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Bookstores Stoke Trump Resistance With Action, Not Just Words

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

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Books with themes of social justice on display at Hello Hello Books in Rockland, Me. The owner, Lacy Simons, has helped customers mobilize resistance against the Trump administration. Credit Tristan Spinski for The New York Times

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.”

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Hannah Oliver Depp, the operations manager for Word in Jersey City, writing a letter to Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, thanking him for his resistance against the Trump administration. Credit Christian Hansen for The New York Times

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.

“In the past, we hadn’t really been like, ‘O.K., here’s where we stand,’” said Lacy Simons, the owner of Hello Hello Books in the seaside town of Rockland, Me. Ms. 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 Mr. 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 Mr. Trump suspended immigration.

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Gayle Shanks, owner of Changing Hands in Phoenix, said her bookstore’s Facebook page had gone political. Credit Caitlin O’Hara for The New York Times

Ms. 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 Mr. 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, Me. “They want to be apolitical and carry everything from every viewpoint. People are worried about losing that sale.” (Print announced that in light of Mr. 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, 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,” Ms. Patchett said. “That is outwardly as political as we’ve gotten.”

She echoed one of the biggest blows of Mr. 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,” Ms. Patchett said. “The only way we’re going to get out of this in the larger sense is through education.”

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