“Can I pitch a story to to you?” Ann Patchett, author and independent bookseller, asked journalist Leslie Stahl during the keynote interview on the second day of Winter Institute. The two women covered everything from Trump to babies to book recommendations. “The health of independent bookstores.” When Stahl asked Patchett to find her an edge, the co owner of Parnassus Books solemnly promised to develop a drug habit and then to kick it. The ballroom in the Hyatt Regency in Minneapolis, crowded with over 600 booksellers, broke into laughter.
While diversity was the theme of the twelfth annual Winter Institute, a gathering of independent booksellers, publishers, and authors organized by the American Bookseller’s Association and sponsored by Ingram, Shelf Awareness, and other big publishers, Trump was the name on everyone’s lips. Amanda Palmer believes Trump can make punk great again, Powell’s sells shwag promising to make America read again, and a hotel full of people working in the independent bookselling industry spent the weekend reclaiming bookselling as a political act.
This was my first Winter Institute, only possible thanks to a generous scholarship I won through Grove Atlantic (which I am so grateful for), and I think this was both an unusual and perfect time to go; bookselling is more important than ever right now. Booksellers, who believe in independent thought, free speech, and equality, participated in the Civil Rights Movement, the Womens Movement, and war protests throughout history. Yes, books went to war in the literal sense during WWI when soldiers received pocket books as part of their rations, but books are continually and constantly at the front lines. Books, and booksellers, fight ignorance with information and hatred by providing places of solace.
Yes, as an industry we have some work to do. We need to make ourselves more diverse and our stores more inclusive. Our industry is largely Caucasian, largely over a certain age, and largely already of a certain class (we don’t go into bookselling for the money, but just attending Winter Institute, even for scholarship winners, suggests a certain amount of disposable income). We need to make bookselling a more attractive career for readers of all ages, races, class levels, and genders. By embracing and encouraging diversity booksellers take an important stand against the current president of the United States and his anti immigrant stance, his policies developed in ignorance, and his hate speech. By making bookstores into places of sanctuary booksellers are helping to preserve what is great about this country.
There is no secret to diversity, author and activist Roxane Gay told her captive audience during her keynote speech. Gay said continually discussing diversity was tiresome, that she was not privy to some “Negro wisdom” the rest of us don’t share; diversity, in many ways, is just common sense, kindness and treating others with respect and equality. We overuse the word, usually to make good white people feel better, and often in a self serving manner. To truly embrace diversity we need to feel uncomfortable and we are going to need to make others feel uncomfortable as well. And why not, Gay demanded. As a bisexual, over-weight, Black American, Haitian, and female, Gay has been made to feel uncomfortable her entire life.
I’ve always taken myself a little too seriously and my job as a bookseller was no different. About seven years ago I became annoyed with my coworker when he commented on the retail aspect of bookselling. “We are so much more than retailers,” I told him with all the earnestness my early 20s and my liberal arts degree allowed. “We are facilitators in a conversation between readers and writers.” A part of me that always believed that; but, I will admit, after the horror that was last year’s election I was ready to bury myself in books and just never come out again. I felt inspired after meeting so many like-minded individuals who believed in the power of words and books and readers, in the importance of truth and the power of words to get us there. In this age of alternative facts, in which the leader of the free world is staunchly anti literary, there is an increasing emphasis on bookstores as places of sanctuary, on reading as rebellion, writing as resistance, and bookselling as a political act.
I didn’t mean for bookselling to become my career; I’m a reader and book lover, but I am a writer at heart and by training. Writers have a huge capacity to instigate change, to disseminate ideas, and to participate in conversations that can reshape the world. But, as a writer you are never sure how many people read what you have to say, or even care. As a bookseller, I may not know that a customer will read the book they are buying, but the intention is there, the thought has taken hold in their brains. I don’t know if I can make a difference as a writer; I know I can make a difference as a bookseller.
As Patchett emphasized in her conversation with Stahl, our industry, recently bemoaned as facing unavoidable extinction, is healthy enough to take a stand. We have to define our values and allow our staff, the books and products on our shelves, the events we hold, and the donations we make to reflect these values. Not every stand has to be huge and widely publicized; we can’t all be the Booksmith in San Francisco. Start small, start where you are.
Displays during times of celebration or crises are important, but we have to ask ourselves what is face-out in our stores every day. Who are our booksellers, and what books are they recommending? We have to really ask ourselves if all feel welcome, see themselves reflected, in our stores, and take necessary steps to ensure we can answer affirmatively. Just opening our doors every day is not enough; we must make sanctuary into a verb as well as an adjective. We might anger a few people, customers who don’t share our beliefs or who don’t understand that a bookstore is a place where truth and goodness prevails, but we need to take the risk that the rest will catch up to the right side of wrong.
In Roxane Gay’s words, may we “RISE!”