Four indie bookstores are taking the services they provide to their communities to a new level: booksellers in these stores are registering voters this summer and fall. Though all the booksellers’ in-store voter registration drives are nonpartisan, they vary in scope. One indie simply has a table with registration forms on it for customers to fill out and mail in themselves; another hands out forms at the cash register for customers and then mails in the completed forms for them; one store has set up a display of books about politics and citizenship next to its stack of forms; and another’s one-day registration drive is heavily promoted and this year will feature a presentation by an elected official.
Left Bank Books co-owner Jarek Steele reported that the St. Louis, Mo., indie has organized voter registration drives in previous years, including, most notably, in 2016. During that year’s campaign season, the store registered about 25 voters and sent the forms in one large envelope to the local board of elections for processing. This year, however, Left Bank is doing things a little differently: registration forms for both city and county residents are set out on a table for customers to fill out. Left Bank booksellers are providing stamps and envelopes, then directing customers to drop their forms into a mailbox just outside of the store. For people wanting to print out the forms at home, the store provides a link to Missouri’s online registration forms via Left Banks’s own site.
“We supply everything,” Steele said, describing the service as the store’s civic responsibility. “Our freedom is based on the participation of every citizen—regardless of race, gender, age, religion, ability, or party. One of our duties as community booksellers is to promote that participation by providing literature and a place where people can talk, where the discussion of ideas grows. The reason our government has gone the way it has is because education about how our government works and our roles have fallen off. Participation is the important piece.”
Since the table was set up a month ago, Steele said, the store has registered “a couple dozen people,” including some of its own staff members. The only pushback Left Bank has received to date was from Facebook, which refused to boost a post on Left Bank’s page promoting the voter registration drive due to its “political” nature.
A few weeks ago, Buffalo, N.Y.’s Talking Leaves Bookstore set up a display of books on politics, along with voter registration forms for New York residents. The store provides postage for those mailing in the forms, although there is a link on its website for those wanting to print out and mail in the forms themselves.
“We feel that it is the absolutely most important way for people to take control of their government,” said assistant manager Alicia Michielli. “We want to raise awareness, and we want to make it easier for people.” After all, she pointed out, registering voters is merely an extension of a bookstore’s core mission of “giving authors a voice and readers a way to find those voices.” Though, she said, she has mailed about a dozen filled-out forms from her customers to the local board of elections, her bookseller colleagues also have mailed in forms. Forms must be postmarked by October 12 for New Yorkers wanting to vote in November’s general election.
Michielli noted that she is allowed to pick up 100 blank registration forms at a time from the local board of elections. “It’s an ongoing process: it’s not just about this November; there’s an election in two years, and then again.” She added that the store is particularly committed to registering young people to vote: “It’s especially important for young people to show up, and take an interest in shaping our city, our state, and our country.”
Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minn., is also emphasizing its outreach to young people in its voter registration drive, which it launched in March and is continuing through the November election. Minnesota state law permits election day voter registration at polling places.
“We are an urban bookstore: we want to be active and activist,” said owner Sue Zumberge, noting that the store in downtown St. Paul is near two high schools and thus is preparing for an onslaught of first-time voter registrations once classes resume after Labor Day. Subtext registering voters and filing their forms for them, and its staff is also acting as witnesses for people filling out absentee voter ballots for the August 14 statewide primary races. Minnesota requires the signature of a witness to affirm the absentee voter’s identity, and the booksellers will also provide this service before the general election. “It’s easy for us to get the forms to the board of elections office within [the required] 10 days,” Zumberge said, disclosing that, to date, there have been more people asking for assistance with absentee ballots than with voter registration forms.
Subtext booksellers are also considering launching a voter registration drive this fall targeting homeless people in St. Paul. Zumberge noted, “If there’s another Women’s March, we’ll be out there with our clipboards. After all, we can register anyone in Minnesota.”
For the second year, Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., is holding a one-day voter registration drive as part of its ongoing series of Be the Change events addressing social justice and activism topics. Congressman Mike Capuano will make a presentation on August 25, during which he will encourage people to register either in person at the store or online. The deadline to register to vote in the general election in Massachusetts is October 17.
“The goal of our Be the Change series is to provide resources to our community so people will be more politically active,” said Josh Cook, Porter Square’s publicity manager. He noted that last year’s late-summer voter registration drive event prompted 30–40 people to register.
The Massachusetts legislature recently passed a bill that automatically registers as a voter any state resident who interacts with any state office, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. Cook noted with a laugh that if Gov. Charlie Baker signs it into law, the store will need to offer a new public service: “We’re just going to have to do something different next year.”