Recent events at two bookstores on opposite coasts have forced booksellers to grapple with more than just the rush of gift-seeking customers this holiday season. At Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Company, three people were arrested protesting a Nov. 30 appearance by Mayor Jenny Durkan, while in Cambridge, Mass., police are investigated an alleged assault of a Donald Trump supporter following a Dec. 1 reading at the Harvard Coop Bookstore.
The protests at Elliott Bay occurred during a visit from Durkan, who was delivering remarks in support of small businesses on her second day in office. As Durkan began, three protesters interrupted in succession, denouncing police brutality, Durkan’s handling of a terror investigation in her previous work as a U.S. Attorney, and her support for sweeps to disband homeless encampments.
“They assaulted her with very vile language,” said Elliott Bay owner Peter Aaron, whose booksellers surrounded the first two protesters, ushering them from the store. Aaron personally removed the third. All three protesters were criminally charged.
“It was kind of shocking and stunning to people,” said Aaron, who described the protesters as purported anarchist supporters of Durkan’s “far-left liberal” rival in the recent election. “I see the same kind of intolerance and fundamentalist militarism from some of that faction as we have become much too used to seeing from the majority of our elected officials in Washington right now. I find it ironic to say the least.”
The alleged incident in Cambridge followed a reading at the Harvard Coop by historian Mark Bray, author of Antifa: An Anti-Fascist Handbook (Melville House). Following the event, Trump supporter Matthias Thorpe posted footage online claiming that he was punched in the face repeatedly by Bray’s supporters as he exited the bookstore. Coop president Jerry Murphy declined to comment.
Jeremy Warnick, director of communications for the Cambridge Police Department, said that an investigation is ongoing. Warnick added, however, that proof of the assault has yet to surface. “One of the things we’ve been challenged with is evidence,” said Warnick, who noted that police have not yet located independent footage or eyewitness statements that corroborate Thorpe’s claims. As a result, no charges have been brought.
Along with a spate of white supremacist attacks on Berkeley’s Revolution Books earlier this fall, the violence at the events in Seattle and Cambridge could be seen as a rising trend, but Bray—who had departed the Coop reading prior to the alleged assault—doesn’t think so. In 46 book talks around the U.S. this fall, he said that attendees have had “a good faith interest in debating hard questions of free speech, tactics, and strategy around politics.”
Prior to going on tour, Bray said he worried that problems might arise at some readings. While his events “aren’t just pep rallies,” he said he has been pleased by how civil they have been, even when people disagree vehemently with his positions. “The concerns that one might have about presenting on the Antifa in Trump’s America have not been borne out.”
While his experience has been overwhelmingly positive, Bray said that social media and programmed bots can amplify negative impressions of events without actual substantiation. Aaron, who was bombarded with e-mails following the Elliott Bay protests, concurred. “Gradually, over the last four or five years, social media has become so much more of a volatile factor.” Following the protests, he said he was inundated with “hate stuff.”
“The people that were incensed by the treatment of [the protesters] were very active in tarring us with the same brush as the Mayor,” said Aaron. He worries that social media can make a highly rare event seem like business as usual when it is not the case. “Several of our booksellers were shaken by the protests,” said Aaron, “[specifically] because we have not seen that kind of thing in the store.”
Connie Brooks, owner of Battenkill Books in Cambridge, New York, came to a similar conclusion about the relative safety of bookstores after putting out a call to fellow booksellers about gun-carrying customers earlier this year. Curious about the political climate in fellow bookshops, Brooks asked whether booksellers in nearby New England have policies against allowing customers to “open carry” firearms in their stores.
“I genuinely wondered about the rights of store owners versus the rights of people to open carry. I can, as the store owner, bar anyone for entry as long as I am not discriminating on the basis of color, race, gender, etc.,” Brooks wrote in an e-mail to PW.
After receiving only a few replies, however, and with no uptick in safety issues in her own store, Brooks decided to let the issue rest. “We have not enacted a no weapons policy, nor do I think we will in the near future,” said Brooks.
At Elliott Bay, Aaron believes that most customers understand that the bookstore is a welcoming presence in the community. “We do not take political positions on much of anything except where it gets to matters of intolerance,” he said. “The way I look at it, it’s my house and people are welcomed into it.” As for the protesters, he said, “If they’re not going to behave I’ll kick them out of it.”