An article about Reach and Teach – Books, Toys, and Gifts by Anouschka B. in The Nueva Current, June 2021 https://issuu.com/thenuevacurrent/docs/the_nueva_current_-_june_2021 from The Nueva School
“What can I help you find today?”
Store owner Derrick Kikuchi, a short man with close-cropped gray-black hair and a kindness that radiates even through his mask, stands near the front of Reach And Teach Books, Toys, and Gifts. It is a regular Friday afternoon, and Kikuchi, upon seeing a customer walk through the door, is asking the same question he’s been asking every day for 11 years.
While it’s a common question for any store, at Reach And Teach, a gift shop that aims to transform the world through storytelling, it takes on a new meaning.
Sandwiched between a spa salon and a Japanese restaurant on 25th Avenue (in San Mateo), Reach And Teach is a small shop – just 800 square feet – spilling with an array of books, and gifts, each product designed to help customers engage in social justice and peacemaking in their day-to-day lives.
Kikuchi and Craig Wiesner, co-owner and co-founder of Reach And Teach as well as Kikuchi’s husband of 30 years, have hand-picked each product to uphold that motto. Books are selected to educate customers about topics like racial justice, gender equality, and the LGBTQ+ community. Games and gifts, certified to have been ethically made or following fair-trade standards (products that are certified to have been made in places that ensure safe working conditions), originate from impoverished communities all around the world. But most importantly, every product, whether a slab of chocolate, fresh-roast coffee, or earrings, carries the story of the community it came from.
So, when Kikuchi asks a customer what he can help them find, he’s not just looking to recommend a product – he’s looking to tell them a story.
“Every conversation we have with somebody in the store provides a moment for us to share those stories,” Kikuchi said. “For us, that’s the greatest way to teach about different parts of the world as well as different social justice issues.”
Because their offerings are hand-crafted, Wiesner and Kikuchi know every inch of the store like the back of their hands. When a customer at the door tells Kikuchi they’re looking for a small, easily-giftable garment, he knows exactly where to go.
Walking past shelves where books like Amanda Gorman’s The Hill We Climb and Angie Thomas’ The Hate U Give peer down at onlookers, Kikuchi settles on pointing the customer to a small table bursting with fair trade gifts and trinkets: hand-made beaded animals, jewelry boxes, bells, and scarves.
“We know how terrible working conditions can be for people all around the world making the things we consume, here in this country,” Wiesner said. “Fair trade makes a huge difference in people’s lives.”
Kikuchi has selected a scarf from Guatemala patterns for the customer. Its fabric weaves back to the Ixil community in Chajul, Guatemala, an isolated, indigenous Mayan-Ixil community with a 93% poverty rate where the two-dollar daily income most families live on makes it impossible for the expenses required for post-elementary school. Reach And Teach partners with Limitless Horizons to give members of the community opportunities for their hand-made items to reach markets around the world in order to finance education in the community.
“That these little things they sell could be empowering the whole community is just amazing to us,” Wiesner said.
At the checkout counter, the customer tells Kikuchi that they’re ready to purchase the garment.
The machine beeps. Every beep, every sale, is a marker of Reach And Teach solidifying their connection to a community.
But things hadn’t always been this way.
Before Reach And Teach’s shelves were stocked with fair-trade or nonprofit partnered gifts, before Wiesner and Kikuchi had fully devoted their lives to social justice and peacemaking, Wiesner and Kikuchi had been in the homes of the Communidad Octavio Ortiz in Bajo Lempa, El Salvador, listening to stories.
It had been the first hot day they had arrived there in April 2020. Heat waves wafted through the village, enshrouding the small, brick buildings in a dusty haze.
The Communidad Octavio Ortiz was a close-knit community, sewn together by the sorrow and and suffering from the genocidal Salvadoran Civil War that clung to them like a shadow.
Now, in the year 2000, settled on a piece of government-allotted land, they were trying to rebuild their lives out of the ashes of the old ones. The conditions were difficult and resources sparse. That first evening, the family Wiesner was staying with cooked one chicken – which would feed their entire household for the next five days.
Wiesner and Kikuchi spent their time learning about the people there. One night, gathered in his family’s home, Wiesner heard the stories of the Civil War.
The mother of the house had been raped by soldiers. Her husband had been tortured. The American soldiers that had been ordered to intervene during the Civil War had participated in both.
“Yet I’m sitting there – I’m a former American soldier – and they have no animosity towards us, they have nothing but love for us,” Wiesner said. “They’re giving us their best place to sleep, they’re giving us their best food, and they’re telling us their stories – why? Because they want us to take those stories home and make sure other people get them.”
Wiesner and Kikuchi returned changed. They would never forget the generosity of these people, their open hospitality even in the face of a history between their communities and the U.S. fraught with tension.
Back in California, they dove into social activism work: border justice along the California-Mexico frontier, speaking out about the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Then the September 11, 2001 attacks disrupted the fabric of everyone’s daily lives. During the early years of the U.S. War on Terror, Kikuchi and Wiesner joined an interfaith delegation to Afghanistan where, just like in El Salvador, they listened to the stories from the communities they visited.
Sitting in the ruins near Kabul, Wiesner heard two parents recount the story of their 8-year-old son, who had almost lost his arms and legs to a cluster munition, when he noticed a movement from the corner of his eye. Wiesner squinted. Emerging from the hazy distance was a woman, holding a tray of tea and cookies.
Wiesner could hardly believe his eyes: there, in a crumbling community where the stench of grief and devastation was palpable, was a woman going out of her way to bring her best gifts to a guest.
That moment would stick with him for the rest of his life.
Listening to hundreds of individuals whose lives had fallen apart faster than the blink of an eye, Wiesner and Kikuchi saw the power of storytelling as a form of advocacy.
“We had a friend who used to say that the shortest distance between a friend and an enemy is a story, and I really believe that,” Kikuchi said. “The ability to change the world comes from the authority of a person’s own story.”
Wiesner and Kikuchi presented those stories wherever they could.
One afternoon, after speaking at Palo Alto High School in 2003, they experienced an unusual end to their presentation. They were heading back to their car when a high school boy stopped them. He thanked them and proceeded to say, “I don’t know what it is you two do for a living, but whatever it is, you should stop. This is how kids like me need to learn about the world.”
They knew he was right. The idea of Reach And Teach, though, didn’t come immediately. Wiesner and Kikuchi had devoted themselves to nonprofit organizations when Kikuchi created the game “CIVIO”: a blend of Yu-Gi-Oh! and Magic: The Gathering, but applied to civil rights.
It was their first retail product. From there, Reach And Teach developed like a pearl starting from the first grain of sand. Kikuchi and Wiesner began surrounding CIVIO with other products, adding more and more until their garage threatened to overflow.
“We felt like it was time to grow up and get out of the house,” Wiesner said.
On July 15, 2010, Reach And Teach sprang up on 144 W. 25th Avenue.
11 years later, Wiesner and Kikuchi still remember every one of the thousands of stories they heard. Their experiences in El Salvador and Afghanistan were invaluable in sculpting the store into what it is today.
“[Our time] there influenced the importance of storytelling and experiential learning,” Kikuchi said. “That’s what caused us not to create a traditional learning company, but one in which anything can become a story.”
Bits and pieces of their time there are also present in the small – but important – store details that serve as reminders of the generous hospitality they received despite the devastations each community faced.
In memory of the woman who brought them tea and cookies, Wiesner and Kikuchi set up a communal tea set (although it has been put on hiatus due to the pandemic) near the entrance of Reach And Teach. Every day, they steeped a fresh brew of Rooibos tea, sending plumes of smoke and a pleasant aroma into the air.
“We invite each person that comes in to help themselves to a cup of tea,” Wiesner said. “It’s a little bit of sweetness, a little bit of hospitality, which is something that we learned in Afghanistan.”
On the shelf next to the tea is a basket of chocolates tracing back to a memory of El Salvador. “How they turned that one chicken into something that fed us for five days was about abundance,” Wiesner said. “That’s why we give everybody who comes here a piece of chocolate – we want to make people feel a sense of abundance when they come into the store, that there really is no scarcity.”
[Nueval School] Equity and Social Justice Director, Alegria Barclay, who has been shopping at Reach And Teach for five years, loves the inexplicable sense of “warmth” bursting from the store.
“The owners are amazing – they’re the kindest – loveliest people – and I think they really created a space that’s not just a store but a community hub,” Barclay said. “They know everybody, they’ve been here a long time, and they’re really committed to the whole community.”
A store like Reach And Teach, Barclay says, “isn’t just a store.” But the rise of online shopping and sprawling retail stores has stamped out the flavourful quirks, personality, once commonly present in stores.
“When you support a small business that has committed itself to the community, you’re spending money on more than just the item you buy – you’re spending the money on supporting the community,” Barclay said. “If we lost a store like Reach And Teach, we’d be losing a lot more than just the products it offers.”
Reach And Teach was almost lost in the isolation of the pandemic.
The initial lockdown that settled over Reach And Teach was the store’s worst nightmare with no promise of waking up. Wiesner and Kikuchi found themselves knee-deep in impending disaster: with no more in-person customers, their sales were down by 80% and their income was scant, hardly enough to cover the rent.
The life vest that stopped them from sinking into bankruptcy was expanding their book collection to an online bookstore. Whereas customers could only buy what was physically in-stock before, now, by giving their entire book collection a digital shelf, they could offer customers an Amazon-esque appeal.
As soon as customers could hop on the book bandwagon, sales skyrocketed. In only a few months, they had sold more books than they normally sold in a year.
While their online bookstore still flourishes, the customer interactions that are the bread and butter of Reach And Teach have returned now with in-store shopping.
Wiesner and Kikuchi can go back to asking customers “What can I help you find today?” The stories behind each product can once again be told. The domino effect Reach And Teach products create can continue.
“I’m hoping that we’re able to get stories out there into the world about other communities and places and inherently create peacemakers by the stories they tell,” Kikuchi said. “Every time we tell a story and then they tell someone else, it just keeps getting further and further out – so the things that people are able to buy, or even just see at Reach And Teach become a carrier for that story, and therefore a carrier for change.”
The first domino might tip through someone pointing out a bracelet on another’s wrist or asking where a charm dangling from a keychain is from. There’s no telling how far the chain will go, but every product has the ability to start the ripple.
“We like to be a reminder that you, that each person, has the ability to make a huge difference by how they interact with the world, by how they shop, by the decisions they make,” Kikuchi said. “You may not be 18 yet, you may not be able to vote in an election, but every time you buy something, every time you don’t buy something, you’re voting.”
At the front door of Reach And Teach, there’s a jangle. Kikuchi looks up. The customer who bought the Guatemalan scarf is exiting the store, their gift clasped safely under their arm.
The door closes.
A story leaves along with the customer, waiting to be heard by the world.