It’s easy to underestimate or dismiss the impact of independent bookstores. When I was growing up, the only bookstore in my neighborhood was an enormous Barnes & Noble. It wasn’t until I worked in publishing in New York that I realized the importance of independent bookstores—how they help to shape a sense of community and identity around books, particularly in communities of color.
While I have fond memories of getting lost in the labyrinth of Barnes & Noble (and does anyone remember Borders??), it’s hard for a chain mega-bookstore to carry a selection that particularly reflects the history and people in its neighborhood.
One of my favorite independent bookstores, Word Up in Washington Heights, occupies a small corner on Amsterdam and 165th. At Word Up, the selection was limited but manifested loving, attentive curation—more poetry, more books in Spanish, more books from independent presses, more books that might speak to the neighborhood’s shared identity. It’s where I met an amazing Taiwanese American novelist who chatted with me after her reading and encouraged me to keep writing after college.
When I first moved to the Bay Area, I wandered inside Asian American Curriculum Project by accident. AACP is a nonprofit bookstore in downtown San Mateo. The store is wedged between San Mateo Tax Service and a Jack-in-the-Box, and if I were driving any faster, I might have missed the storefront: books displayed behind four window panels, shaded beneath an ocean-blue awning.
Behind the counter was Florence, who introduced herself as the owner and one of the founders.
Florence is 88 years old. She and her family were imprisoned in a Japanese internment camp when she was fifteen years old. Years later, she noticed that California public schools did not teach about internment, which had affected so many California families. So, she and other Asian American teachers decided to make the multiplicity of Asian American histories and experiences more visible.
They opened AACP in 1969, at the beginning of the Asian American Movement in California. Today, the shelves are populated with stories: you’ll find literature, scholarship, reference books, and children’s books from Hawaiian, Japanese, Cambodian, Hmong, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Tongan, Samoan, Vietnamese, and Thai American perspectives.
AACP embodies everything that I love about my Asian-Californian-American identity and community. I volunteer here, and the store feels like my home and family outside of Southern California. If you live in the Bay, I encourage you to visit! You might just run into me stocking shelves or (gasp!) doing math.
And wherever you are, if you have the means, I hope you’ll wander into a small bookstore, because your life will be better because of it. So with that, happy Independent Bookstore Day! I wish you good books and the relationships that come out of them.