In the midst of a strange new reality, our series profiling local independent bookstores has a new twist: how are these beloved small businesses weathering the storm of COVID-19? What can we expect from them next? And how can we help them fight the good fight and hang on?
In this edition, we’re talking to Bea Dong of Berkeley’s Eastwind Books.
Packed tightly into a bustling row of shops facing University Avenue, Eastwind Books of Berkeley stands as a hard-earned product of the Asian American struggle for representation. While merely decades ago novels like Carlos Bulosan’s American is in the Heart were out of print (owner Bea Dong recalls having to Xerox an out-of-print copy in the 1970s), the shelves of Eastwind now swell with offerings from contemporary Asian American voices.
But for Bea and her husband Harvey, these successes have been shadowed by a larger, looming threat: that of increased anti-Asian violence in America. President Trump’s nicknaming of the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” is, says Bea, “a real concern to Asian American communities right now. Anti-Asian violence is happening because of his trying to make that into his new rallying point.”
Bea and Harvey are no strangers to hostile political climates. In 1969, they rallied with other ethnic student groups as part of the Third World Liberation Front at UC Berkeley, a daring movement that called for reformation of Eurocentric campus policies and informed the inception of Asian American and Ethnic Studies curriculums. Now, the duo bands together with local Asian American communities to protest recent events. On April 19th, Eastwind will host a (virtual) conversation about the climate crisis and the COVID-19 response with Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at SFSU, and environmental justice activists Julie Sze (Environmental Justice in a Moment of Danger) and Ratha Lai.
It’s Eastwind’s personal goal to dissipate anti-Asian stigma through the medium most proximate to them: literature. Ocean Vuong’s On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which book club members can purchase at a 10% discount, is the Eastwind Book Club’s current focus; Bea hopes that literary explorations of immigrant histories will bring awareness to the often-stifled struggles of immigrant and refugee families.
It’s a reality that is still omnipresent today. Now that the physical store is shuttered, there is little revenue coming in: a situation that makes Bea fear for the future of Eastwind and its staff. With immigrant parents facing job loss, the pressure on staff members to provide for their families is high. “We’re all hurting from this,” she says. “The more support we can get, the better.”
If there is a bright spot, it’s to be found, as always, in subtle but tremendous human connections. Though confined to their home, Bea and Harvey rendezvous with their neighbors across the fence, even indulging in a bit of group exercise. “You’ve heard about neighbors doing dance parties – we’re doing tai chi parties,” says Bea. And since masks are in criminally low supply, Harvey has begun fashioning them from a haphazard selection of everyday objects. According to Bea, “he’s made one out of a little baby’s diaper, a sock, and out of a coffee filter. It’s kinda entertaining.”
Tai chi parties and diaper masks aside, online bookselling for Eastwind proceeds as best as it can, under the circumstances. Those hoping to offer a bit of support in these tumultuous times can browse Eastwind’s website or donate to the store’s nonprofit wing.