Here, in a letter to members, the American Booksellers Association’s Diversity Task Force looks at the word “diversity” and how it applies to the mission of the task force.
At Winter Institute 12, Roxane Gay observed that she was invited to speak to a profession whose members are overwhelmingly white, and said that she could not fix our diversity problem. As booksellers, we understood her declaration — that we as booksellers need to do this. She went on to make the point that the word “diversity” has lost its meaning.
This set the tone for the discussions to follow, with booksellers pointing out concerns about hiring, inventory, community activism, free speech, whose work gets published and whose does not, immigration, and representation of minorities within our stores and within the regional and national trade associations. So great was the desire to take action that ABA responded by forming a diversity task force and, shortly thereafter, sending out a diversity survey.
And there is that word again, the one that has lost its meaning (or whose meaning has gotten confused).
Most of the time when people say “diverse,” they mean not the assumed “normal” in our culture (white, heterosexual, cisgender). By and large, these are the people who hold power in our society. We define diversity by naming one or more of the identities that vary from the above “normal.” It is our mandate as booksellers to ask ourselves the deeper meaning of diversity. To be diverse is to be inclusive, embracing, understanding, and willing to assist with and share the stories of our cultured, varied communities. As we move away from the idea of dominant culture, we move toward a more humanistic understanding that we are all one human family.
Diversity is Muslim, Hindu, African, Asian, LGBTQ, autistic, poor, Mexican, Native American, black, rural, drug-addicted, suffering from mental illness, or differently abled, etc., etc. To be complete, this would be a rather long list, which is the reason why, in some minds and defined this way, the word loses any real sense of meaning. It seems so all-consuming as to boggle the essence of who we are in our community. And yet, why should this overwhelm us? As booksellers, we know the heart of the world is immense.
There are other aspects of diversity that are essential for this conversation: the diversity of the people who sell books and the (very) different and distinctive communities where our bookstores are situated. All of us serve the neighborhoods, communities, and regions we live in to the best of our abilities. What works for a bookstore in far west Texas might be very different from what works for a store in a big coastal city. There are no one-size-fits-all solutions. What, then, is the mission of the task force?
The most important thing to say to booksellers is that the Diversity Task Force is not here to task you with diversity issues, to insist you carry diverse books, to tell you how to hire, or to tell you how to run your business in any way. Rather, we are called to serve. Diversity is a topic that is already in the ABA Ends Policies. ABA already decided that diversity is an essential aspect to bookselling and to the success of bookstores in America. The task force was called to address the needs and concerns many of you have already expressed about how to make this vision a reality.
For some, the topic of diversity is a challenging one. Some of you have stated clearly that you do not have any needs or concerns with respect to diversity. As a task force committed to ensuring all voices are heard, we are developing resources that will be available for all who want them.
Others have asked for help with specific concerns. One of the most common fears expressed in the survey is a discomfort with talking about these issues. And yet, it is a necessary and empowering act to do so.
It’s so easy to say the wrong thing to a customer who needs direction or advice or who challenges you and the books you sell. You asked how to deal with unconscious bias and micro-aggressions among staff. You see problems with hiring. It is hard enough to find qualified applicants, period, so how do you find qualified applicants who more accurately reflect the community you serve? You want to know how to sell books with diverse characters to your mostly white, upper-class customers. Is it worth ordering them if they are the ones that must be returned? You want to know how to source books with diverse characters; if you don’t know about them, how can you help your customers find them? You want to know how to have a roster of authors coming into your store that better matches the demographics of the community you serve. Will publishers send out writers of color and LGBT authors? How do you get them to your store, and how do you attract an audience for them? You want to know where you can buy books in Spanish for your Spanish-speaking customers, in French for your French-speaking customers, and where the children’s picture books are with characters whose skin is not white. You want to know how to bring the minority communities from your neighborhood into your store. There are untapped markets there.
These are issues the Diversity Task Force and ABA are working to provide resources for, so that each store can find a solution or strategy that works best for their own needs and community. Look for more education and resource-sharing around these issues on ABA’s website.
Then there are the other, larger issues that mirror the questions on the mind of many Americans today. What is the role that bookstores play in the grand scheme of these diversity issues? How do we shape our culture, and how do we allow culture to shape who we are and how we do business? Where do we draw the line between advocacy and activism — or do we? Do we even want to go there at all, or do we want to keep the focus on which books sell best? As much as we focus on other projects and services, at heart we are retail businesses. How do we make our businesses as strong as possible so that we can serve our communities in other ways, too?
These questions invite dialogue and allow us to grow as booksellers and as people. Part of the work the Diversity Task Force and ABA seek to do is to create spaces for these conversations at our regional and national trade meetings. To do this well, we must be mindful and we must be deliberate. We must be tolerant and we must be kind.
The work is ongoing, and you will hear updates in time. Know, too, that we are here for you now. You can reach out to any one of us at any time to ask questions or share with us your concerns or stories of success.
For those interested in “What can I do now about all this?” ABA is offering two amazing day-long workshops (one on September 14 in New Orleans and one on October 11 in Denver) on “Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: Addressing Stereotypes and Creating a Welcoming Environment.” The testimonials from past workshops have been incredible. You can read more about the workshops here.
With best wishes to serve our bookselling community,
Beyond Barcodes Bookstore, Kokomo, IN
Casa Camino Real Book Store & Art Gallery, Las Cruces, NM
Hannah Oliver Depp
WORD, Brooklyn, NY, and Jersey City, NJ
Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill, NC
Books Inc., Berkeley, CA
Word Up Community Bookshop, New York, NY
Malaprop’s Bookstore/Café, Asheville, NC
Angela Maria Spring
Duende District Bookstore, Washington, D.C.
City Lights Books, San Francisco, CA