“Our first drag reading event was in April—it as part of our indie bookstore celebration—and it was beautiful: Packed, parents supportive, house full of enthusiastic kids.”
These are the words of Casita Bookstore owner Antonette Franceschi-Chavez—whose tiny-but-mighty book shop on 4th Street sits between Walnut and Nebraska Avenues and has created its own community thanks to events such as these—after a group of men interrupted their June kids reading hour with Velora Von Tease with threats of going to hell.
“You don’t have to support it, you don’t have to agree with it, you don’t have to submerse yourself in it—that doesn’t mean you discourage others from being who they are let alone coming into a bookstore, where children are being read to, being told how to build their self-esteem up, and tell them they are going to hell,” Antonette said. “It is… It is just wild to me. How is not traumatic to tell children that?”
The situation started off relatively calmly: As parents were coming in, two men joined with the families—”It was an open event,” Antonette said, “so it’s not like it was odd that people were coming in and out”—and pretended to be part of the group. Unaware of the two men already inside, concerned parents notified Antonette and her husband that up the street, a truck adorned in conservative and religious ideology was parked up the street, prompting Antonette and her husband to stand outside the business to assure nothing happened to their guests.
“We were a little bit on alert because the coincidence of the truck and our event, it being Pride month—but the group attached to the truck began walking the other way so we assumed they weren’t there for us,” Antonette said. “And then, after Velora had read a book, one of the two men who had pretended to be with families said, ‘I have a question—do you know this kinda stuff will make you go to hell?'”
The response was immediate: Joining Antonette’s husband, the rest of the fathers among the families began chastising the two men calling for trips to hell, asking them to leave. The antagonism was just as swift: The group of men who had led them to believe were walking in a different direction suddenly approached the store from all angles, microphones in hand.
“They outright tricked us: Soon, they were coming in from the corners, from around the block,” Antonette said. “There was about ten of them outside, shouting on microphones. It was a coordinated effort.”
Amid the continual shouts of absurdities and hate, the fathers eventually pushed the men out and created a human barrier, with the moms locking the doors and, like any true professional of the stage, Velora grabbed another book—“The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish” by Lil Hot Mess, one of the first drag queens to do reading story hours in the country—and made the kids dance, as it is about drag queen brightening a glum town by dancing through the streets as themselves.
“It was stressful but also beautiful to see our community come together. I have to chalk it up to the parents and Velora,” Antonette said, “Those kids didn’t have to see or take in that kind of hate.”
The kindness and sincerity with which Antonette exudes her words is not easily missed: Genuine and genial, warm and welcoming, the former dual-language elementary teacher’s spirit is reflected directly in her storefront, with categories spanning neurodivergent and LGBTQ+ to cooking and books in Spanish.
And Antonette, who you are and what you are interested in needs to be directly reflected back in books.
“A book is one of the first forms of power we experience as kids,” Antonette said. “It’s the power of story, representation, learning social skills, what’s right and wrong—and I never saw myself reflected in these. And as I began to teach, I realized there were so many kids not represented at their library: kids of color, queer kids, kids with divorced parents, immigrant kids…”
The bookstore’s dedication to community is astoundingly old-school in a time where everything feels so saturated with a digital film: She hosts book fairs, she will create orders for books to be sent to you on a regular basis, and she regularly asks parents what they want for their own collections—hence the Spanish language book selection, of which Antonette is particularly proud.
“When I was teaching, it was particularly hard to find books in Spanish, especially ones that reflected an authentic experience,” Antonette said. “And it’s been fulfilling because it’s largely driven by word of mouth… The biggest goal, though, is pretty simple: That every person that walks in here has their self represented in at least one book.”
Can we get an amen?
Casita Bookstore is located at 1440 E. 4th St.