities and his immigration bans on refugees and many Muslims.

At City Stacks, a bookstore in Denver, employees printed out forms with elected officials’ contact information in a gentle nudge to customers. On Inauguration Day, Broadway Books in Portland, Oregon, handed out free copies of “We Should All Be Feminists,” a book-length call to arms by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, the novelist.

All over the country, independent bookstores have filled their windows and displays with “1984,” by George Orwell; “It Can’t Happen Here,” by Sinclair Lewis; and other books on politics, fascism, totalitarianism and social justice. Booksellers have begun calling the front table devoted to those titles the #Resist table.

“A lot of people are saying, ‘We’ve turned our store over to the revolution,’” said Hannah Oliver Depp, the operations manager for Word, which has bookstores in New Jersey and New York. “I do think that it is going to fundamentally change bookstores and book selling.”

Now, she said, “people are just trying to figure out: ‘How far can we push it? How high can we turn up the heat?’”


Books with the theme of social justice on display at Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Maine.

Some stores, including large chains like Barnes & Noble, with customers from across the spectrum, have steered away from the political realm. Some stores say they have worked to keep the latest book displays balanced — with titles from the left and the right.

“My taste comes into play,” said Cathy Langer, the director of buying for the Tattered Cover in Denver, “but my politics do not, ever.”

But many places have become buzzing hubs of protest, like Women & Children First in Chicago, which last month hosted a forum on “Art and Resistance,” a craft circle to knit pink “pussyhats,” and a gathering with customers for coffee and doughnuts on the morning after the inauguration, before they all rode the “L” to join in the downtown Women’s March.

“Let’s raise our voices together and let the incoming administration know that they do not speak for us,” the store wrote to customers in an email before the rally.

Political organizing is perhaps a natural extension of what bookstores have done for centuries: foster discussion, provide access to history and literature, host writers and intellectuals.


“All bookstores are mission-driven to some degree — their mission is to inspire and inform, and educate if possible,” said Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and executive director of City Lights in San Francisco, a store with a long history of left-wing activism.

“When Trump was elected, everyone was just walking around saying: ‘What do I do. What do we do?’” she added. “One of the places you might find some answers is in books, in histories, in current events, even poetry.”

For many booksellers, the urge to join a protest movement is new. Several who were interviewed said they had never before tried to mobilize their customers politically; many are, for the first time, making their own political views crystal clear.

A worker stocks shelves at Word bookstore, one of many bookstores that have embraced the protest movement against President Trump, in Jersey City, N.J.

“In the past, we hadn’t really been like, ‘OK, here’s where we stand,’” said Lacy Simons, the owner of Hello Hello Books in the seaside town of Rockland, Maine. Simons said she was jolted into action the day after the election, when customers began drifting into the store, not to buy books, exactly, but in search of solace.

“This is just one of the places where people went,” she said. “If they were gutted from the election, people just came in to pet the books.”

Her plans to push back against Trump’s policies are just beginning: Later this month, the store’s new social justice reading and action group will meet for the first time (suggested reading: “What We Do Now: Standing Up for Your Values in Trump’s America”). She also intends to distribute political leaflets and other materials to customers, on the model of bookstores that handed out mimeographed resistance newspapers during the Vietnam War.


Stephanie Valdez, an owner of Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, has already hosted a postcard-writing event, and lately she has paged through books on political organizing, looking for guidance for getting her store more involved.

“I think bookstores are a place where people go to understand the world,” she said. “And I think we’re just one of many places that will become a center of activism.”

Gayle Shanks, a co-owner of Changing Hands in Phoenix, said her store’s Facebook page had gone political, as staff members filled it with articles about national politics and First Amendment issues. At the suggestion of one of her young employees, staff members began piecing together a display of books written by authors from the seven majority-Muslim countries from which Trump suspended immigration.

Gayle Shanks, owner of Changing Hands, said her bookstore’s Facebook page had gone political.

Shanks took her regular email newsletter in December, usually a chatty vehicle for suggesting new books or sharing publishing-industry news, to write about her sorrow over Trump’s election and the “cronies” he had selected to serve in his Cabinet.

More than 50 recipients wrote back with praise, thanking her for airing her views. One man did not. “Shut up and sell books,” he wrote.

And some stores have been more muted, conscious of alienating more conservative customers.

“A lot of bookstores kind of want to be everything to all people,” said Josh Christie, an owner of Print, a bookstore in Portland, Maine. “They want to be apolitical and carry everything from every viewpoint. People are worried about losing that sale.”


(Print announced that in light of Trump’s immigration ban, it was donating all profits from sales on the first Saturday this month to the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.)

Ann Patchett, a novelist and an owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tennessee, said she had simply embraced the notion of her bookstore as a place where anyone could come, get information and exchange ideas.

“I have written on the bookstore website about the election and the importance of reading and community and how more than ever we need to,” Patchett said. “That is outwardly as political as we’ve gotten.”

She echoed one of the biggest blows of Trump’s election for people in the literary world: the realization that the new president is not much of a reader. That is a stark contrast to former President Barack Obama, a devoted reader, writer and frequent visitor of independent bookstores while he was in office.

“Now more than ever, books are so important,” Patchett said. “The only way we’re going to get out of this in the larger sense is through education.”