This essay from Tameka Blackshir serves, in part, as an important reminder of why Coffee House launched the CHWP back in April. As we head once more into lockdowns across the states, it is necessary to revisit conversations around what work is “essential” and whose safety is jeopardized by those classifications. Blackshir discusses the difficult decisions booksellers have had to make throughout the pandemic while highlighting the transformative potential of books and writing practices. It is a call to share and learn from foundational narratives worth heeding.
—Zoë Koenig, development assistant
An Essential Realization
When I got my first call to return to my bookstore in West Hollywood, I had finally established a routine at home. It involved a little reading, a little binge-watching, a lot of snacking, constant worrying, repeat. Los Angeles’s COVID-19 infection and death rates were steadily climbing, and unemployment was paying me “handsomely”—this is relative because I am a bookseller—to stay at home. My desire for a change in routine and an escape from my studio apartment heavily influenced my initial knee-jerk reaction: to emphatically say yes and return to my bookstore. But my sudden financial stability and overall mistrust in the current state of the virus, due to constant conflicting information on the news, gave me serious pause. I said no. What was I risking: A potentially life-threatening illness? A financial crisis and possible eviction? Nothing was worth those possibilities, not even my beloved books and bookstore. Books are not essential, I thought. What is essential? Booksellers could not be compared in importance to those risking their lives and the lives of their families to make sure we all get through this. The world will be OK if their neighborhood bookstore remains closed for the safety of the community. I maintained this stance until around Memorial Day 2020, when the world witnessed the murder of George Floyd, on the heels of witnessing the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, after hearing of the tragic murder of Breonna Taylor. The veil had been lifted for so many Americans and global citizens, and where did they turn? To books. They ran to books, actually. All of a sudden, nothing seemed more essential. The voices of Angela Davis, Ibram X. Kendi, James Baldwin, Isabel Wilkerson, and so many others were sought out en masse, and I had to reflect and reconsider the essentialness of books. Books are a vehicle for thought, a place where narratives can be shared and shaped as well as provide a foundation for change. This medium allows us to document our lives and the lives to come; it has the potential to give someone a glimpse into a multitude of existences and narratives. I reflected on how, over the course of history, some of those same narratives have been the foundation of hate, hope, resistance, and the very essence of our humanity. Stories like Uncle Tom’s Cabin and To Kill a Mockingbird, or The Bluest Eye and The Fire Next Time, have been the vehicles for the very lives that we lead, and they connect us. I was emboldened to help shape and influence the direction of vital conversations through books. Although I stand firmly against capitalism and am saddened by the way in which these books are circulated in this country, I understand the importance of working within this system until it is one day abolished. It is my opinion that books are not only essential but imperative. We must protect and preserve the practice of writing and sharing. Give your favorite book to a friend or an enemy, support your local library and neighborhood bookstore, inspire the next generation to write what they see, and we will continue to grow, learn, and empathize with one another. Books have stood the test of time and will continue to move the needle, inspire the changemakers, reflect the world in which we live, and shape our future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hailing from the suburbs of Philadelphia, Tameka is currently the assistant store manager at Book Soup in West Hollywood, CA. She received her BA in Theatre Arts from the University of Pittsburgh and has lived in Los Angeles for the last five years, working as a makeup artist and enthusiastic bookseller promoting the works of Black women authors in all genres. She hopes to expand her voice and write more from the lens of a Black bookseller.