A single book can bloom a community, and a thoughtful bookstore can sustain its growth. Underground Books—rooted in the historically Black neighborhood of Oak Park in Sacramento—is a nonprofit bookstore whose curatorial brilliance partners beauty with meaning, soul with optimism.

Founded in 2003, Underground is managed by Georgia “Mother Rose” West, under whose leadership it functions as a community hub. “We are connected,” she says. “We try to do anything and everything.” The store hosts free events like readings, author signings, and community discussions, and on its stunning Instagram page, Mother Rose highlights a Book of the Week. Both in-store and online, you’ll find books like My Grandmother’s Hands, by Resmaa Menakem, and ​​The Other Black Girl, by Zakiya Dalila Harris, as well as handmade cards and T-shirts with “Young, Gifted & Black” printed brightly on them.

This article appears in the Summer 2022 issue of Alta Journal.

In the predominantly conservative Central Valley, Underground Books stands out because its programming and inventory uplift stories of people and communities that have historically been marginalized and invisibilized in places like Sacramento, Merced, Gustine, Dos Palos, and Parlier—just a few of the towns that make up California’s fruit basket. It’s not only a place to buy books—it’s a transformative space and project rooted in the restoration of community and the preservation of the area residents’ dignity. In the 1970s, the only library in Oak Park closed, limiting people’s access to books. In 2003, Underground Books was born through the efforts of St. Hope, a network of local nonprofits. Cassandra Jennings, the president and CEO of St. Hope, has said, “If the community doesn’t benefit, then we are doing something wrong.”

In many ways, Underground’s sheer presence is power. It’s a place for Black people to gather and to learn and to be proud, and a place for non-Black people to gather and learn and grow. After the murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others, and the particularly clear confrontations with anti-Blackness in the United States that followed, books have proved to be doors to our innermost houses. Mother Rose calls her own education in Black history an awakening and sees her 26 years as a registered nurse as her own unique path to wanting to reach people through Underground Books. “There is so much rich history to help you broaden your education if you knew about some of these people and these things that have happened, because you are not learning the whole history of the United States in your classes,” she says. “So if you really want to learn and have a heart for learning, there is something in this bookstore for you.”

Underground provides internships and employment to high school students, organizes an annual Juneteenth Block Party, and hosts Let’s Read Oak Park—an interactive book reading for elementary school children with an emphasis on cultural themes. Kids who attend this free monthly event receive a book of their choice on the house. Families gather at the bookstore for activities like Christmas in Oak Park, where last year a Black Santa rolled up on a motorcycle. “The kids were all jumping up and down and were lined up around the block,” Mother Rose recalls, adding, “We are about community. It is just amazing. We love it.”•

Underground Books

2814 35th St., Sacramento, underground-books.indiecommerce.com

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Sara Borjas is a Xicanx pocha and a Fresno poet.