Today's newsletter was almost a political screed, because politics are on my mind, for reasons. But instead, I decided to offer a bit of a distraction, and talk about a few reasons why independent bookstores are so important to me.
I'm not going to repeat the same reasons you've heard a million times.
Like, sure, bookstores are amazing spaces where you can feel happy surrounded by books. And booksellers are uncannily good at recommending your next favorite read, and I've also stumbled on books that I cherish thanks to browsing their shelves. Amazing author events, great community spaces. You know this stuff already.
But did you know that...
Bookstores are where some of the best political moments happen.
There's a reason why people spend so much time fighting over what books get onto bookshelves at bookshops and libraries — these are the places where we still discover some of the hardest-hitting progressive voices, writers who go deeper than social media could ever allow. But not only that, I've gone to political meetings and activist conversations at bookstores, and San Francisco's late lamented Modern Times used to host regular meetings of local queer anti-capitalist groups in their back room. And when I think about the moments that got me fired up to battle injustice and make a less cruddy world, I think about hearing Samuel Delany, Ursula K. Le Guin, Judith Butler, Les Feinberg, and tons of poets reading and speaking at bookstores. I've been to so many bookstore events that filled me with righteous purpose in ways that no meeting ever has.
Bookstores can blur the line between retail and art space.
Above and below are a couple of photos of "There is nothing wrong in the whole world," Chris Cobb's 2004 art project. Basically, Cobb convinced San Francisco's Adobe Books to let him rearrange all the books on the store's shelves — all 20,000 of them — according to the color on their spines. I was lucky enough to see this in person, and it was a beautiful rainbow of books. Plus I stumbled across some books that I never would have found if they'd been arranged by genre and author. (Photos are by Dawn Endico/CC BY-SA 2.0.)
And I've seen countless other beautiful displays that showcased books artistically. Bookstores can feature artwork on their walls, and can serve as galleries or beautiful spaces — but the books they sell are also works of art, which can be displayed in a creative way.
Bookstores nurture marginalized communities.
When I was helping to organize fundraisers to save Bay Area bookstores back in the spring and summer, we did an event for Marcus Books, the nation's oldest Black bookstore. And I was blown away by all the testimonials from the readers and audience members about how much this store had meant to them, from introducing them to reading to connecting them to a rich heritage. When we took the Bookstore and Chocolate Crawl to Afikomen Judaica back in January, I saw firsthand how important this Jewish bookstore was to so many people. And queer bookstores were the first places I really felt safe being myself — which is why it's so important that the Castro has a queer bookstore again, Dog Eared Books Castro. Even bookstores that are for "general readers" can provide a welcoming space to people who've never seen themselves reflected in mass media. Just seeing our faces and names on shelves is a powerful experience. And walking into a store and finding the queer studies shelf or a whole display of anti-racist books is a very different experience than just browsing online.
When bookstores go away, communities get sadder.
A couple years ago I visited a midsize city where every independent bookstore had gone out of business. There was one Barnes & Noble, but it was over an hour's drive away. My hosts drove me around, pointing out the spots where there used to be a few bookstores clustered together. This neighborhood was vibrant, until we lost the bookstore, they kept saying. I loved hanging out here, but now it's just boring. They complained endlessly about how there was noplace to hang out, nobody geeked out about reading the same way anymore. I kept hearing people say they wanted to move away from there.
A bookstore is a portal to a million universes. It's a petting zoo for stories, where you can take some of them home with you. It's a place where you can be surrounded by science, or world history, or literature, and just browse. Zines and tiny poetry books and passionate screeds about synthpop just jump out at you. You can get books elsewhere, but nothing replaces the experience of a bookstore.
And this isn't just a crucial moment for American democracy — it's also a life-or-death struggle for our bookstores. Small businesses are failing everywhere, and bookstores have tighter margins than almost anybody. They pay high rents, and can't raise the price of their products. If you have any money to spare, right now is the moment to support your local bookstore. If you're buying holiday gifts, please buy them from a bookshop. December will be too late, because a lot of products will be impossible to get in our supply-chain-challenged world, and bookstores need help now. Please do what you can. Thank you!
I’ve been re-listening to Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants by Stevie Wonder — it’s the album of his that people hardly ever talk about, because it’s such a weird departure, coming on the heels of Songs in the Key of Life. Stevie Wonder was coming off an unprecedented winning streak, and he decided to put out an album about plant life. And… it’s kind of amazing. It’s full of interesting facts about science, including the contributions of Black people to the history of botany, but also just odes to the wonders of trees, flowers, and the diversity of flora. And some majestic instrumentals, because this is the soundtrack to a documentary I’ve never seen.
Mostly, this is a work of science communication by one of our greatest living songwriters. And a celebration of our rich ecosystem, which is even more important now that the harm we’re inflicting on our own planet is becoming undeniable. Definitely worth listening to and shouting about.
You can now order Trans-Galactic Bike Ride: Feminist Bicycle Science Fiction — a collection of stories by trans/nb authors about bicycles. It’s part of the incredible Bikes in Space series of anthologies of “feminist bicycle science fiction,” and honestly it’s worth getting the complete set. Get it from your local independent bookstore!
My story “I’ll Have You Know” was adapted into a wonderful audio drama by TH Ponders with Open World Media, and you can listen to it here. This is the story about L, who transitions from male to female on her hundredth birthday — but people keep trying to get her to sign up for dream-learning. (Or maybe dream-indoctrination?)
And finally, my young adult novel Victories Greater than Death is available for pre-order. I’m not charging any money for this newsletter, and I don’t currently have a Patreon or GoFundMe of my own — but I would dearly appreciate your support for this book. You can pre-order it from your local independent bookstore, for yourself and/or the young people in your life. Thank you!