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A Room of One's Own galvanizes bookstores in the face of atrocity

A Room of One's Own galvanizes bookstores in the face of atrocity

The Madison bookstore's fundraiser for RAICES has spread from coast to coast.

Over the course of just a few days, Madison bookstore A Room of One's Own has pulled almost 90 booksellers and small publishers (and counting) across the United States into a fundraising drive for the immigration legal-aid organization RAICES

It started out late last week as just one bookstore stepping up to donate a portion of its sales from July 5 through 7—Independence Day weekend is usually one of the biggest weekends of the year for retailers—as a response to the United States government's vile treatment of immigrants at the southern border. The store's staff launched the #BookstoresAgainstBorders campaign with an impassioned note: "We have been watching atrocity after atrocity unfurl at our border in horror and hopelessness. But we are deciding against hopelessness and deciding against how small we feel. We are closed on July 4th for Independence Day, but this year, in particular, knowing that human beings, some of whom are children, are being explicitly denied access to basic necessities like soap, food, water, medical care, and shelter, in state-sanctioned detention facilities, we just don't feel very patriotic. We're certainly not celebrating."

Shortly thereafter, staffers realized they could do more, by drawing on a cross-country network of resilient independent bookstores, and now, the list of participating shops spans literally across the continental U.S., from San Diego's Run For Cover to Rockland, Maine's hello hello books. The campaign also reaches across Wisconsin, with seven other bookstores in the state participating: Spring Green's Arcadia Books, Oconomowoc's Books & Company, Hudson's Chapter 2 Books, Beaver Dam's River Dog Book Company, and Madison's own Mystery To Me and The Book Deal. Three of those Wisconsin bookstores are in counties Donald Trump carried in the 2016 presidential election. 

Room staff member Misian Taylor initially proposed the fundraiser to their colleagues just a couple weeks ago. Like anyone with a functioning conscience, Taylor was feeling inundated with news of migrant deaths in ICE custody, squalid camps, and the drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric, all of it the behavior of a government on the verge of genocide. "I started thinking about what I have access to and I started thinking about the bookstore, and what the bookstore has access to, and that's a decades-long community," Taylor says. 

The next step, though, was to understand how said community extends beyond Madison. After bringing the idea to Room co-owner Gretchen Treu, Taylor still didn't feel like a fundraising effort by just one store was enough, and a conversation with a friend inspired them to start reaching out to other bookstores around the country. At first, they hoped to recruit 20 more stores, figuring even that goal was a bit of a reach. By Wednesday morning, the count of participating stores and presses was at 64, and some 12 hours later it was up to 88.

Room has a long history as a feminist bookstore, serving a place to access a deep well of literary expression, radical politics, and community. That’s a testament to the devotion of its female founders and, as of last summer, its non-binary owners. But this feels like an evolution of independent bookstores' political role. The ones that survive despite competition from e-commerce giants, rising commercial rents, and already slim margins probably know something about their communities. Beyond the abstract notion that knowledge is power, the communities that form around ideas can unite in forceful, tangible action. It's no accident that fascists want so badly to undermine intellectuals and the press. By firing up an already existing network of stores and publishers, maybe Room can help those facing the most immediate threat from the extremist leaders of a country steeped in white supremacy.

"It's been very graceful, because these networks were already there," Taylor says. "We just weren't utilizing them in this way. It's been really nice to watch other bookstores and sellers...we have two pop up bookstores that have joined in. I don't think we realized how ready our community was."

This was also a particularly urgent week to launch a fundraising campaign for RAICES, as members of Congress including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Joaquín Castro brought back first-hand accounts of the mistreatment of migrants at two border camps, and the right-wing propaganda machine churned as viciously as ever. #BookstoresAgainstBorders also expanded as it attracted national press attention and as the literary website BookRiot pledged to match donations to the campaign.

For Taylor and Room colleague Alex Neff, the campaign draws on something that's already at the heart of both independent bookshops and the act of reading and sharing itself.

"Feminist bookstores have a long history of providing a safe space where communities can connect, organize, and gather," Neff says. "As exemplified by #bab, in 2019 this is a priority of an entire community of indie booksellers and small presses — many of whom understand viscerally the violence of advanced capitalism. Whether or not these presses and booksellers have ever explicitly identified as 'feminist,' we are united in the understanding that none of us are free until we are all free."

Taylor also shared this extended thought with me in an email on Wednesday afternoon, which sums it up as well as one could ask for:

"Reading, writing, making, and selling books are inherently acts of resistance. What books have given us is an ability to imagine different worlds for ourselves and others and it's this imagining that is necessary in any political action. We had to imagine other independent bookstores would join us, that they might feel as enraged and hopeless as we have, and we had to imagine these efforts could do tangible good for children separated from their families and imprisoned at our border. Imagining is an engine of hope and strength that is absolutely necessary if we are going to get through this human rights crisis without feeling small and robbed of our agency and power. The only 'no' we've received from a bookstore was from one who said, 'Regrettably, due to the sheer number of requests we receive, our policy limits [redacted] charitable donations to activities directly related to fostering literacy'—but this is about literacy. These kids don't have books. The young kids who have made their way out of border patrol facilities are late walkers and late talkers and late readers. There are newborns who have been stripped of their clothing and made to sleep on concrete next to their mothers. There will be lasting consequences for the trauma being done right now. We don't get to un-do that, but we can do whatever we can to make sure it stops now. I would love to see other professions organize. We spend all day most days at work and it makes so much sense as a site of organizing. Nurses Against Borders, Social Workers Against Borders, Teachers Against Borders— these professions carry imperative knowledge and networks that would be so useful organized against the atrocity at our border. And maybe next time it's not raising money for RAICES, maybe next time it's a walk out and a march, maybe it's phonebanking and calling representatives, maybe it's a caravan to the border. Whatever we're going to do, we need to do it, and we need each other to do it."

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