Wi12: Roxane Gay on Bookstores as Sanctuaries

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    Roxane Gay, social commentator and author of Difficult Women (Grove Press), kicked off Winter Institute 12’s first full day of education sessions with an impassioned talk about the role indie booksellers must play as spaces for solace and refuge in their communities. Gay’s breakfast keynote on Saturday, January 28, brought the room to its feet.

    Addressing the hundreds of booksellers and publishers in attendance, Gay acknowledged that the book industry has a diversity problem. “This problem extends to absolutely every area of the industry,” she said. “There are not enough writers of color being published; when our books are published, we fight even more than white writers for publicity and reviews.”

    People of color are underrepresented throughout the business — in editorial, in marketing, in publicity, and in literary agencies, said Gay. “People of color are underrepresented in bookselling, because look at this room. This inability of publishing to find people of color is one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of our time…. The few of those who do manage to break through are touted as examples of progress while we are still the exception and not the rule.”

    “I’m done having the same conversations over and over while very little changes,” Gay said. “People don’t really want to hear about diversity and inclusion. They don’t want to do what it takes, which is invest actual money for a sustained period of time to change the makeup of this industry.”

    Gay, who describes herself as a black, bisexual, Haitian-American woman, stressed that she is first and foremost a writer — someone who has been writing since she was four years old, making up stories about villages and sketching them out on paper napkins. “I loved how I could make up anything I wanted. There were no limits or rules beyond the borders of my imagination,” she said. “I was also a reader, and it was reading that allowed the borders of my imagination to expand. It was reading that stoked my ambition to write bigger and better stories.”

    The first bookstore Gay ever visited was a Little Professor bookstore in her hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. Her mother, a voracious reader, brought her to the store to ensure she had reading to do once she was done with her schoolwork, “as is the way of Haitian parents,” she said. “I loved going to the Little Professor because I knew I was always going to find something new to read, something new for my imagination to devour.”

    Gay consumed series like The Girls of Canby Hall by Emily Chase, The Baby-Sitters Club by Ann M. Martin, The Boxcar Children by Gertrude Chandler Warner, and Sweet Valley High by Francine Pascal. Her parents didn’t monitor her reading, so she was able to pick up books that were well beyond age appropriate, she said. And her imagination expanded.

    “I continued to be charmed by booksellers, who were always so patient when I was younger, and then, as I grew up, helpful and interested in showing me, by introducing me to all manner of good books, that there need not be any borders to my imagination at all,” said Gay. “Throughout my life, books have been my best friends. In bookstores and with books, I have been able to forget the cruelties of the world. I have been able to shield myself when I need safety. I have been able to find solace and joy. I have been able to find sanctuary, a consecrated place, a place of refuge and protection.”

    Gay explained how on the day after the recent presidential election she struggled to leave the house. “I was stunned,” she said. “I was ashamed of being so stunned and so unprepared to face America’s reality.”

    That day, Gay visited an indie bookstore that was filled by people just as distraught as she. “I was surrounded by strangers who were not quite strangers because we shared a love of reading,” she said. “To feel like part of a community, even for an hour, on that dark day offered some small comfort and a smaller but much-needed measure of hope. Together, we found refuge.”

    Bookstores have always been important community spaces, but in the coming years their role will become more necessary than ever, Gay stressed. As such, it is imperative that community spaces like bookstores do their part to make their stores more inclusive.

    “As booksellers, the work ahead of you now is to ensure your stores are places of refuge for everyone who needs sanctuary,” she said.

    As an example of the sanctuary and comfort booksellers can offer, Gay mentioned an appearance she made at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee in 2014. Before the event, owner Daniel Goldin did a dedicated outreach to black organizations to generate interest for An Untamed State (Grove Press). “I’ve never forgotten that — how Daniel took the initiative to broaden the community welcomed into his store,” she said. “He afforded me the quiet joy of seeing some people who look like me in the audience. He afforded me some sanctuary.”

    Gay said she had planned to offer advice on how booksellers can diversify their store communities and encourage book buyers to read more diversely; her list of suggestions had included looking to stores like Eso Won Books in Los Angeles and Source Booksellers in Detroit, black-owned bookstores that foster strong and diverse reading communities.

    “I was going to talk about doing outreach into communities of color and making sure that books by people of color are not just segregated in special sections but offered throughout the store. I was going to discuss the importance of being vigorous in handselling books by writers of color, and to find ways of selling these books not just to readers of color but to white readers as well. I was going to talk about the physical spaces of many independent bookstores and how inhospitable they are to people with disabilities, because inclusion is not just about race and ethnicity,” said Gay.

    “But really, you don’t need me to tell you these things,” she concluded. “You are smart, passionate book people. You can forego the distance of needing to be taught what you can learn through trial and error. You can figure out how to be more inclusive in all ways. You can get political. You can get uncomfortable. You can remember that you are not just selling books; you are providing sanctuary. You are the stewards of sacred spaces. Rise to the occasion. Rise.”