The Little Michigan Bookshop with a Heart Big Enough to Combat Right-Wing Hate

Sidetrack Bookshop saw a spike in business after drag storytime protest

Sarah Bricker Hunt

When hundreds of counter-protesters showed up to confront an anti-drag contingent that had threatened to disrupt a drag queen storytime at Royal Oak’s Sidetrack Bookshop in March, they were the ones sashaying away. Co-owner Jenny Carney says the packed-to-capacity sidewalk lined up outside her store represented a groundswell of community support that hasn’t waned since the store opened.

“From the start, people were telling us ‘We’re so glad you’re here,’” Carney recalls. “We were really looking for a way to build community, and it really seems like that feeling is shared by a lot of people who are coming to Royal Oak.”

The story time in question, which featured local drag queen Mimi SouthWest, wasn’t Sidetrack’s first event featuring drag artistry and, Carney says, it won’t be the last. After all, these events are at the heart of the store’s mission, and it doesn’t hurt that the spectacle created by the would-be disruptors has been financially beneficial.

“Our business is booming,” she tells Pride Source.

Visibly supporting community members who come from wide-ranging backgrounds is a key part of how Carney and her wife and Sidetrack co-owner, Jen Brown, promote inclusivity. There’s just something magical about connecting readers, including the youngest readers, with the creators of stories that take them on journeys, expose them to new ideas and offer authentic representation. Take “Batcat,” for example, a graphic novel series written and illustrated by non-binary Michigan creator Meggie Ramm, a recently featured special guest.

“It doesn’t talk about the batcat being nonbinary, but it’s just such a cool representation, right?” Carney says. “Meggie spent so much time with each one of the kids, encouraging their artistic efforts, and the kids were so engaged — this wasn’t an author here signing books.

“And that's the real beauty of that whole experience of the protest and the response and the support from it. We are able to turn the spotlight on people who are doing amazing work,” she says. “We can really highlight and lift that up, which is really part of what we wanted to do from the start. And now — because of these wackadoodles — we’re able to do even more, which is just so cool.”

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Before launching Sidetrack, Carney and Brown worked together at Carney’s law practice full time. These days, the couple splits their time among legal work, raising their family and managing the shop, which Carney calls the couple’s “pandemic baby.”

While on an extended family vacation in Florida in 2021, Carney says the couple started to reevaluate their lives, asking questions like, “How do we want to move forward in this world?” and “What’s really important?” Ultimately, their answers centered on coming together in community and sharing joy and laughter. “That’s what’s really important to us,” she says.

“We wanted something different than what we were doing before, and we are a family of readers, so it somehow stumbled into this idea of opening a bookstore,” Carney remembers.

At first, the family considered setting up shop in Florida, where Carney's parents have a winter home, but ultimately it made more sense to look at Southeast Michigan. Carney noted the lack of an independent bookstore in bustling, walkable areas like Royal Oak or downtown Birmingham and Ferndale and got to work researching options.

The possibilities were dizzying, but in a moment Carney calls “kismet,” Sidetrack Bookshop found a home — a busy corner in Royal Oak where her mother operated a plant store in 1975 while pregnant with her. “I actually grew up in the space where the bookstore is now,” she says. “It felt meant to be.”

Kismet or not, Carney and Brown took care to conduct some market research before hanging up the open sign, sending out a market feasibility survey to hundreds of people they connected to on a Royal Oak neighborhood Facebook page. “And basically, everybody was like, ‘Oh my gosh, please bring a bookstore to downtown Royal Oak.’ And that’s been the response every step of the way.”

Sidetrack Bookshop. Photo: Andrew Potter

During the store’s soft opening in April 2022, the couple set up temporary tables, made a small investment in inventory and invited the local community. “We were immediately slammed. Everybody was so excited, and we had people walking up from their homes in Royal Oak, or riding their bikes in,” she recalls. “And so far, that has continued every single weekend.”

Carney says support from patrons has been incredible, but Royal Oak has been supportive in other ways, as well. When the store and the storytime queens were being targeted by a conservative hate group (the Grand New Party) and the Oakland County GOP, the Royal Oak Downtown Development Authority released a statement expressing its support. “Downtown is a place where LGBTQ+ people are celebrated and people from all walks of life are welcome,” the statement read. “We applaud Jen and Jenny of Sidetrack Bookshop for their commitment to the LGBTQ+ community and we will continue to support them, and all of our business owners in Downtown Royal Oak who are doing good and meaningful work.”

Still, in the days leading up to the event, Carney and Brown were concerned enough to touch base with Royal Oak police twice. “It was a little unnerving because, you know, I feel a lot of responsibility for the safety of our employees, our customers and our community,” Brown says. “The rhetoric we were hearing from some of the people organizing the protest was really threatening.” Brown says groups from as far away as California were connecting with Sidetrack to warn them about some of the online chatter. Royal Oak Police took her and Carney’s concerns seriously, showing up at the event with what she describes as a “social worker” mentality, which helped to maintain a safe atmosphere for everyone.

Ultimately, Brown says, the protest felt like a “sea of happy, glittery rainbow love.” Walking outside to join the crowd after the event (the store closed early for the day to give staff a break after the emotionally exhausting experience) felt amazing. “I just felt enveloped in this sea of love — it was so empowering and so validating and lovely. I had so many hugs that day, and despite all the anxiety leading up to what was going to happen, it wasn’t bad at all. It was actually a beautiful, loving event and I’m really, really glad we didn’t change our plan in any way.”

Carney said groups like the Royal Oak Democrats, the ACLU and others helped to organize the massive turnout. Ultimately, the anti-drag crowd consisted of around two dozen protesters versus several hundred counter-protesters.

“They were able to make a lot of noise on the internet, but when the time actually came, it was a few here objecting and then 1,000 people in support,” Carney says. “It was just like the feeling of love and support, messages of ‘We are so glad you’re here, and we’re so glad you’re doing what you’re doing.’ It was 1,000 to one, and it was amazing.”

“So, we continue on,” she adds.  “We’re just going to keep building this community.”

Visit Sidetrack Bookshop ( at 325 S. Washington St. in Royal Oak. Two upcoming book launch events feature queer Michigan authors — Amanda Woody on May 13 (“They Hate Each Other”) and Frank Anthony Polito on May 23 (“Rehearsed to Death”).