6 Bookstores Across the U.S. That Give Back

From raising up underserved communities to fighting book bans, these indie shops are on a mission.


Birchbark Books is a community hub for the “Indigirati” of Minneapolis.

Photo by Jaida Grey Eagle

You’ve most certainly heard news that reading is under attack in this country, and it’s not hard to imagine why: Knowledge, as they say, is power. Luckily, a small army of mission-driven, activist-owned bookshops across the country, from Asheville to Seattle, are fighting the good fight. Some offer community gathering spaces and literacy-related workshops; others donate proceeds to important causes or amplify voices of underserved communities that are so often left out of the literary establishment. The next time you’re in one of these cities, be sure to stop by, strike up a conversation with the team, and browse the shelves—or consider buying your next online purchase from one of their shops.

Firestorm Books, Asheville

This North Carolina bookstore is run by a queer, feminist, anarchist collective dedicated to marginalized communities across southern Appalachia, and it hosts a busy roster of events that include political prisoner letter-writing nights and open hours to learn about how to unionize. The shop recently started the super-badass Banned Books Back! program. When a public school district in Florida banned 47 books that covered topics like racism, colonialism, and transgender equality, Firestorm stepped in to rescue 22,500 copies from being “pulped.” Now, they’re shipping them back out, free of charge, to students across Florida, with more book-banning states (Texas, Missouri, Utah, and South Carolina) to follow. If you’re not going to Asheville any time soon, you can donate here to help cover shipping costs or buy a “Trash Fascism, Not Books” benefit sticker ($10), which features an illustration of a Maus-reading opossum by tattoo artist Des Revol.

Housing Works Bookstore, New York City

Located on Crosby Street in Soho, this retail arm of the Housing Works nonprofit is on a mission to end the unhoused and HIV/AIDS crises in the city. Staff members are volunteers and nearly everything on the shelves—from books to records—is donated, so 100 percent of the profits can go toward programs like advocacy, housing, community healthcare, and LGBTQ+ youth support. In addition to the bookstore, Housing Works also raises money through its nine thrift shops, and in December 2022, it opened New York State’s first licensed recreational cannabis dispensary. It features products from LGBTQ+-, BIPOC-, and women-led brands, as these are the groups that have been disproportionately impacted by criminalization.

Birchbark Books, Minneapolis

This beloved neighborhood bookshop is owned by Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist Louise Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians; her grandfather was the tribal chairman. She designed it to be a hub for the “Indigirati,” who she describes as “literate Indigenous people who have survived over half a millennium on this continent.” The store is lovingly cobbled together from salvaged and reused building materials, with books that run the gamut from Native language revitalization and Indigenous history to cookbooks (by the likes of Minnesota’s “Sioux Chef,” Sean Sherman). It also sells crafts, including red willow baskets, star quilts, bead-and-quill earrings, and birdhouses made from upcycled barnwood. Many of its books would never be found on shelves in other bookstores, and the store is also dedicated to helping schools fill their libraries with works by Indigenous authors.

Open Books, Chicago

Chicago’s first and largest nonprofit bookstore takes in about 1.5 million donated books each year, and all of the proceeds it makes from reselling them go toward literacy programs both in stores and at area schools: participatory storytime for pre-readers, one-on-one reading buddies for elementary students, and book grants for all ages. Since its founding in 2006, Open Books has expanded to three stores in the West Loop, Pilsen, and Logan Square neighborhoods, and it recently opened a location in North Lawndale where all books for kids are completely free and adult books are pay-what-you-want. If you’re not going to be blowing through the Windy City any time soon, you can make a donation on the shop’s website.

The Salt Eaters Bookshop, Inglewood, California

Noticing a gap in the L.A. literary market, Asha Grant opened this feminist indie shop which prioritizes works by and about Black women, girls, femmes, and nonbinary people. Named for the novel by activist Toni Cade Bambara, the store is located, appropriately, on Queen Street in Inglewood, and the space is designed to feel like a warm hug, with repurposed church pews, collaboratively made quilts, and bright pink, Zora Neale Hurston–patterned wallpaper. Beyond simply serving as a community hub, Salt Eaters runs a robust series of author chats, listening parties, documentary screenings, and workshops on topics like small-business taxes and self-care. Keep an eye out for the Chat & Chew series, which combines a book club with a themed meal prepared by Hazel Powers, a home cook, doula, and sociologist of Gullah Geechee heritage.

Left Bank Books, Seattle

A radical bookshop tucked away in the tourist-magnet Pike Place Market, Left Bank Books celebrated a half-century of collective ownership last year. It’s a worthy stop in one of only two UNESCO Cities of Literature in the United States (the other being Iowa City). The shelves are stocked with zines and books on topics like anarchism, political philosophy, gender studies, and contemporary poetry, some of which is produced by Left Bank’s own in-house publisher. The store also sponsors the Books to Prisoners program, which mails reading materials to incarcerated individuals in an effort to halt the cycle of recidivism and promote self-improvement through literacy. Its calendar of events also includes an open mic night for queer and trans poets of color and events with folks like feminist historian Angela Hume, whose new book Deep Care charts the activists who defied the law to provide abortions before Roe v. Wade.

Nicholas DeRenzo is a freelance travel and culture writer based in Brooklyn. A graduate of NYU’s Cultural Reporting and Criticism program, he worked as an editor at Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel and, most recently, as executive editor at Hemispheres, the in-flight magazine of United Airlines. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, New York, Travel + Leisure, Condé Nast Traveler, Sunset, Wine Enthusiast, and more.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR