Greetings from Toronto, Ontario! We pulled into this incredible place late Friday night after the first week of our epic and slightly insane indie bookstore road trip. We’ve spent the past 5 days visiting unforgettable bookstores in Tennessee, Kentucky, Ohio, and New York—each a welcome oasis from the heat, the highway, the unrelenting beat of bad news, disingenuous leaders, and hard times. But more on these first eight bookstores later.
As we drove over Lake Erie on the Peace Bridge that connects Buffalo, NY, and Fort Erie, Ontario, I was overcome with emotion. I was bringing my two sons for the first time to this country to the north, our best friend and ally over the years, at a time when our relationship has become unnecessarily strained due to the “America First” policies of our President. We made our way to the north and east toward Hamilton, the mass of Lake Ontario looming to our right, separating us from our homeland. I thought about what I would do if, upon coming to a new country with hopes of freedom from persecution and fear, I encountered a new kind of persecution and fear. I wondered what I would do, how I could go on, if I were detained, merely for seeking asylum, and my children were snatched away from me. It’s hard to conceive of at any time, much less a few days removed from Independence Day.
We were in Nashville on the Fourth of July. We walked down Broadway through a street party and crowds of patriots in their American flag shirts, pants, dresses, boots, and hats. There was a man wearing an NRA shirt emblazoned with a flag made of guns.
Earlier that day Alexis had posted on Facebook: “How can you celebrate today? It’s not real. None of it is real.” A friend and fellow publisher had responded with a link to Frederick Douglass’s speech to Congress from July 5, 1852, “What is the Fourth of July to the Negro?” After recounting the colonists’ fight against Great Britain for freedom, Douglass states:
“Your high independence only reveals the immeasurable distance between us. The blessings in which you, this day, rejoice, are not enjoyed in common. The rich inheritance of justice, liberty, prosperity and independence, bequeathed by your fathers, is shared by you, not by me. The sunlight that brought life and healing to you, has brought stripes and death to me.”
That was 166 years ago, yet it seems all-too relevant today. If the “immeasurable distance between us” hasn’t been bridged in the decades since Douglass gave his speech, years that have brought the greatest scientific, technological, medical (just to name a few categories) advances humanity has ever seen, how can we ever bridge it now, when innocent black men, women, and children are shot in the streets by cops, when U.S. officials tear immigrant children from their parents’ arms, when the government backs corporate interests over Native people’s rights and builds a pipeline through sacred ground?
I’m convinced that bookstores can play a small part in bridge building. The stores we visited this week—Novel in Memphis; Parnassus Books in Nashville; Carmichael’s Kids in Louisville; Blue Manatee Books and Joseph-Beth Booksellers in Cincinnati; Gramercy Books in Bexley, outside Columbus; Appletree Books in Cleveland; and Talking Leaves Books in Buffalo—offer visitors a rich selection of complex books to challenge complacency and spur curiosity and independent thought in kids and adults. Independent bookstores like these create an atmosphere that encourages discovery.
So if you find yourself visiting one of these towns or if you live near these stores, be sure to drop by and purchase some books. You’ll meet booksellers there who can help you find the perfect title or maybe you’ll come across something on your own that you never even knew you wanted or needed, something that maybe challenges your preconceived notions instead of something chosen by an algorithm to reinforce them.
Books are bridges that span the gulfs between us. They are the original Peace Bridge. Let’s travel over them together to a place of understanding.