Your local bookstore could be one of the final frontiers for saving democracy. Here’s why you need to support it

A man reads to a group of people in a bookstore
All politics is local—and the neighborhood bookstore might be one of the few places left for democracy to thrive.
George Clerk—Getty Images

We begin with some unexpected, good news: The neighborhood bookstore is back, baby.

Some 300 new independent bookstores opened in the past couple of years, arresting the spate of closures that happened early in the pandemic. Many are being opened by book lovers of color who hail from the communities they serve. And, like the bookstore opened last year by first-time owner Lucy Yu in New York City’s Chinatown called Yu and MeI swoon—these new businesses are restoring an essential service: Real recommendations from real people about the kinds of books that open the world.

And not a moment too soon.

Yu and Me got its start with a successful GoFundMe and opened in the face of the rise of anti-Chinese immigrant violence. It specializes in books by and about immigrants, and was profitable in four months, Yu—a former chemical engineer—tells the New York Times. “People were hungry for a place focused on Asian American and immigrant stories. That’s something I was always searching for when I went to bookstores, and I wanted people to come here and not have to search.”

If this trend continues, and I hope it does, these shopkeepers are poised to provide a meaningful backstop to the erasure, censorship, obfuscation, and disinformation that characterizes the recent spate of legislation and protests seeking to amend curriculum in schools and universities.

While Florida’s Parental Rights in Education law—commonly known as the “Don’t Say Gay” law—may currently be the most well-known, it is by no means the only one.

Across the U.S., state legislation sessions in 2022 have been dominated by conservative efforts to censor what is taught in the public schools, in some cases drilling down by phrase: “racial colorblindness,” any meaningful mention of “equity,” and anything “promoting a negative account or representation of the founding and history of the United States of America,” according to EdWeek.

Books that touch on race or sexual identity are being banned in record numbers, putting school librarians in increasingly untenable positions. Public libraries are increasingly under attack, now fielding organized protests and board challenges.

Here’s one more bright spot to share on a similar theme.

Getty Images just announced a new collection of curated historical images of the African Diaspora that are specifically designed for non-commercial users, like educators, librarians, and researchers. The Black History & Culture Collection (BHCC), looks to be an extraordinary tool for anyone looking to better understand the under-discussed or untold stories around global Black culture.

So, know hope.

That new book-loving entrepreneurs—and other expert voices—are stepping into the wisdom void is a delightful development, and I hope that they thrive as jewels within their communities. It feels uniquely urgent: You can’t have a democracy if you don’t have citizens who are curious, informed, and with a solid understanding of the world we share.

May avid readers and life-long learners lead the way to better governance on every level.

In that spirit, I’m delighted to share the second installment of our crowd-sourced reading list, below.

And while you’re imagining a better world, don’t forget to follow along live with my Fortune colleagues as the annual in-person gathering of Fortune’s Brainstorm Tech conference takes place in Aspen, Colorado. An inclusive future can’t happen without tech, either.

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Ashley Sylla.

On point: Your summer reading list, part two

We asked you to contribute to a crowdsourced list of fiction books, from any era, to give our imaginations a boost and offer a legitimate break from the news of the day. The assignment:

  • Recommend a book that helped you feel seen in a particularly powerful way.
  • Or, a book that was written by someone very different from you, and which has inspired you or has helped you better understand the lived experience of others.

The second installment of ten is below. Thank you.

Submissions have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Sarah Cocco, Foundation Relations Officer, recommended Obit by Victoria Chang

  • Here’s why: “It gave me the language I needed to understand and describe to others my grief. I was 25 when my dad died and had spent the first seven months of the pandemic caring for him. During that time, I was deep in survival mode and didn't have the capacity to parse out my feelings. I turned to poetry and books to explore my grief after his death, which was especially helpful because I was processing alone, despite being surrounded by people who love me and would be more than open to processing with me.”
  • The heart-grabbing moment: "It's true, the grieving speak a different language. I am separated from my friends by gauze." "Like grief, the way it dangles from everything like earrings." "A hundred people in the waiting room all pulling green oxygen cylinders. I had all the air to myself but I couldn't breathe."

Marquis Miller recommends The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck

  • Here’s why: “The story of a humble farmer’s journey through 1920s China, with his family, as they struggled to survive in the midst of vast political and social upheavals, opened my eyes to the possibility that some others were experiencing hurt and trauma, even as I, myself and my community was hurting also.”
  • The heart-grabbing moment: “"They cannot take the land from me. The labor of my body and the fruit of the fields I have put into that which cannot be taken away. If I had the silver, they would have taken it. If I had bought with the silver to store it, they would have taken it all. I have the land still, and it is mine." It reminded me of my father's struggle to get his dream house built and his joy at getting the deed..”

Aisha Ghori Ozaki, DEIJ Practitioner recommends Borderlands/La Frontera by Gloria Anzaldua

  • Here’s why: “This book changed my life in college—as a mixed-race child and young adult I did not have the language to describe my experiences and when I read this book (in the 1990s), I finally could understand and explain it—even though we had different cultural backgrounds and experiences, there were so many overlaps. It holds a dear place in my heart as part of my own personal/cultural growth and understanding and ultimately had an impact on my career as well.”

Someone recommends both the Akata Witch series and Lagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

Dana Ginsberg recommends Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

  • Here’s why: "The story follows two descendant lines of an Asante (Ghana) woman starting with two half-sisters—one married to a British governor and one held captive as a slave. The generational journey was extremely powerful to read in first-person experiences."

Lizelle Festejo Hsu, a Director of Programs and Events, recommends You Matter by Christian Robinson

  • Here’s why: “Reading this with my 2-year-old has made the world of difference for me during these trying times. ”
  • Heart-grabbing moment: “You matter.”

Someone recommends The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

  •  Here’s why: “I don't think I had ever really heard the experience of Vietnamese refugees from the war in quite as visceral a way as was presented in this graphic memoir. The fact that it was in graphic novel format really gave it a presence and heft that really gave me a lot of insight into what that experience was like.”
  • Heart-grabbing moment: “At the very beginning there was a memorable page about her son being born and her need to metaphorically and physically hold him to her and keep him from falling that hooked me.”

Julianne Zimmerman, Managing Director, and GP recommends The Imperial Radch Trilogy by Ann Leckie

  • Here’s why: “I love the way this story folds the reader into the narrator's distinct perspective on gender, culture, caste, race, justice, religion, and self. As the most obvious of several possible examples, the narrator's primary reference culture employs only one third-person pronoun—she/her—and the narrator occasionally stumbles when conversing with persons from other cultures who employ gendered pronouns, or more complex linguistic designators. By the end of the first novel, only a few characters' genders have been specified, and as a reader, you realize it no longer matters to the story or to you. The fact that the author accomplished that merely as an element of a compelling and memorable larger story, and not the central focus of the books, is all the more extraordinary. Both aside and inextricable from the sharp social commentary, I adore the main character for her (!) heroism, gaping elisions, resilience, compassion, and flaws.”
  • Heart-grabbing moment: "Many. I have lots of dog-eared pages! For me the most abidingly horrifying moment was One Esk Nineteen's "birth" and her "death". [We can discuss after you've read it.]”

Olivia recommends Severance by Ling Ma

  • Here’s why: "The treatment of the Chinese immigrant story was nuanced and psychologically complex."

Someone recommends When No One is Watching by Alyssa Cole

  • Here’s why: "It's a mystery/suspense/thriller, but it's also a story of a community grappling with gentrification, class, racism, and tradition. In the neighborhood characters I saw stories I know far too well of people just trying to hold on and do right. It is painful and heart-wrenching, but it felt too possible. It was like Get Out, but for gentrification."
  • Heart-grabbing character: "There are several scenes with a white ally as they interact with racism and classist white opportunists. Their conversations are the stuff of nightmares—all your worst assumptions of what bigoted and privileged people think, say, and do when they think no one is watching."

Parting words

"My science fiction has different ancestors—African ones…What if an African girl from a traditional family in a part of future Africa is accepted into the finest university in the galaxy, planets away? What if she decides to go?”

Nnedi Okorafor, science fiction writer, TEDGlobal 2017

This is the web version of raceAhead, Fortune’s daily newsletter on race, culture, and inclusive leadership. To get it delivered daily to your inbox, sign up here.

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