Linzi Murray remembers the first book she read all by herself: Green Eggs and Ham by Dr. Seuss. She read it at daycare and can still recall the feeling of elation when she turned the last page.
“It was such a proud moment for me,” Murray said.
Murray devoured books growing up. First, she insisted on collecting all of the Junie B. Jones series. Then it became Percy Jackson and the Olympians. If a friend needed a book, they borrowed it from Murray. She still has her copies, even the taped-together ones with doodles in the margins.
“I love keeping that kind of stuff as a time capsule,” Murray said. “I can see myself as I reread it over the years.” Embarrassing drawings included.
Despite her love of reading, Murray’s experiences were never represented in the books she was exposed to as a child. She can’t recall a single book she read with an influential Asian character. The few she did come across had stereotypical descriptions and “slit eyes.” But as an adolescent, Murray didn’t understand the sort of representation she was missing out on. She struggled with her identity until she was in college.
“It felt like I was trying to overcompensate for the loss that I had, but it was all self-motivated,” Murray said. “I didn’t have people around me or anything that could aid in that. So just having books, even when there’s no real people around it would have had a big impact and made me feel less isolated.”
Murray didn’t find a book that she felt seen in until a few years ago. The Front Desk, by Kelly Yang, depicts 10-year-old Mia working the front desk at her parent’s motel. For Murray, it ticked all the boxes. Asian main character? Check. Immigrant? Check. Learning English as a second language? Check.
It didn’t matter that Murray was over twice Mia’s age by the time she read the book. Mia was the Asian role model young Murray never had.
“We’re just like a novelty and being treated like a novelty in books,” Murray said. “Because books influence culture and are also being treated like that in everyday life — it gets old.”
On July 12, 2021, Murray decided that was all going to change. Four days later, she filed an LLC for her bookstore, Reading in Public.
“It was just like a week of ‘Can I do this? Am I capable of doing this?’ And just obsessively running through everything in my mind,” Murray said. “But when I commit to something and make a decision, it’s going to happen.”
Books For Social Justice
Reading in Public opened in West Des Moines, Iowa’s Valley Junction neighborhood, this January. It’s one of the few Asian-owned bookstores in the Midwest.
The space is a small but cozy bookstore and cafe. There are plenty of reading nooks and a wide selection of books to choose from. Painted in bold colors on the wall above the entrance states, “Read books and be kind to others.” It’s their motto and a phrase that Murray takes very seriously.
“There is like a kind of magic surrounding books and books that find you at the right times in your life that could transform your life,” Murray said. “The more that you read, the more perspectives you’re exposed to, the more you start to empathize with other people and get out of your own worldview.”
Murray is a firm believer that reading helps people be better people. To do so, she’s using her bookstore as a social justice platform of sorts. As a Chinese adoptee, a person of color and a woman, Murray’s intersectionality sometimes lands her in situations where she feels unsafe.
“In this day and age, if you’re out in the public eye in any way, you need to take a stand for something,” Murray said.
For her, that’s inclusivity.
“It’s just me wanting to create a space first and foremost, that people feel safe, or they feel accepted and understood just inherently,” she said.
While you can buy almost any book on Reading in Public’s website, the books on display are based on their morals, not popularity. Because of this, Murray has a manga section and displays books in languages other than English right next to their English counterparts.
The book selection ranges from kids to adults — and Murray takes extra care in her middle-grade selections.
“I try to cover a diverse range because that’s when people start to really question their identity,” Murray said.
Murray knows this from experience. She recalls one particular craft project in second grade when her teacher traced everyone’s silhouettes.
“When I saw mine hanging up with everybody else’s — who were all white — I was so embarrassed by how flat my profile was compared to other people,” Murray said. “So, I hid it away.”
Murray also referred to the “lunchbox moment,” when the child of an immigrant brings food from home to school that the rest of their classmates are unfamiliar with. Comments are made (“That’s disgusting” and “Your food stinks”) and the child comes home and begs their parents not to send it again.
“Just imagine if you’re a kid who has had that experience, feeling like, ‘I’m not the only one, this is a thing,’” Murray said. “There’s also resources in books where there’s resolution, so kids can also see how other people have coped with that same situation.”
In short, books can help kids feel like they’re not alone in their struggles.
Actually Reading in Public
At the end of the day, Murray wants her bookstore to be a place where people can come in, relax, and stay while — you guessed it — reading in public. When the idea for the bookstore was born, Murray lived in New York City, which has a big reading culture. Murray and her husband had always planned to move back to the Midwest, which felt like home, but she knew she’d miss that aspect of life.
“People are just reading all time,” Murray said. “It’s just an active, enthusiastic part of life there.”
She recalls seeing people read on the subway, and some often left stacks of books on their stoops for others to take. Murray even appears in the book Between the Lines, which features a collection of interviews about the New York reading culture.
Though New Yorkers may be seen reading more than Iowans, Murray wants to foster a community of book lovers. Each Reading in Public staff member has the opportunity to host a monthly book club on a topic of their choice.
“I want to make sure we have a diverse range because if we’re all reading the same thing, we’re less informed,” Murray said. “So, we have romance club, memoir and biography, femme-horror, queer, sci-fi/fantasy.”
Sometimes, Murray hosts her own book club centered around grief.
The community aspect of Reading in Public doesn’t stop there. Murray hopes to bring a Director of Social Justice and Community Outreach to the team soon.
“All of the staff right now have similar values, but having a dedicated person to make sure that is always our focus is very important,” Murray said.