Porter Square Books is usually a place for, well, buying books. But on a recent Sunday afternoon, the store was brimming with civic engagement.
Dozens of people spread throughout the shop, spilling from the crowded cafe to temporary folding tables stationed in the back, as they furiously scribbled notes and copied mailing addresses onto postcards provided by the bookstore.
Like other small-scale events organized around the country in recent weeks, Porter Square Books hosted this postcard-writing event to encourage engagement and offer their community a convenient venue for activism.
The Cambridge bookshop has announced plans to host monthly “Be the Change” gatherings, which could take the form of workshops, discussions and traditional author talks.
“We also want to do more than just talk about the issues,” bookstore event manager Sarah Rettger explained. She said that as part of the Sunday afternoon series, the bookstore will partner with local organizations and will provide resources and information about political involvement to customers and community members.
The series comes at a time when businesses and individuals across the country are reevaluating how they engage with civic culture. “We used to know exactly what it meant to be a bookstore in Cambridge,” bookstore staffers wrote in a statement announcing the event series. “But things changed.” The announcement went on to describe the role of bookstores as places of refuge and as reliable sources of information and resources.
In the weeks since President Donald Trump’s inauguration, which have seen executive orders threatening to withhold federal funds to sanctuary cities and travel bans targeting Muslims and refugees, political protests have become the new normal for many concerned citizens.
“For me, the Women’s March was kind of a call to arms,” said Susan Rosa of Arlington, as she wrote postcards with a friend at a sunny outdoor table. She said she’s been seeking other ways to stay involved and engaged since the January rally.
Bookstore activism is nothing new. From the collectively owned Bluestockings in New York City to San Francisco’s City Lights, bookstores have long been centers of left-wing political organizing. Today, Porter Square Books—along with many other independent bookstores nationwide—is taking a two-pronged approach to civic engagement: First, stock the shelves; second, host the conversations. And many postcard writers said the event series felt like a natural extension of the store’s mission.
“A bookstore seemed like a great place to start,” said Ruth Slater of Roslindale. “It’s always been a place where people come to learn to learn about stuff, where people come to get educated.”
“[Porter Square Books] has always been kind of a focal point for the community,” said Rosa, who added that she’s a longtime customer.
To kick off the event, local activist Jen Deaderick gave introductory remarks. Deaderick spoke in appreciation of Massachusetts representatives, including Senator Elizabeth Warren, Representative Mike Capuano and Representative Katherine Clark.
“A lot of this is going to be thank you notes,” Deaderick acknowledged, but she said writing them is still a crucial part of democratic participation.
Attendees said they wrote their reps about a range of concerns, including climate change, diversity, and the repeal of the Affordable Care Act, among many other issues.
“I’m more concerned than ever,” said Gerard Teichman of Cambridge, who said he was primarily worried about the Trump administration’s ties with Russia. “I expect it to escalate, and for there to be a more active resistance.”
At the 2017 Winter Institute, an industry event for booksellers, author Roxane Gay spoke about the critical role of bookstores as safe spaces. PSB’s Sarah Rettger heard that speech and felt inspired to take meaningful, real-world action. Thus, the Be the Change event series was born.
“This was a way to have a practical impact,” Rettger said. She said Porter Square Books staff stamped and mailed out more than 100 postcards after the event.
Be the Change events will take place on the last Sunday of every month for the foreseeable future, and details are available here.