Literary First Responders: Bay Area Authors Ensure Neighborhood Bookstores' Survival

Daveed Diggs reads and raps on behalf of Marcus Books with We Love Bookstores. (Nicole Gluckstern)

With retail businesses recently allowed to open for curbside pickup, bookstores all around the Bay Area began announcing their sidewalk fulfillment systems. But as any aficionado of these havens of literature knows, some of the best book purchases come from the serendipity of leisurely browsing the shelves, behavior not yet sanctioned by public health directives. And with many independent bookstores already operating on paper-thin margins, their future feels more precarious than ever.

The economic blow to local bookstores struck Bay Area author and event producer Charlie Jane Anders particularly hard. Faced with canceling her own long-running literary series Writers With Drinks, as well as the collaboratively organized Bookstore and Chocolate Crawl, Anders immediately decided to channel her event curation powers into a virtual fundraising series. With her Bookstore and Chocolate Crawl co-organizers Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Jackie Risley, she started reaching out to bookstores and readers.

On April 8, the first We Love Bookstores reading was launched. A fundraiser for Pegasus Books of Berkeley—featuring Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman—the event raised close to $3,500. A vibrant new series was born.

Alia Volz, author of 'Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana and the Stoning of San Francisco' and We Love Bookstores co-organizer. (courtesy of Alia Volz)

As the project evolved, so did the curatorial team, which widened to include folks such as Evan Karp of Quiet Lightening and Litseen; Alia Volz, whose book Home Baked: My Mom, Marijuana and the Stoning of San Francisco was recently published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; book publicists Lara Starr and Cristina Deptula; science writer and speculative fiction author Annalee Newitz; and science fiction author Mike Chen, who designed the series' website.

As the project attracted more guest authors, some of them specified which bookstore they wanted to raise money for. For example, the fundraiser for Marcus Books attracted an all-star lineup of readers, including Chinaka Hodge, Tongo Eisen-Martin, and Daveed Diggs, who had been personally inspired by the highly influential black bookstore (now celebrating its 60-year anniversary). A joint event with Volz and Armistead Maupin scheduled for June 17 will benefit Rakestraw Books in Danville—a decision, Volz says, borne from a mutual desire to raise funds for a “classic Bay Area bookstore” that has roots extending to the 1970s, an era inhabited by their respective books.

Armistead Maupin will read with Alia Volz on June 17. (Christopher Turner)

As anyone who’s attended Writers With Drinks can attest, one of the hallmarks of the monthly series is its dynamic diversity. On any given evening audiences might hear comedy, poetry, erotica, speculative fiction, journalism, memoir, and everything in between, with equal time given to emerging local authors and international bestsellers. Set in a nightclub rather than a bookstore, the event has been a fixture of literati nightlife for almost 20 years, and never fails to draw a boisterous crowd. With Anders introducing each author with hilarious, stream-of-consciousness biographies pulled from a parallel universe, and local booksellers on hand to ensure that some of the featured books will make it home with audience members that night, Writer’s With Drinks blends disparate genres and audiences into a big frothy cocktail.

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“The thing with Writers With Drinks that I always tried to do... was have variety within each event, and I feel that what we’ve been doing with this [We Love Bookstores] is more having variety between events,” Anders explains. “It’s got a little bit of Writers With Drinks flavor, a little bit of Quiet Lightning flavor, a little bit of Cliterary Salon. We’ve had some events that Maggie [Tokuda-Hall] has put together that have been kid-focused, and those have been some of my favorites.”

Baruch Porras-Hernandez will read on June 12 for We Love Bookstores. (Robbie Sweeny)

Upcoming We Love Bookstores events reflect this far-ranging diversity—including panels of poets, science fiction authors, Asian American novelists and nonfiction heavy-hitters. Emphasizing accessibility, all of the events are available to attend for free, with a sliding scale for donations supporting each featured, neighborhood bookstore. It's an example of the kind of grassroots mutual aid that local author (and featured panelist Rebecca Solnit) references in her 2009 book on disaster response, A Paradise Built in Hell. While some featured bookstores have launched their own fundraisers, or been granted small business loans to help keep them afloat, others are still waiting for relief. To have the community rally on their behalf is not just a financial boost, but a morale boost as well.

Jennifer Finney Boylan will read on June 19 for We Love Bookstores. (Dan Haar)

For Anders, while her many years in the world of literary event production has given her the opportunity to wrangle big-name authors into the mix, she’s especially emphatic that the purpose of We Love Bookstores is to serve the many independent bookstores that make the Bay Area such an epicenter of the literary arts—for readers, writers and booksellers alike.

“The thing I keep hammering on as I endlessly promote these events is that it’s not just about 'bookstores'... but also, a neighborhood without a bookstore is just a really sad thing to me. [And] if you like your neighborhood, and you want your neighborhood to stay awesome, you need to help out.”

The next We Love Bookstores event gets underway on Friday, May 29, with Gennifer Choldenko, Avi and Aimee Lucido for Towne Center Books. Details here.