We got the call two days in advance—Michigan’s U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow would be in town on Saturday, and she wanted to stop at our bookstore. Would early afternoon be convenient?
My manager conveyed the news to me in such a casual way that I thought she was either joking or I was misunderstanding. No one would blame me for doubting. Our town is tiny, rural, and a good two hours away from the state capitol. While it wasn’t unlikely that our Senator would want to visit our bookstore, it felt surprising. But we weren’t about to say no.
Not even ten days had passed since the election. Our county had gone overwhelmingly red, and so had the surrounding counties. Just the day before, an argumentative customer with a gun on his hip had come into the store and put us all on edge. We’re located a university town, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is open-minded and welcoming. My friend who works in student housing told me how she had to scramble the day after the election to find escorts for the Muslim students who didn’t feel safe walking to class. Many people were depressed, and many people hoisted their Confederate flags.
We had no reason to believe that Senator Stabenow’s visit would be impeded, but I worried about it anyway as I dusted every shelf, rearranged displays, and shuffled hundreds of books around to prepare for the visit. I spread the word, but quietly. Senator Stabenow had already publicly spoken out against Steve Bannon, and I was eager to shake her hand and thank her for that. Selfishly, I didn’t want anyone showing up to the bookstore and disrupting that moment.
We started getting calls the day before, inquiring about the visit. “Is it true that the Senator is visiting here?” I couldn’t help the disbelief in my own voice when I responded, “That’s what we’ve been told.” I informed the customers I knew would want to know, and was surprised but delighted to find the news engaged two regulars, strangers to each other, in a lively but polite debate at the front counter after they’d made their purchases. Word spread, and the excitement began to build. A half hour before the Senator was scheduled to arrive, thirty people browsed our shelves with one eye each on the front door.
Senator Stabenow arrived neatly on time. She’s tall and gracious, and she walked through the front door alone. My manager greeted her and informed her that there was a group eager to meet her. She happily made her way through the store, stopping to shake hands with every person and make small talk. I enjoyed the double take her aide made as she followed the Senator moments later, clearly surprised at the number of people who had shown up. Our group ended up at the back of the store, gathered around a table of coffee and cookies, and Senator Stabenow spent almost an hour talking with us, answering questions, and sharing her own concerns. She expressed a willingness to work with the president-elect, as long as his leadership was inclusive. But if he insisted on dividing the people, she declared, “count me out.” She shared her dismay at how difficult it is to know where to look when fast and inaccurate news sources bombard us with information, and she encouraged to keep fighting, but to be thoughtful.
As Senator Stabenow made her way out of the store, my friends and YA writers Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy gave her a copy of Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli as thanks for her hard work. Earlier that week, Becky Albertalli had celebrated her birthday and asked her social media followers for one gift—to call their representatives and speak out against Bannon’s appointment. Amy Rose and Cori had done so, and Amy Rose had the excellent idea to follow up this action by gifting Senator Stabenow with a copy of Becky’s book. The Senator was truly delighted, and seeing her excitement made me thankful that we are represented by someone who loves books.
It was clear that not everyone gathered on that cold, snowy Saturday afternoon agreed on all of the issues that came up, yet the hour that we spent with Senator Stabenow never felt contentious. Instead, it was hopeful. It was also evident to me that we all needed this day. We needed to feel a sense of community with the people who were likewise distressed by the election results and the president-elect’s early decisions. We needed to remember that we weren’t isolated, and that we not only had each other, but a place to meet. Senator Stabenow urged us to keep talking, keep meeting, and above all, keep reading.