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Mexico’s water crisis heats up as transfer to US looms

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Mexico City, Mexico –  Carrying sticks and stones, thousands of farmers descended on La Boquilla dam in Mexico’s northern state of Chihuahua in early September to voice their anger over a looming transfer of millions of cubic metres of water to the United States.

Waiting for them at the site on the Rio Conchos river on September 8 was a group of several hundred National Guard troops, who quickly abandoned their posts. Farmers turned off the valves, and weeks later, they remain at La Boquilla – demanding the transfer be cancelled.

The scene highlights a long-brewing conflict between Mexico’s federal government and local farmers over the water transfer, which is mandated under a 1944 treaty between Mexico and its northern neighbour.

The farmers, hard hit by drought, say the transfer would leave them unable to sustain their livelihoods, and the conflict has worsened tensions between the state and federal government in Mexico over the source of dwindling water resources.

Members of the Mexican National Guard patrol as farmers take part in a protest against the decision to divert water from La Boquilla dam to the US [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

“The root of the problem is the misuse, mismanagement and distribution of water by Conagua,” said Salvador Alcantar, president of the Association of Irrigation Users of the State of Chihuahua (Aurech), referring to Mexico’s federal water regulator.

There has been a lack of transparency, Alcantar told Al Jazeera, and roundtable discussions between the various stakeholders have floundered. Aurech members were among the protesters who occupied La Boquilla (“The Nozzle”) last month.

“Not being able to demonstrate technically or legally what they were doing, they [Conagua] decided to use force,” Alcantar said about the crackdown on protesters.

Brewing tensions

The water transfers between Mexico and the US are governed by a 1944 treaty to ensure the mutually beneficial use of water in agricultural areas on both sides of the border. Under the agreement, Mexico receives from the US four times the amount of water it sends north.

More specifically, the US sends approximately 1,185 million cubic metres (MCM) to Mexico each year, according to Mexican government figures, while Mexico is required to send 431 million cubic metres to the US annually.

Most of that water comes from the state of Chihuahua’s Rio Conchos, the main tributary of the Rio Bravo, which starts in the Sierra de Chihuahua. Known as the Rio Grande in the US, the Rio Bravo begins in Colorado and flows into the Gulf of Mexico, for long stretches forming a natural border between Mexico and the US.

But the treaty allows Mexico to make its transfers over five years – a safeguard against unpredictable rainfall, or other conditions – meaning that it can deliver its total of 2,155 MCM at any point over that period.

Farmers, among other people, protest in Delicias, Chihuahua state, on September 20 against the decision to divert water from La Boquilla dam [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Mexico now owes the US 426 MCM of water, and it must transfer that total amount by October 24.

“Chihuahua has to [provide] 54 percent [of that amount], because the principal river which contributes to the Rio Bravo is the Rio Conchos,” explained Víctor Quintana, a social activist, writer and sociologist, and member of the Morena party of President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador.

“It’s an agreement which is advantageous for Mexico, but disadvantageous for Chihuahua,” he said.

The 1944 treaty is overseen by the International Boundary and Water Commission, jointly comprised of the US Department of State and the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Relations.

As the federal government body responsible for water throughout the country, the National Water Commission, Conagua, has been the focus of consistent criticism and the target of farmers’ anger. Several times over the last months Conagua vehicles have been set alight.

The agency has repeatedly rejected claims it has acted inappropriately. The group’s general coordinator of communications, Jose Luis Juarez, told Mexican investigative journalism outlet Contralinea last month that Conagua “categorically rejects” the allegation “that corruption practices are tolerated”.

The root of the problem is the misuse, mismanagement and distribution of water by Conagua

Salvador Alcantar, president of the Association of Irrigation Users of the State of Chihuahua

Still, tensions between farmers and the federal government are exacerbated by a severe drought in Chihuahua, where the state government called on federal authorities to declare a natural disaster due to drought in 52 of the state’s municipalities.

Illegal extraction, weak infrastructure

The water crisis in Chihuahua is fuelled by two main issues, according to investigative journalist Ignacio Alvarado, who is from Chihuahua and has investigated conflicts tied to natural resources: the illegal extraction of water and the rudimentary infrastructure of dams and canals.

The scarcity of water in Chihuahua has made it a lucrative source of income for many, explained Alvarado, adding that, apart from organised crime, the extraction of “water is possibly, more so than the extraction of minerals, the detonator of most violence in the state”.

Quintana, also an expert on the politics of water, argues that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is also a factor in the state’s water crisis, affecting rural Chihuahua and its dry, arid climate, and making it more difficult for local farmers to remain competitive in the US.

The Chihuahuan desert, which runs from the US state of Colorado to the central Mexican highlands, has faced increasing challenges in recent years, especially related to the Rio Bravo’s water levels. “Climate change and over-extraction threaten the river’s future, and all who depend on it,” a 2015 World Wildlife Fund report warned.

The situation is also exacerbated by severe overexploitation of wells and aquifers, Jeffrey Jones, a former senator for Chihuahua for the National Action Party (PAN), explained. “There continue to be more and more wells extended across areas where the [extraction] rights have been overextended,” he said.

“The overexploitation of wells is an extremely grave problem.”

Political front

The water conflict turned deadly on September 8, the same night that clashes took place between National Guard troops and farmers at the dam. The National Guard has been accused of killing a protester, Yesica Silva, and seriously injuring her husband in the town of Delicias.

The agency said the death occurred after its officers “repelled aggression” and Mexico’s president has called for an investigation into whether Silva was killed by the National Guard, Reuters reported.

The dispute also has increasingly shifted into the political realm, with some arguing that the dispute is being used by right-wing parties to attack the government of Lopez Obrador ahead of state elections next year.

People hold placards to remember a protester, Yesica Silva, who was killed on September 8 [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Quintana said that while the farmers’ protests are legitimate, “groups tied to National Action [PAN], including from Frena [the National Anti-AMLO front]” are increasingly getting involved in the conflict, and could help create a front against Lopez Obrador.

Frena – a self-described citizens’ movement – is pushing for Lopez Obrador’s resignation. On September 23, the group set up a protest camp in Mexico City’s main Zocalo plaza to demand the president step down.

Former PAN president, Felipe Calderon, has pledged his solidarity to the organisation, though Frena has publicly distanced itself from political parties.

Alcantar, the Aurech president, acknowledged that some farmers and farmers’ organisations have made tactical alliances with politicians and political parties, such as the PAN, as a way to put pressure on the federal government to commit to a dialogue.

He stressed, however, that “we are united, but not in each others’ pockets”.

In a move that some speculated was an attempt to divide opposition to the federal government, a “dialogue table” was agreed on between the federal government and mayors from 10 Chihuahua municipalities on September 21.

Mexico”s President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador said last month that he would ‘cleanse’ Conagua, the water regulator, amid corruption allegations [File: Henry Romero/Reuters]

The 10 mayors, however, were all from the PRI. Notably absent was the PAN governor of Chihuahua, Javier Corral.

In a sign of the deepening acrimony between the Lopez Obrador government in Mexico City and Chihuahua’s state government, Corral accused the federal government of withdrawing the security cooperation of the army and federal police in the state.

He wrote on Twitter that the move was retribution for the situation at La Boquilla.

US-Mexico relations

Meanwhile, on September 24, Lopez Obrador announced a “cleansing” of Conagua, saying the state had been “taken over” by the PAN. He also warned that it was “very irresponsible” to put Mexico’s relationship with the US at risk for the sake of “wanting to win an election in a state”.

Local media recently reported that the Mexican government is negotiating with the US to try to find a way of meeting its contractual obligations by taking water from other dams.

The US presidential election is just over a week after the treaty deadline of October 24 and Lopez Obrador is highly unlikely to allow the potentially negative consequences of a missed water transfer.

While US President Donald Trump has not weighed in on the current water crisis in Chihuahua, Texas Governor Greg Abbott on September 15 wrote to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asking for his assistance to guarantee Mexico’s compliance.

With a continuing drought, Chihuahua state elections next year and a political climate that is increasingly polarised in both Mexico and the US, the fallout from Chihuahua’s water crisis could be significant.

“There needs to be dialogue,” Jones told Al Jazeera, “but it should have been started a long time before now.”

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In SNL’s cold open, the final presidential debate becomes an absurd slugfest over coronavirus

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Saturday Night Live parodied the final presidential debate during its opening sketch on Saturday, depicting President Donald Trump as clueless and callous about the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as comically old-fashioned and goofy about everything.

Maya Rudolph, playing moderator and NBC journalist Kristen Welker, began the debate by reminding the participants that she had a mute button — a feature that was added to the actual final debate because of Trump’s relentless interruptions during the first debate in September.

“Tonight we have a mute button, because it was either that or tranquilizer darts — and the president has a very high tolerance for those after his Covid treatment,” Rudolph’s Welker declared.

[embedded content]

As the debate began, Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, immediately downplayed the virus as worthy of the public’s concern.

“Coronavirus — boring, right? We’re doing terrific,” Baldwin said. “We’re rounding the corner, in fact we’ve rounded so many corners we’ve gone all the way around the block that we’re back where we started in March.”

Biden, played by Jim Carrey, retorted, “C’mon man, we’re in the middle of a third wave! Where I come from if a girl gave you a third wave, you were practically married.”

Later on, Baldwin’s Trump promised that a coronavirus vaccine would be distributed by the military in spectacular fashion: “The army will come and shoot it with a cannon into your face.”

He then rambled about his own experience with Covid-19.

“Look, I had it, it was very mean to me, but I beat it, and now the doctors say I can never die,” Baldwin said. “And this virus said to me, ‘Sir, sir, I have to leave your body.’ Now the virus was crying, very sad. It didn’t want to leave my body. And the point is we’re all learning to live with it.”

Dramatizing the actual Biden’s response to Trump saying, “We’re learning to live with it,” on Thursday, Carrey said with a squint, “Learning to live with it? We’re learning to die with it man!”

Overall, Biden’s debate performance was characterized as “a little feisty,” and SNL satirized this by having Rudolph’s Welker halt the proceedings to observe, “Looks like Mr. Biden is so mad he’s Eastwooding it a little bit,” in a reference to actor and director Clint Eastwood.

“That’s right, now I believe the little lady asked you about a plan, why don’t you enlighten us, punk?” Carrey said.

Rudy Giuliani, played by Kate McKinnon, also made a brief appearance during the debate.

“Get ready for this truth bomb!” McKinnon’s Giuliani shouted. “Your son Hunter got $3 million from Moscow and his friend Tony Babdooey has emails right there on the wet laptop from hell! And our eyewitness saw everything and he is blind!”

The statement is a reference to a questionable story published by the New York Post alleging the discovery of inappropriate emails by Hunter Biden on a laptop dropped off at a repair shop. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop recently explained, “questions have been raised about whether that story is accurate and whether all the information allegedly on the laptop is authentic.”

In making his closing statement, Carrey’s Biden presented himself as the safe option by likening himself to a reliable car.

“Look, everybody, you know who he is and you know who I am,” he said. “I’m good old Joe. I’m reliable as a rock. I’ve got a five-star safety rating and I’m ranked best midsize in my class by J.D. Power and Associates. I don’t have a gold toilet seat. I have a soft, spongy one that hisses whenever I park my keister.”

“There’s only two things I do,” he added. “I kick ass and I take trains. And I don’t see any trains in sight. And that ladies in gentlemen, is no malarkey.”

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‘Boycott French products’ launched over Macron’s Islam comments

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Several Arab trade associations have announced the boycott of French products, protesting the recent comments made by President Emmanuel Macron on Islam.

Earlier this month, Macron pledged to fight “Islamist separatism”, which he said was threatening to take control in some Muslim communities around France.

He also described Islam as a religion “in crisis” worldwide and said the government would present a bill in December to strengthen a 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.

His comments, in addition to his backing of satirical outlets publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, has led to a social media campaign calling for the boycott of French products from supermarkets in Arab countries and Turkey.

Hashtags such as the #BoycottFrenchProducts in English and the Arabic #ExceptGodsMessenger trended across countries including Kuwait, Qatar, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

In Kuwait, the chairman and members of the board of directors of the Al-Naeem Cooperative Society decided to boycott all French products and to remove them from supermarket shelves.

The Dahiyat al-Thuhr association took the same step, saying: “Based on the position of French President Emmanuel Macron and his support for the offensive cartoons against our beloved prophet, we decided to remove all French products from the market and branches until further notice.”

In Qatar, the Wajbah Dairy company announced a boycott of French products and pledged to provide alternatives, according to their Twitter account.

Al Meera Consumer Goods Company, a Qatari joint stock company, announced on Twitter: “We have immediately withdrawn French products from our shelves until further notice.”

“We affirm that as a national company, we work according to a vision consistent with our true religion, our established customs and traditions, and in a way that serves our country and our faith and meets the aspirations of our customers.”

Qatar University also joined the campaign. Its administration has postponed a French Cultural Week event indefinitely, citing the “deliberate abuse of Islam and its symbols”.

In a statement on Twitter, the university said any prejudice against Islamic belief, sanctities and symbols is “totally unacceptable, as these offences harm universal human values ​​and the highest moral principles that contemporary societies highly regard”.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) described Macron’s statements as “irresponsible”, and said they are aimed at spreading a culture of hatred among peoples.

“At a time when efforts must be directed towards promoting culture, tolerance and dialogue between cultures and religions, such rejected statements and calls for publishing insulting images of the Prophet (Muhammad) – may blessings and peace be upon him – are published,” said the council’s secretary-general, Nayef al-Hajraf.

Al-Hajraf called on world leaders, thinkers and opinion leaders to reject hate speech and contempt of religions and their symbols, and to respect the feelings of Muslims, instead of falling captive to Islamophobia.

In a statement, Kuwait’s foreign ministry warned against the support of abuses and discriminatory policies that link Islam to terrorism, saying it “represents a falsification of reality, insults the teachings of Islam, and offends the feelings of Muslims around the world”.

On Friday, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned what it said was France’s continued attack against Muslims by insulting religious symbols.

The secretariat of the Jeddah-based organisation said in a statement it is surprised at the official political rhetoric issued by some French officials that offend French-Islamic relations and fuels feelings of hatred for political party gains.

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How bookstores are weathering the pandemic

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The pandemic arrived early for Emily Powell, owner of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. The state had one of the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US in February. As she watched more cases pop up across the country, “I felt an increasing sense of panic and crisis,” she said. On March 15, she abruptly closed her stores in the middle of the day. She immediately shrank her staff from 500 to 60 who were “just helping us turn the lights off and put out-of-office messages on the website.” Almost overnight, she shifted her business entirely to online orders.

She’s since been able to bring back around 150 employees, and thanks to a flood of online sales, a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal Small Business Administration, and partial reopenings of her stores, she’s made it this far.

Still, Powell’s and other independent bookstores across the country face an uncertain and undoubtedly difficult future: Government assistance has dried up, foot traffic is still low, and the virus is again threatening to bring everything to a screeching halt. Independent bookstore owners dug deep into their wells of creativity and passion and found ways to transform their businesses to cope with Covid-19. But even so, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), 35 member bookstores have closed during the pandemic, with roughly one store closing each week. Twenty percent of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, the ABA says.

Between mid-April and June, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) distributed $2.7 million to store owners in need. “That equals the distribution that we had had in the previous eight years,” said executive director Pamela French. The individual grants it gives out have increased 443 percent over last year. The level of need has subsided somewhat since the peak of the pandemic, but it’s remained consistently elevated, even with many stores now open.

A number of bookstores shut their doors voluntarily before any government lockdowns were imposed. “We were one of the first places in our town to close down,” said Suedee Hall-Elkins, manager of Dickson Street Bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her store’s aisles are very narrow, so they felt the need to close “for morally responsible reasons.”

Closing off browsing meant a seismic shift in bookstore business models. Kris Kleindienst’s shelves at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, were fully stocked with newly released books in March. “All of a sudden, they just became décor,” she said.

Still, owners pivoted as quickly as they could. “These independent bookstore owners are just tenacious,” French said. Owners suddenly found themselves arranging curbside pickups, shipping thousands of online orders, and staging completely virtual events.

Many factors boosted sales just when stores needed them. Customers flooded online ordering systems, many in the hope of helping their local stores, others simply desperate for something to read during lockdown. Amazon started prioritizing essential goods over things like books, giving an edge to independent stores. Annie Philbrick’s online orders at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, are about 10 times what they were each year for the past five. Michael Fusco-Straub, co-owner of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, sold 50,000 books during his city’s lockdown.

Then the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd took off, prompting another deluge of purchases as readers were eager to get their hands on books about race and racism. “The summer was mostly fulfilling … anti-racism orders,” Kleindienst said.

The switch to online and curbside ordering saved bookstores from ruin. But it wasn’t easy, nor was it enjoyable. “It started to feel like a fulfillment warehouse for widgets,” said Steven Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, California. “It really took a toll on us psychologically.” What kept him going, he said, was getting notes in online orders saying thank you.

Philbrick took it upon herself to pick up books from her two stores and drive them to customers’ homes. “I was a UPS driver for a month or so,” she said. She would hang bags of books on their doors, ring the bell, and walk back to her car. She even drove an hour and a half out of town to bring books to a couple who would leave her snack bags in thanks. “That was a pleasure,” she said.

In many ways, online ordering is the antithesis of what independent bookstores are. “We are a community space that thrived with that in-person, face-to-face conversation about ideas and literature,” said Hilary Gustafson, owner of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her store typically stages 300 events a year, and the in-store ones pack 50 people “elbow to elbow,” she said. Now, she’s been entirely focused on online orders, which requires “10 times as much work for a sale of one book.”

Stores like Gustafson’s quickly moved their programming — author events, book clubs, classes — to online platforms. But it’s a difficult and often money-losing way to do them. Stores typically make money from free events when people buy books, often getting them autographed. Online, it’s different. “Sales are down even though audience levels are, in some cases, up,” Graham said. Readers also now have a vast array of stores’ events to choose from because they’re all online. “The competition has just become fierce,” Philbrick said.

Despite the many hurdles small-business owners faced in getting PPP loans, all of the stores I spoke to were able to secure loans, and the money was vital. “The thing that got us this far and avoided bankruptcy was the PPP money,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. Even so, it was gone within a couple of months.

Other money came from unexpected places. Philbrick got $5,000 from Spanx, which was offering grants to women-owned businesses. That, she said, was a turning point of sorts, when she realized that not only would she have a cushion to get through, but “we’re all in this together trying to figure this out.”

Some customers even gave their local bookstores donations in the hope of keeping them alive. Gustafson’s store launched a GoFundMe, which was a “lifeline,” she said. She raised more there than she got in PPP money.

But at this point, most of the money has dried up. “Given the current level of economic activity, it’s not realistic to think that bookstores or other retail businesses can, on their own, make a go of it,” Graham said with a heavy sigh. “More federal assistance is needed so long as the pandemic persists.”

Some stores are doing as well as they would otherwise expect thanks to loyal customers and a thirst for books as people stay closer to home. But those factors aren’t making the numbers work for everyone.

Vroman’s, which bills itself as the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California, has warned that without a significant increase in sales, its 126-year tenure will come to a close. Powell’s has exhausted its PPP loan and isn’t making enough in sales to support the business. Politics & Prose is still not breaking even, and the store will need to make enough in the next few months to have a cushion headed into 2021. “It’s not a sustainable position to continue to operate in the red,” Graham said. Laughing, he added, “You don’t need a degree in anything to understand that fact.”

A number of stores have opened their doors simply to remain as financially solvent as possible. When we spoke, Gustafson was preparing to open with limited hours and days. “Our rent is still due and we still have payables,” she said. “We want to survive, so it’s like, ‘How do we make this work?’”

“We face this tension between the need to welcome in more customers for the holiday shopping season in order to at least get back in the black,” Graham said, “while at the same time being very careful not to create a public health hazard.”

Public health has been at the forefront of the minds of owners who have reopened as fully as possible. All stores have reduced their hours as well as their capacity. Everyone has installed Plexiglas barriers at cash registers and hand sanitizing stations throughout their stores. There’s crowd control not just to limit the number of shoppers but to ensure that masks are worn correctly. Many stores have rearranged their layouts so customers don’t have to squeeze by each other in tight aisles.

Hall-Elkins went even further, installing UV lights and ionizing cleaners in all three of her HVAC units, putting fans around the store, and keeping the door open as much as possible to better ventilate. She replaced her old carpets and installed touchless credit card systems.

Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, in May 2020, before reopening at limited capacity.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Owners have found themselves in entirely new roles, worried not just about their business’s finances but the health of their employees, their customers, and their own families. Hall-Elkins finds herself up late reading medical articles. “I’m in a heightened state of anxiety for sure,” she said. Laughing, she added, “I feel responsible for everybody’s life, and that’s a really weird thing to feel as a manager of a bookstore.”

Some have kept their doors closed. When we spoke in the first week of October, Kleindienst said she was planning to open that weekend by appointment and only after 6 pm. “Our staff really did not feel like they wanted people to be just walking in off the street and wandering around,” she explained. “It just didn’t seem like it was worth risking our lives.” She’s hoping that allowing a very select group of customers back in will be enough to keep the store afloat. But, she added, “I don’t see us opening the doors to walk-in traffic for quite a while.”

The holiday season will be crucial. Nearly every bookstore owner mentioned how important the season is normally — and therefore what it will mean now. Graham said the store typically makes anywhere from a quarter to a third of the whole year’s sales in December alone. “It’s an absolutely critical period.”

To help stores that need to see high sales without big crowds, the American Booksellers Association has begun a campaign urging consumers to shop early called “October Is the New December.” Other things will have to change, too. Normally, Salardino’s store offers gift-wrapping for a fee, and he’d have a long line of people waiting to have books wrapped. That’s not possible now.

One book could make or break the future for many stores: The first volume of President Barack Obama’s memoir will be released November 17. Not only is it destined to be a bestseller — the publisher ordered a first printing of 3 million copies — but it’s pricey, coming in at $45. “I literally think that that book is going to save a lot of stores,” Fusco-Straub said. His store will be ordering a whole pallet.

The future, of course, remains completely uncertain. It’s difficult just to plan ahead. Philbrick noted she’s ordering paperback copies of hardcover books that she struggled to sell during the shutdown, which means the data she typically relies on to predict future sales are almost useless. “As a business person, we’re all used to being able to forecast,” Powell said. But now, “we can’t see beyond a 30-day time horizon.”

Hall-Elkins worries that a virus spike or just cold weather will keep people home from holiday shopping. Then there’s what could happen with the election or the economy. The immediate pandemic-caused contraction appears to be turning into a full-blown recession. “We don’t know how much folks will be able to shop,” Powell noted. “Books aren’t … groceries or rent. How much will people be willing to come out to our stores?”

Few owners were willing to contemplate what another complete shutdown would mean. “I don’t even know what we would do,” Hall-Elkins said. “We would probably be in pretty big trouble.”

Losing an independent bookstore is a huge blow to a community. “These are places where folks can come together to discuss what’s going on in the world, to also have a safe haven and a safe place for exploring new ideas,” French said. Bookstores “provide everything from sanctuary to just meditative spaces.” And they help keep an economy humming, retaining money in the local community and generating jobs and tax revenue.

Still, independent bookstores have been through a lot, including competition from big chains and Amazon. “People have been predicting the end of indie bookstores since the Great Depression,” said Kate Weiss, programs manager at BINC. Even with a pandemic, 30 bookstores have opened this year so far, although that’s still a far cry from the 104 that opened in 2019.

“We’re a stalwart bunch,” Philbrick said. “We’re just going to keep going. We’re not dead.”


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