Like so many major cities, Philadelphia has been rocked by the events of the past year. Police shootings, COVID-19, a close presidential election, and decades of systemic injustice for marginalized communities have taken a heavy toll on the city and on the book community. But the book scene here is both surviving and creating powerful initiatives to share hope and support with our residents.
The most recent example is the Healing Verse Philly Poetry Line. Interviewed by The Philadelphia Inquirer, Philadelphia poet laureate Trapeta B. Mayson said that “now, more than ever, we need spaces to process.” When you call the toll-free number (1-855-763-6792), Mayson’s voice greets you with a recorded message and introduces the project, which offers an affirming poem by a Philadelphia-connected poet as well as information about events and mental health resources. They plan to offer a new poem every Monday; I will definitely be calling back. The 90 seconds I spent listening to the current poem (January 8, at the time of writing) was a welcome respite in a day that continues to bring stressful news as well as the mundane, wearying demands of living and working in a pandemic.
As I said, this is just the latest such project; since March and the beginning of lockdown, my inbox and my feeds have been full of literary organizations and businesses taking action.
Blue Stoop, a community that aims to “support writers, foster creativity, and build inclusive literary community,” had been organizing in-person events and readings, but when the pandemic hit they shifted to virtual events. In addition to writing classes, they’re also hosting weekly Zoom sessions that are free to all comers, and range from open mics to co-writing to more supportive fare. For example, January 13’s “Sit & Write” will include a conversation about mutual accountability. They have an entire page dedicated to COVID-19 resources for writers, including links to grants, funds, unemployment assistance, and more.
The 215 Festival, started in 2015 with a vision to produce an annual day-long literary festival as well as other smaller events, is a cosponsor of the Philadelphia Writers Emergency Fund, which raised over $17,000 for writers affected by the pandemic. Harriet’s Bookshop, a Black-owned bookshop that was targeted by racist threats and emails this past summer, organized a protest sit-in in October that included music and dance, as well as distribution of books about the caste system. Uncle Bobbie’s, also a Black-owned indie bookstore and my local, was repeatedly vandalized; they’ve not only stayed open with the help of the community, but hold regular virtual events to celebrate and support authors (many of them local) with new books coming out. The Philadelphia Free Library, which has had a reckoning with their own internal issues around systemic racism, is running a huge slate of virtual programming, with everything from Minecraft and Animal Crossing group play to language-learning circles, mindfulness meditations, and activity kits.
And these are just some of the organizational efforts; on my walks around the city, I’ve seen several Little Free Libraries with books and signage promoting antiracism and mutual aid; many were stocked with canned goods and toilet paper as well as books. It’s been a much-needed balm to see the many ways in which my fellow book lovers are banding together, supporting each other, and reaching out to those in need, and I’m proud to be a member of this community. Here’s to continuing and supporting these efforts as we move into 2021!
Looking for more stories about how the book world is responding to the pandemic? Check out our COVID-19 Updates page.