E.R. Anderson started plastering “Wash Your Hands” signs all over the walls at Charis Books and More last January, long before most people had heard the word “coronavirus.”
He sensed bigger consequences looming ahead from the predicted pandemic. Anderson foresaw canceled events, a shuddered storefront and lots of lost revenue. “We needed to brace for the fact that all of the revenue we get from people coming to events and making donations, and all of the revenue the bookstore gets from selling books at events, [was] probably going to get wiped away in February and March,” he warned.
He was right. Unbeknownst to many at the time, the coronavirus was well on its way to upending lives and livelihoods.
Before COVID-19, Charis billed itself as metro Atlanta’s only publicly accessible feminist space, hosting more than 270 events per year, including book clubs, intersectional support groups and strategy sessions, poetry open mics, children’s story times, writing groups and more. The shop, which moved from Little Five Points to Decatur in 2019, is approaching its 50th anniversary.
By March the bookstore had closed to in-person shopping, and a calendar full of in-person author and community events — events the store and its nonprofit arm, Charis Circle, depended on for survival — hung in the balance.
What Anderson, the Circle’s executive director, couldn’t have anticipated was building an audience of event attendees from all over the world as the result of a successful pivot to virtual programming.
An international audience
In March, the big unknown was what would happen to the Charis community if its ability to come together — in perhaps one of the only spaces where they felt safe enough to read, write and organize — was upended. Was it even possible to effectively recreate online the intimacy of in-person conversations, to uphold the Circle’s mission of fostering sustainable feminist communities, working for social justice and amplifying marginalized voices from a virtual space?
“I was worried,” Anderson says. “The thing that would be harder to replicate is the intimacy of our support groups, our book clubs, our Race-Conscious Parenting and Gender-Creative Parenting groups and things like that.”
Charis community events did struggle at first.
“I think some of the reasons is that doing the emotional labor of thinking about your feelings at 7:30 on a Thursday night on Zoom, people just don’t have it,” he says. “For a lot of people, physically coming to Charis was a touchstone they needed, a way to get out of their house, a mental-health thing. And I think people feel less compelled to do that [on Zoom].”
Author events, though? They were an international hit, thanks to the online conferencing platform Crowdcast.
In the midst of a pandemic, Charis Books hosted such writers as Aimee Bender, Jericho Brown, Roxane Gay, Yaa Gyasi, Jessica Handler and Georgia Poet Laureate Chelsea Rathburn, among a slew of others, with attendees logging on from more than 65 countries.
“Often, they were even better attended than they would be if they were in a physical space,” Anderson says.
In addition to being more accessible for people with physical disabilities, for elderly populations, for working parents, Anderson and Charis Circle assistant director Darticia Rollins speculate that part of the reason is because the online author events are a low-stakes way for attendees to de-stress and relax during an incredibly trying, scary time. Logging on to Crowdcast, Rollins says, is like decompressing with a good TV show at the end of a long day, without the pressure of having to be on-screen like you often do with Zoom.
“People have to make sure their backdrop is nice for Zoom,” she says. “They have to make sure their upper body looks good. But if you come to Crowdcast, you can just listen to your favorite authors, who you may not have had the chance to see in person. After you’ve been working for the last eight or nine hours, you can just come, relax and listen to people talk and joke.”
Crowdcast lets Charis re-create a similar sense of community and safety for people who attended its author events, even when folks are miles — or countries — apart from one another.
The Crowdcast app also gives attendees a kind of access to their favorite authors that they might not have in an auditorium or at a reading in the store. Authors and attendees can interact in real time in the chat, and attendees can have their own discussions about the author’s work in a way that is nondisruptive.
“I think for authors it’s cool because you can see, if you’re reading something [at an online event], the moment at which people respond in real time, literally the sentence that makes people use the clapping emoji,” Anderson says. “Sometimes you’ll have people type out quotes as a way of sort of ‘underlining.’ I think that’s super interesting.”
Charis virtual events feel very much like its in-person events by design. Anderson says he’s deliberate about curating virtual spaces where people feel comfortable sharing, commenting and being themselves.
It’s important to be a good and gracious host, he says.
“That’s in the language we use, in how we use the comment section,” he says. “The same way as if you invited someone into your house, you kind of need to be like, ‘Hey, take your coat off, make yourself at home.’ You set the vibe. I think the same thing is true for any virtual space.”
Members of Charis’ feminist community — and the authors it champions — are oftentimes the targets of racism, homophobia, violent threats and hate speech. This is why safety is a top priority in the virtual spaces just as it was at in-person Charis events.
“For a while, particularly a lot of Black authors were getting Zoom-bombed,” Anderson says. “And we have always, even in our physical space, had security plans — that don’t involve the police. That’s been a part of our job forever. That’s a big part of our work, so it’s not hard to take that mentality and translate it to a digital space.”
A community’s social lifeline
Building a safe space for its community is one factor that sets a Charis event apart and helps draw top literary talent.
“We did a program with the Atlanta History Center with Kiese Laymon,” Rollins says. “That program was actually not our program, but I did the introduction, and at the end, he made a comment about how he’s never felt as safe as he does at Charis.”
The holistic health and well-being of its community — not just physical health, but mental and emotional — is top-of-mind for the Charis staffers, which is why the store started hosting sporadic, socially distanced porch pop-ups last year.
They take their role as a social lifeline for community members seriously.
“It’s this line of, ‘Yeah, the pandemic will kill you but so will isolation,’” Anderson says. “We know that the groups that we serve have higher rates of social isolation and depression, substance abuse issues. So we’ve tried to balance those things. Even though there’s the part of me that’s like, ‘We should never have a pop-up because it’s dangerous,’ we always weigh that with, ‘Our folks need connection.’”
Pandemic or not, online or not, Charis’ goal has always been what Anderson calls a “radical hospitality” when it comes to inviting people into the feminist community. Meeting people where they are, giving them a safe space where they can come and be themselves and learn, where, in non-pandemic times, they can come pull a book off the shelf and see themselves reflected in its pages, maybe for the first time.
Despite everything, Anderson, Rollins and the Charis staff have managed to take that radical hospitality online in a way that feels intimate, that resonates with the community, keeping members connected and engaged.
In 2018 and 2019, Charis hosted about 270 events. In 2020, even with its spring cancellations and an inability to attend the normal conferences, book sales and festivals, Charis managed to host 200 programs and events. The shop is on track to host 220 to 240 events in 2021, with no less than 18 programs per month, Anderson says.
“I think about our programs, and how the authors interact with the community. It almost feels like a family reunion,” says Rollins. “I think that is what people get at our bookstore. Because we do call ourselves a home. People do quite literally feel at home.”
Even if, for now, that home has to be online.