Out of the concern that Americans’ political factions stifle conversation, Reimagining Bookstores led an interactive session, “Moving from Debate to Dialog in Divided Times,” on May 26. Facilitator Peggy Holman interviewed Mónica Guzmán, a journalist at the cross-partisan Braver Angels, about Guzmán’s I Never Thought of It That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times (BenBella Books). After their talk, audience members joined four-person breakout rooms to address the question “What is a courageous conversation that you are longing to have?”

Kepler’s Books CEO Praveen Madan, a board member at Kepler’s Literary Foundation, billed the event as a pilot for Reimagining Bookstores, which launched in October 2021. “Our mission is ‘deepening literacy, strengthening communities, paying living wages,’” said Madan. “Bookstores can play a key role in reducing polarization and divisions in our society.” He and Holman designed this gathering, co-sponsored by Haight-Ashbury’s Booksmith and Berkeley Arts and Letters, to outline an unpredictable and productive meeting of minds.

Like Madan, community organizer Holman envisions bookstores as civic centers. Holman is the author of Engaging Emergence (Berrett-Koehler) and co-founder of the nonprofit Journalism That Matters. “For me, the work we are doing is about re-knitting the fabric of communities as we reimagine the public square,” she said.

Holman struck an optimistic note, but for many in the audience, that reimagined public square is scary. When Holman polled attendees on their appetite for ideological discussion with a multiple-choice range from “it energizes me” to “it makes me nervous,” several picked none-of-the-above: “it terrifies me.”

As “the proud liberal daughter of conservative parents,” a dual Mexican and American citizen whose family immigrated to the U.S., Guzmán marches headlong into debates that weary the conflict-averse. “Looking at the social-science research, we are so divided, we’re blinded,” she said. We have “legitimate anxiety about what people who disagree with us want to do and whether we’re safe, [but] most of the time, you will be able to release your fear when you come up close to someone who disagrees with you.”

Guzmán believes conversations fail due to factors like “containment” (a reactionary social-media audience dooms one-to-one discussion) and “parity” (a perceived pecking order results in an effort to assert dominance). “Conversation is a miracle—there are so many layers to it,” Guzmán said. “We tend to want to make conversations about whose opinion wins rather than what makes each of us understandable.”

Her method is to “turn people into storytellers.” She recommends asking others how they came to their beliefs and listening to their experiences. “Most of the time, by far, they will show you things you haven’t considered,” she said. “When a conversation that might be tense switches from arguing into someone telling a story, our brains go into a different mode.” She told listeners to “get one bit more curious” about others’ perspectives.

Primed by these ideas, the audience received instructions for 20-minute small-group “courageous conversations,” where they were to consider their intentions around raising controversial topics (for instance, when scheduling a bookstore event). “If you’re not the one talking, your job is to just listen,” Holman explained. “I’m going to give you one piece of advice: If you are moved to give advice, don’t.”

Not everyone stuck around as some left their cameras and mics off for the duration of the breakout session. The proceedings recalled an office retreat (with illustrator Sara Nuttle creating a whiteboard-style graphic of the soundbites), and many decided that civil discourse and curiosity—while glorious ideals—were hard to maintain under the stress of emotional triggers.

Guzmán assured the gathering that her job puts her in touch with politicians, organizations, and workshops “fighting back against the toxicity. I’m seeing warriors, and the warriors are more powerful than you think.” Participants, despite justifiable skepticism, left the Reimagining Bookstores event with ideas for convening a salon or safe discussion space.