Root and Press Newsletter Worcester's Independent Blog, Cafe and Bookstore

I distinctly remember watching the Super Bowl as a child during the dot.com bubble. It seemed like every commercial was for some sort of online website - pets.com, etoyz.com, priceline.com, etc. The world was moving online, the experts said, and the decline of small businesses initiated by strip malls and big box stores would soon be punctuated with an e-commerce exclamation point. 

It didn't happen.

Fast forward a decade. The dot.com bubble burst but a slew of survivors, led by Amazon, slowly creep up to compete with book box stores and brick-and-mortars. As the recession hits around 2006-07, experts warn that small businesses cannot compete with retailers (online or not) who could offer cheaper prices than mom and pop shops. 

The number of independent bookstores increased from 2007-2015.

Now, as the ramifications of an extended COVID epidemic begin to take hold, experts again warn that small businesses will be pushed out as retailers move online. In the book world, several publishers have said they will focus on e-book/audio books, many will tailor their product toward mainstream retailers, and online algorithms and sales. The changes described above are in response to dwindling browsing time in-store, increased online shopping, and more "one-stop" shopping (i.e. buying groceries, books, and cosmetics together, for example.)

As a small business owner, we of course watch long-term trends with a particular interest, if not downright anxiety. Please, someone find me an industry or business that doesn't work within the ubiquitous "thin margins." We all feel the pinch and we are all looking for new opportunities and ideas. 

Still, I think the threat to the long-term vitality of small business is exaggerated. For a full generation we have heard the premonition of a marketplace devoid of independent businesses and, for a generation, customers have bucked this trend. As we price and sell books, we are aware the book can be had for cheaper elsewhere. We know there are places with a wider selection ready for immediate delivery. These facts are not lost on retailers or merchants.

Yet, we still open, we still go to work, not to someday become the next Amazon, but to become part of the fabric of a neighborhood or town or city. As economists forecast the death of Main Street, consumers steadfastly support their independent bakeries and bookshops, delis and pet stores. These shops, more than ever, seem to be essential businesses within the neighborhoods they operate. When we cannot or will not travel as we had been accustomed, the distinctiveness of our our neighborhoods is more vital than we had thought before.

If you read this letter, you have obviously shopped with us before and do not need a lesson on localism. Just know that for small businesses the fight never appears over and the newest threat is forever on the horizon. Keep supporting those businesses you cherish.

Book Blurbs

• Local Holy Cross historian (and Root and Press customer!) Jerry Lembcke recently reviewed the book War for Eternity: Inside Bannon's Far-Right Circle of Global Power Brokers. The review came on the heels of Bannon's arrest for fraud.

• We have a unique item in our shop - The Grip: The 1918 Pandemic and a City Under Siege. We wrote a blog about the title here. The Telegram and Gazette also featured the book this past Sunday. We sold out of the book this week - we will have more copies soon!

• Patriots fans: there is a new book titled Dynasty out now. The author works from the top down, arguing Robert Kraft's diplomatic charm was the cohesion that kept Belichick, Brady, and Co. successful for two decades. For a podcast, check out author Jeff Benedict's interview here.

• Last summer went by fast - we had just opened and it seemed Christmas came up quick. By the time the holiday season was over, and some sort of rhythm returned, the pandemic interrupted every semblance of normalcy. Since then has seemed like a whirlwind - it was illuminating to see a macro-version of book sales nationwide in this summary of a hectic spring/summer in bookselling. 

• Massachusetts historian and local favorite Jill Lepore recently sat for a fun interview with the NYT. She has a new book coming out this Tuesday! (See Below!)

Non-Fiction Releases of the Week

If, Then: How the Simulatics Corporation Invented the Future by Jill Lepore

The Simulmatics Corporation, launched during the Cold War, mined data, targeted voters, manipulated consumers, destabilized politics, and disordered knowledge--decades before Facebook, Google, and Cambridge Analytica. Jill Lepore, best-selling author of These Truths, came across the company's papers in MIT's archives and set out to tell this forgotten history, the long-lost backstory to the methods, and the arrogance, of Silicon Valley.

The scientists of Simulmatics believed they had invented "the A-bomb of the social sciences." They did not predict that it would take decades to detonate, like a long-buried grenade. But, in the early years of the twenty-first century, that bomb did detonate, creating a world in which corporations collect data and model behavior and target messages about the most ordinary of decisions, leaving people all over the world, long before the global pandemic, crushed by feelings of helplessness. This history has a past; If Then is its cautionary tale.

Love, Zac by Reid Forgrave

Zac Easter could be your neighbor, your classmate, your son.

In December 2015, Zac Easter, a twenty-four-year-old from small-town Iowa, decided to take his own life rather than continue his losing battle against the traumatic brain injuries he had sustained as a no-holds-barred high school football player.

For this deeply reported and powerfully moving true story, award-winning writer Reid Forgrave was given access to Zac's own diaries and was able to speak with Zac's family, friends, and coaches. He explores Zac's tight-knit, football-obsessed Midwestern community; he interviews leading brain scientists, psychologists, and sports historians; and he takes a deep dive into the triumphs and sins of the sports entertainment industry.

Forgrave shows us how football mirrors America, from the fighting spirit the game has helped inscribe in our national character to the side effects of the traditional notions of manhood that it affirms. But above all, Love, Zac is a warning to parents and those entrusted with the care of our kids not to ignore concussions and warning signs of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). For parents struggling to decide whether to allow their kids to play football, this eye-opening, heart-wrenching, and ultimately inspiring story may be one of the most important books they will read.

JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century by Fredrik Logevall

By the time of his assassination in 1963, John F. Kennedy stood at the helm of the greatest power the world had ever seen, a booming American nation that he had steered through some of the most perilous diplomatic standoffs of the Cold War. Born in 1917 to a striving Irish American family that had become among Boston's wealthiest, Kennedy knew political ambition from an early age, and his meteoric rise to become the youngest elected president cemented his status as one of the most mythologized figures in American history. And while hagiographic portrayals of his dazzling charisma, reports of his extramarital affairs, and disagreements over his political legacy have come and gone in the decades since his untimely death, these accounts all fail to capture the full person.

Beckoned by this gap in our historical knowledge, Fredrik Logevall has spent much of the last decade searching for the "real" JFK. The result of this prodigious effort is a sweeping two-volume biography that properly contextualizes Kennedy amidst the roiling American Century. This volume spans the first thirty-nine years of JFK's life--from birth through his decision to run for president--to reveal his early relationships, his formative experiences during World War II, his ideas, his writings, his political aspirations. In examining these pre-White House years, Logevall shows us a more serious, independently minded Kennedy than we've previously known, whose distinct international sensibility would prepare him to enter national politics at a critical moment in modern U.S. history.

Along the way, Logevall tells the parallel story of America's mid-century rise. As Kennedy comes of age, we see the charged debate between isolationists and interventionists in the years before Pearl Harbor; the tumult of the Second World War, through which the United States emerged as a global colossus; the outbreak and spread of the Cold War; the domestic politics of anti-Communism and the attendant scourge of McCarthyism; the growth of television's influence on politics; and more.

JFK: Coming of Age in the American Century, 1917-1956 is a sweeping history of the United States in the middle decades of the twentieth century, as well as the clearest portrait we have of this enigmatic American icon.

The Black Romantic Revolution: Abolitionist Poets at the End of Slavery by Matt Sandler

During the pitched battle over slavery in the United States, Black writers--enslaved and free--allied themselves with the cause of abolition and used their art to advocate for emancipation and to envision the end of slavery as a world-historical moment of possibility.

These Black writers borrowed from the European tradition of Romanticism--lyric poetry, prophetic visions--to write, speak, and sing their hopes for what freedom might mean. At the same time, they voiced anxieties about the expansion of global capital and US imperial power in the aftermath of slavery. They also focused on the ramifications of slavery's sexual violence. Authors like Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, George Moses Horton, Albery Allson Whitman, and Joshua McCarter Simpson conceived the Civil War as a revolutionary upheaval on par with Europe's stormy Age of Revolutions. The Black Romantic Revolution proposes that the Black Romantics' cultural innovations have shaped Black radical culture to this day, from the blues and hip hop to Black nationalism and Black feminism. Their expressions of love and rage, grief and determination, dreams and nightmares, still echo into our present.

Stephen Hawking: A Memoir of Friendship and Physics by Leonard Mlodinow 

One of the most influential physicists of our time, Stephen Hawking touched the lives of millions. Recalling his nearly two decades as Hawking's collaborator and friends, Leonard Mlodinow brings this complex man into focus in a unique and deeply personal portrayal. We meet Hawking the genius, who ours his mind into uncovering the mysteries of the universe--ultimately formulating a pathbreaking theory of black holes that reignites the discipline of cosmology and paves the way for physicists to investigate the origins of the universe in completely new ways. We meet Hawking the colleagues, a man whose illness leaves him able to communicate at only six words per minute but who expends the effort to punctuate his conversations with humor. And we meet Hawking the friend, who can convey volumes with a frown, a smile, or simply a raised eyebrow.

What Can I Do? by Jane Fonda

In the fall of 2019, frustrated with the obvious inaction of politicians and inspired by Greta Thunberg, Naomi Klein, and student climate strikers, Jane Fonda moved to Washington, D.C., to lead weekly climate change demonstrations on Capitol Hill. On October 11, she launched Fire Drill Fridays, and has since led thousands of people in nonviolent civil disobedience, risking arrest to protest for action. In What Can I Do?, Fonda weaves her deeply personal journey as an activist alongside conversations with and speeches by leading climate scientists and inspiring community organizers, and dives deep into the issues, such as water, migration, and human rights, to emphasize what is at stake. Most significantly, Fonda equips us all with the tools we need to join her in protest, so that everyone can work to combat the climate crisis.

No stranger to protest, Fonda's life has been famously shaped by activism. And now she is once again galvanizing the public to take to the streets. Many are already aware of the looming disaster of climate change and realize that a moral responsibility rests on our shoulders. In 2019, we saw atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases hit the highest level ever recorded in human history, and our window of opportunity to act is quickly closing. We are facing a climate crisis, but we're also facing an empathy crisis and an inequality crisis; the surge of protests over police violence against black Americans has once again highlighted the links between racism and environmental degradation in our country. It isn't only earth's life-support systems that are unraveling. So too is our social fabric. This is going to take an all-out war on drilling and fracking and deregulation and racism and misogyny and colonialism and despair all at the same time.

As Annie Leonard, executive director of Greenpeace USA and Fonda's partner in developing Fire Drill Fridays, has declared, "Change is inevitable; by design, or by disaster." Together, we can commandeer change for the positive--but it will require collective actions taken by social movements on an unprecedented scale. The problems we face now require every one of us to join the fight. The fight for not only our immediate future, but for the future of generations to come.

100% of the author's net proceeds from What Can I Do? will go to Greenpeace.

Fiction Releases of the Week

Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove and "writer of astonishing depth" (The Washington Times) comes a poignant, charming novel about a crime that never took place, a would-be bank robber who disappears into thin air, and eight extremely anxious strangers who find they have more in common than they ever imagined.

Looking at real estate isn't usually a life-or-death situation, but an apartment open house becomes just that when a failed bank robber bursts in and takes a group of strangers hostage. The captives include a recently retired couple who relentlessly hunt down fixer-uppers to avoid the painful truth that they can't fix their own marriage. There's a wealthy bank director who has been too busy to care about anyone else and a young couple who are about to have their first child but can't seem to agree on anything, from where they want to live to how they met in the first place. Add to the mix an eighty-seven-year-old woman who has lived long enough not to be afraid of someone waving a gun in her face, a flustered but still-ready-to-make-a-deal real estate agent, and a mystery man who has locked himself in the apartment's only bathroom, and you've got the worst group of hostages in the world.

Each of them carries a lifetime of grievances, hurts, secrets, and passions that are ready to boil over. None of them is entirely who they appear to be. And all of them--the bank robber included--desperately crave some sort of rescue. As the authorities and the media surround the premises these reluctant allies will reveal surprising truths about themselves and set in motion a chain of events so unexpected that even they can hardly explain what happens next.

Rich with Fredrik Backman's "pitch-perfect dialogue and an unparalleled understanding of human nature" (Shelf Awareness), Anxious People is an ingeniously constructed story about the enduring power of friendship, forgiveness, and hope--the things that save us, even in the most anxious times.

What Are You Going Through by Sigrid Nunez

The New York Times-bestselling, National Book Award-winning author of The Friend brings her singular voice to a story about the meaning of life and death, and the value of companionship.

A woman describes a series of encounters she has with various people in the ordinary course of her life: an ex she runs into by chance at a public forum, an Airbnb owner unsure how to interact with her guests, a stranger who seeks help comforting his elderly mother, a friend of her youth now hospitalized with terminal cancer. In each of these people the woman finds a common need: the urge to talk about themselves and to have an audience to their experiences. The narrator orchestrates this chorus of voices for the most part as a passive listener, until one of them makes an extraordinary request, drawing her into an intense and transformative experience of her own.

In What Are You Going Through, Nunez brings wisdom, humor, and insight to a novel about human connection and the changing nature of relationships in our times. A surprising story about empathy and the unusual ways one person can help another through hardship, her book offers a moving and provocative portrait of the way we live now.

Kid's Corner

Jabari Tries by Gaia Cornwall

Jabari is inventing a machine that will fly all the way across the yard! But making it go from CRASH to WHOOSH will take grit, patience, and maybe even a little help from his sister.

Jabari is making a flying machine in his backyard! "It'll be easy. I don't need any help," he declares. But it doesn't work! Jabari is frustrated. Good thing Dad is there for a pep talk and his little sister, Nika, is there to assist, fairy wings and all. With the endearing father-child dynamic of Jabari Jumps and engaging mixed-media illustrations, Gaia Cornwall's tale shows that through perseverance and flexibility, an inventive thought can become a brilliant reality.

Love is Powerful by Heather Dean Brewer

A little girl carries a big message--and finds it thrillingly amplified by the rallying crowd around her--in an empowering story for the youngest of activists.

Mari raised her sign for everyone to see.
Even though she was small and the crowd was very big,
and she didn't think anyone would hear,
she yelled out.

Mari is getting ready to make a sign with crayon as the streets below her fill up with people. "What are we making, Mama?" she asks. "A message for the world," Mama says. "How will the whole world hear?" Mari wonders. "They'll hear," says Mama, "because love is powerful." Inspired by a girl who participated in the January 2017 Women's March in New York City, Heather Dean Brewer's simple and uplifting story, delightfully illustrated by LeUyen Pham, is a reminder of what young people can do to promote change and equality at a time when our country is divided by politics, race, gender, and religion.

Leif and the Fall by Allison Sweet Grant

Persistence and creativity can lead to amazing things, as Leif the leaf discovers in this lovely storybook from Allison Sweet Grant and Adam Grant, the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Originals.

Leif is a leaf. A worried leaf. It is autumn, and Leif is afraid to fall. "All leaves fall in the fall," say the other leaves. But Leif is determined to find a different way down, and with his friend Laurel, he uses the resources around him to create a net, a kite, a parachute in hopes of softening his landing. The clock is ticking, the wind is blowing. What will happen when a gust of wind pulls Leif from his branch?

In a culture that prizes achievement, kids are often afraid to fail--failing to realize that some of the very ideas that don't work are steps along the path to ones that will.