A few days after the November election Shannon Casey headed to Reach and Teach, an independent bookstore on San Mateo’s 25th Avenue. Near the checkout counter she picked up two coloring books for her children — “Sometimes the Spoon Runs Away with Another Spoon” and “Girls are not Chicks.”
Casey, who lives in Mountain View with her wife and two children, said she went to Reach and Teach to shop for books and find solace after feeling devastated by Donald Trump’s victory. She wasn’t the only one to head there. The week of the election the bookstore’s sales doubled compared to the same week in November last year.
“I tell Craig and Derrick this is therapy,” Casey said, referring to the married owners, Derrick Kikuchi and Craig Wiesner. “I come here and I can get back to what grounds me and connect to who I am. I’ve seen people walk in with very different views and they’re welcome. And that’s the world, I want to live in.”
Kikuchi and Wiesner offer books on gender and sexual equality and other social justice issues, the demand for which was highlighted during a presidential election and the aftermath, which brought homophobia, racism and sexism into the national conversation.
“People were saying things within the election, within the dialogue, were causing their kids to be asking questions about how you treated other people, what you said about other people,” Kikuchi said. “There was a fear. They [customers] were looking for hope and many I think left with it.”
The store — unique in its offerings for the Peninsula — is designed to be as inviting as possible. A rainbow sticker appears in the window. Upon entering the shop, the smell of freshly brewed tea fills the air. A waterfall and soft music create sounds out of a yoga class.
Kikuchi and Wiesner opened the bookstore in San Mateo, nine years ago. The couple said they feel the shop and its books are more important than ever, after the hate speech sparked by the election season.
LGBTQ activists, Kikuchi and Wiesner said the store acts as a meeting space for members of the community to talk, read, learn and celebrate diversity. Various community groups have also used the space to host events. Starting in January the store will host a monthly LGBTQ book club to further support members of the queer community, in what feels like an increasingly hostile political climate.
The owners believe in the power of storytelling to build compassion and empathy. Their mission is to use books as tools to create meaningful discussions and teachable moments, between adults and children.
“We have a dear friend who believes, and I agree, the shortest distance between two people is a story. And the difference between an enemy and a friend is a story,” Wiesner said. “When we pick stories for this place, we choose ones that we hope are going to have that kind of impact.”
What sets Reach and Teach apart from other bookstores is the selection of books intended to affirm the lives of marginalized individuals, particularly LGBT or gender-queer people. Many of their books also emphasize social justice and activism.
Along the walls, decorated with handmade items and inspiring posters, are endless bookshelves filled with traditional genres of fiction and non-fiction but featuring unique labels including Gender Equality/Diversity, Special Needs and Peace/Anti-Bullying.
Kikuchi and Wiesner were inspired to open the shop, after years of international philanthropic work, including an interfaith trip to Afghanistan after the Sept. 11 attacks. They spent one year following the trip dedicated to sharing stories about Afghan families and the importance of peacemaking with local schools and community organizations.
The couple’s passion for diverse books also stems from their own experiences with children’s literature. “Both coming to terms with sexual orientation but also being Japanese, to be able to see myself in some of the stories, would have been really helpful,” Kikuchi said.
Wiesner said: “There were just no role models. There were no stories that were affirming or characters that I could look at and say, ‘oh I can grow up to be that person.’”
Growing up, Casey, a bookstore regular, explained she also struggled to see herself in the characters of books. Still, she sought refuge in reading, especially in middle school when she began struggling with gender issues.
“Books saved my life,” Casey said. “It was the only place that I saw that I had, that I wasn’t a freak. It was the only place, where I could read about the world, I wanted to live in.”
Casey said books published and sold by Reach and Teach, such as the children’s book “Operation Marriage,” a story about a family living in the Bay Area with two moms and two children, helped her son and daughter feel visible and celebrated.
She said this wasn’t the type of literature they were seeing at school. In fact, at the start of each school year, Casey gifts books from Reach and Teach to her children’s classrooms.
“We see a mix, I see some teachers who come in here and buy a bunch of books,” Wiesner said. “I have others who come in and say, ‘I would love to take this but my principal would fire me, if I were to do that.’”
With California’s passing of the Fair Act in 2012, a law mandating the inclusion of LGBTQ and other minority groups in history education, and a new social studies curriculum in development, Kikuchi and Wiesner said they are eager to welcome more visitors in search of books, which embrace diversity.
Before leaving Reach and Teach on a Friday afternoon, Gretchen Warner, another frequent customer and retired educator, purchased books for her church’s Sunday school class. Warner also visited the shop, during and after the election, to buy books and talk with the store’s owners.
Books “develop compassion maybe in a world where people don’t live close enough to each other to get to know each other.” Warner said. “This is all about getting to know people. That’s my firm belief. If we don’t know each other, how can we understand each other?”