Reporting, writing and photos by H.L. Comeriato
Rachel Cargle knows exactly how she caught the spark.
“I think my mother grew it in me,” she says. “My mom always made reading a celebration. It was never a punishment. It was never just part of school. It was part of life.”
Those first glimmers of joy Cargle found in books stayed with her forever. She nurtured them, turned them into a career. They took her all over the country and landed her right back here.
Cargle was born and raised in Akron, and she says the Rust Belt’s scrappiness and grit prepared her for life in New York City, where she lived and worked for six years before moving back to Akron last winter.
Cargle is a writer, lecturer, activist and public academic. She has nearly two million followers on Instagram — 1.6 million of whom began following Cargle this year, seeking to learn about racial justice — and has built accessible, educational antiracism tools into her social media presence. The Great Unlearn, Cargle’s “self-paced and self-priced learning collective,” offers reading lists, syllabi and live lectures that help participants engage with and celebrate the work of academics of color.
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Now, Cargle is bringing elements of that work to a physical space.
In collaboration with the Well Community Development Corporation, Cargle is back home to launch her newest and most ambitious endeavor: Elizabeth’s Bookshop and Writing Centre.
Elizabeth’s, which opened online in May, is “equal parts bookshop and writing center,” Cargle says. The space is designed to center and uplift the voices of marginalized writers and provide Akronites with tools for community and creativity.
Cargle has curated Elizabeth’s from her own collection, with much love. “I have hundreds and hundreds of books in my home, so I was really just going through my personal shelf and finding things that were meaningful to me,” she says. That includes writers Cargle calls her literary ancestors — Nikki Giovanni, Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison — “The people I know I would be a different person if I hadn’t read their work,” Cargle says.
Elizabeth’s is part of a much larger effort to build community among Akron’s readers, writers and dreamers. In 2018, Cargle founded The Loveland Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping Black women and girls access mental health care. Ten percent of Elizabeth’s book sale proceeds go directly to The Loveland Foundation.
On Sept. 19, Elizabeth’s opened as a pop-up bookstore inside Compass Coffee. Cargle’s childhood friend, Curtis Minter Jr., is operations director at The Well Community Development Corporation, which operates Compass and works to renovate homes and foster economic development in Middlebury.
“I’m all for boomerangs,” Minter says, nodding toward Cargle. He means young people who leave Akron to live and work in bigger cities and then choose to come home. “We need to retain talent in the City of Akron as much as possible. However you go about perpetuating the idea that, you know, we can dream big here. I think that could start with Elizabeth’s.”
Black-owned bookstores have long served as creative spaces for shaping and sharing ideas. Cargle says Elizabeth’s exists within that same tradition and hopes to build community among readers and writers through a shared set of values: community, curiosity, justice and joy.
“I hope that the writing center aspect of Elizabeth’s really taps into the deep creativity and genius that I know is existing here in Akron, as well as online with the workshops we’ll do in many different ways. And I’m excited for people to connect the meaningfulness of Elizabeth’s to Akron, Ohio,” says Cargle. “Even though it will have customers and people taking writing workshops all over the world, I’m sure.”
Cargle and Minter hope Elizabeth’s will inspire new versions of success for Black Akronites in particular.
“There’s so much simplicity in Elizabeth’s, even within the greater meaning of it. And I hope that something as simple as walking into a place and having a cup of coffee and reading can make someone feel whole and inspired as much seeing LeBron win the championship,” Cargle says.
Minter nods in agreement. He says he hopes that Elizabeth’s will give Black youth permission to dream their own futures and successes — to see themselves reflected outside of sports and entertainment.
As more and more Americans seek to learn about racial justice from contemporary Black thinkers, Cargle’s audience continues to grow. Elizabeth’s itself already has more than 85,000 Instagram followers. But as Cargle’s platform expands, her vision for Elizabeth’s has only become more focused.
“I hope that Elizabeth’s is a love letter to Akron, that it’s a space for [people] to be able to come in and say, ‘I feel seen. I feel heard. I feel celebrated. And I feel like I’m part of something that’s really important,’” Cargle says.
“There’s a deep pride and celebration and joy in having a place to feel seen and heard and celebrated,” Cargle adds — a pride and celebration that belongs and begins right here at home.
The Elizabeth’s Bookshop pop-up shelves are open to the public inside Compass Coffee at The Well CDC, 647 E Market St., Akron. Visit Wednesday-Thursday 12-6 pm, Friday 10 am-4 pm and Saturday 10 am-2 pm.
H.L. Comeriato covers public health at The Devil Strip via Report for America. Reach them at HL@thedevilstrip.com.