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OPINION

A community bookstore where events are accessible to only some in the community

Are people who can’t manage stairs not part of the community? Shouldn’t we be part of those conversations?

The popular bookstore holds its events in a space that is located down a flight of stairs. There is no elevator, lift, or other device to provide access for people who have trouble navigating a staircase.Gwendolyn Corkill

I sat, heartbroken with no appetite, in a Thai restaurant a block from the bookstore, waiting for my family.

In 2016, my daughter was getting her master’s at the University of Massachusetts Boston. Her program presented student readings of their writings for family and friends at Brookline Booksmith. That popular bookstore holds its events in a space that is located down a flight of stairs. There is no elevator, lift, or other device to provide access for people who have trouble navigating a staircase. Since I use a wheelchair, I couldn’t share the pride of being with my daughter as she performed her first public reading. I had to wait alone for the others to give me their report.

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According to a 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 11 percent of the US population and about 9 percent of the population of Massachusetts have mobility disabilities — meaning “serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs.” Those numbers rise to 25 percent in the United States and 23 percent in Massachusetts in people over the age of 65.

And yet, whenever I am excluded from activities that others enjoy, I always feel like I’m the only one who has these restrictions.

In addition to student readings, Brookline Booksmith proudly advertises in its front window that it hosts “author events.” It also holds many “community events” like today’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration and an upcoming reading with Black Seed Writers, a group of homeless writers. Most of these events take place down a set of stairs where a large segment of the population can’t participate.

Brookline Booksmith’s website boasts: “Our mission is to foster community through the written word, represent a diverse range of voices and histories, and inspire conversations that enrich our lives.” There is also an “Event Accessibility” disclaimer: “This event will take place in Brookline Booksmith’s Used Book Cellar, which is only accessible by stair.”

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Are people who can’t manage stairs not part of the community? Shouldn’t we be part of those conversations?

Before I was prevented from seeing my daughter read her writing, I had been unable to attend many events at the bookstore since I started using a wheelchair in 2004. But until it hit me personally, I swallowed that rejection. Now, though, I had to try to do something. I called and asked the manager if they could please hold the students’ reading on the street level so I could attend. She told me that was not possible as there was no room.

Several years later, when I heard they were expanding by taking over space next door, I thought it was the right moment to try again. I met with one of the owners who said he was glad I had brought the matter to his attention. He said they would try to create space on the accessible first floor for events. His architect told me that as an alternative, they were looking into installing a LULA (limited use limited access) elevator to access the downstairs. I felt empowered.

Then COVID happened. Events were streamed and people who couldn’t manage stairs had access to them while public places like the bookstore were shut down.

In 2021, I contacted the owner again. He told me they were expanding further and so they should be able to create an accessible space on the street level for the events. I was thrilled. But I have waited for that to happen. It has not.

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In November, the store owners said they had logistical problems making a space for events on the street level, which made me wonder why they didn’t plan better when they did their expansion. They didn’t say if they were still looking into a way to access the downstairs.

Most recently, the store owners have expressed a willingness to try and fix this situation, but they haven’t yet shared any specifics about how or when that will be done.

I was in the store during the holiday season and the street level was lovely — chock full of books and gifts and bustling with happy shoppers. But my feelings of exclusion were not assuaged — especially when I saw that “author events” sign in the front window and knew that I couldn’t attend those events.

The 1990 Americans with Disability Act requires that public businesses promptly remove barriers to accessibility when “readily achievable.” According to the Department of Justice, readily achievable means “easily accomplishable without much difficulty or expense.” Putting wheels on bookcases so they can be moved out of the way to make room for a speaker and audience seems “readily achievable.” Additionally, depending on the cost and nature of renovations the bookstore has performed, the Massachusetts Architectural Access Board may require access.

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Of course Brookline Booksmith is not alone in facing the challenges of making its venue more accessible. Small businesses — from bookstores to restaurants — find that removing barriers to accessibility is costly or difficult to do. They should know there are federal tax credits and deductions as well as grants and other assistance provided by different localities, including Cambridge, to help with accessibility improvements. Brookline has a Facade Loan Program to help businesses improve their storefronts. Certainly these programs should be much more prevalent and much more generous.

But it sometimes seems that accessibility is not at the top of a business’s priority list and if it were, the business would be able to accommodate everyone.

This just shouldn’t be the case. If we are to have a truly inclusive society, businesses should prioritize welcoming everybody. It’s important to support our fabulous local businesses. But if we are to support them, they should support us. All of us.

Carol Steinberg is an attorney and disability activist.