Booksellers Share Remarks Prepared for Winter Institute Town Hall

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly version

Following up on Bookselling This Week’s reporting on the January 29, 2017, American Booksellers Association Town Hall Meeting at Winter Institute 12, here, with permission, are the prepared remarks presented by booksellers at the event.

Prepared remarks made by Christin Evans, owner of The Booksmith in San Francisco and director of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, California, at the ABA Town Hall at Winter Institute 12
(Note: The content of the original speaking notes has been edited by the author for print publication.)

Yesterday, members of the Booksmith and Kepler’s communities rallied and headed to SFO international arrivals to protest the detention of green card and visa holders. The San Francisco Bay Area is erupting in protest on a nearly daily basis. It’s been a disconcerting juxtaposition to watch, on the one hand, multitudes of people who have rarely if ever engaged in political protest now finding their feet and voice — and, on the other, to witness the largely business-as-usual panel topics and programming we’ve been engaged in here.

Three weeks ago, I e-mailed a suggestion to the organizers of this institute. I suggested we host a panel on the decision by one of the big five publishers to give a $250k book deal and a marketing platform to a rising star among white supremacists, the newly branded and so-called “alt-right,” who has cloaked himself in the message of free speech while engaging in online bullying and harassment behavior flagrant enough to lead Twitter to permanently ban him from their platform.

Upon the announcement of the Simon & Schuster book deal, the staff at one of our stores, The Booksmith, discussed and reached consensus to take a public stand to protest that publisher’s decision.

My reason for asking for space at this institute is that I wanted to discuss that decision, but more broadly, I wanted to engage in a conversation about the booksellers’ relevancy in this moment in time. I suspect that in the coming months and years this role will look different for each of us. If your community is already largely in consensus and actively exercising their right to protest, like ours, then the toolkit might include some of the steps we’ve taken:

1) Of course we’ve read and recommended relevant books — we’re continually creating, researching, and deploying relevant in-store and window displays.

2) We have already hosted several authors as part of an evolving events program that engages with what’s happening. (Recent events include appearances by Stanford Professor Jeff Chang, public radio host Michael Krasny, and Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson — and we are soon to host cultural critic Camille Paglia and essayist Rebecca Solnit.)

3) But beyond that we are also taking the additional step of putting our money where our mouth is — by committing to cut Simon purchases by 50 percent — and for those Simon titles we do sell, we are donating our profit to the ACLU. Already, we’ve raised several thousand dollars.

And, we’ve had an incredibly positive response — we’ve received over 1,000 personal messages — the vast majority of which have been overwhelmingly supportive. But we wouldn’t expect that all of you would take similar steps. I suspect that there are some of you who are also taking similar actions and that we’d have all benefited from a conversation about what it is we are doing.

Some of us are going to struggle with the role of a relevant bookstore in a tumultuous time.  For some, providing a space for refuge will be all we can manage to do. For others, the relevancy of our store may take form in a more activist stance.

So my request is that ABA be open to these important discussions of what stores are doing and thinking about doing now. Some interesting initiatives that define this association might come out of those conversations. I ask that we host at least one if not a series of panel discussions at BookExpo this year. That we encourage this dialogue and discussion as part of a strengthening exercise for our businesses and industry.

Some of the undercurrents of those conversations started in the diversity discussion groups yesterday, but there is so much more to be shared and done.

And, like the 160 Simon children’s authors who signed their letter, we were disappointed that ABA took such a quick stance to defend Simon’s action in the name of freedom of speech — ironically, I’d point out, to defend the publication of a book by someone whose business is in silencing minorities and the disenfranchised, someone who’s said that women should shut up, fat people should be deported; someone who has incited the doxing of actress Leslie Jones, disparaged with his remarks people of color, and of Islamic and Jewish faiths. Yes, he cloaks his hate speech in free speech absolutism. But for those of us who have taken a constitutional law class, we also know that this country has imposed limits on certain kinds of behaviors and speech that fall outside the protection of free speech. And there is an active debate about what constitutes harm from speech posted online — hacking and posting and reposting private photos and information — which is called “doxing.” Or calling the police falsely to someone’s home — called “swatting.”

Sometimes the law takes a while to catch up to new technologies. And I think it’s worthwhile to have a conversation about the activist bookstore’s role in the Internet age. Roy Kepler took pride that you could purchase books across the political spectrum in his store. He sold Mao and Marx — and people protested Kepler’s radical anti-war political stance. But now, here we are 50 years later — books and ideas are widely available and distributed so that you can purchase this book — on,,, — we face the reality that Kepler’s not stocking a book doesn’t really restrict the access to those ideas.

As an industry, it’s our obligation to define our relevancy and what, if any, complicity we have in supporting publishers who are bankrolling the systematic oppression of minorities. This question is worth some time, discussion, and careful introspection. So I thank you for your consideration to be the space for us to freely discuss our relevancy in this time.

Prepared remarks presented by Angela Maria Spring, most recently a manager at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., together with Hannah Oliver Depp, the operations director at WORD in Jersey City, New Jersey, and Brooklyn, New York, at the ABA Town Hall at Winter Institute 12

ANGELA: Good morning, my name is Angela Maria Spring. I’ve been a bookseller for 16 years, working at indie bookstores in New Mexico, New York City, and Washington, D.C., where I was most recently a manager at Politics & Prose. I’m here today as a member of the Latinx community, a proud daughter and granddaughter of Central and Latin American immigrants, and a chingona bookseller.

HANNAH: My name is Hannah Oliver Depp. I’ve been in books for seven years and worked as a manager at Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., and am now the operations director at WORD in Jersey City and Brooklyn, and a founding member of Indies Forward. I come to you today as someone concerned with the preservation of our industry. As a woman who is almost always the only person of color in decision rooms. As a queer, black, native, activist bookseller.

ANGELA: Many of you marched last Saturday to support the rights of women, people of color, Muslims, immigrants, the LGBTQ and disabled communities in defiance of Donald Trump and his policies.

HANNAH: You stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with people like us, with courage and love. And today we bring that march to you, the ABA board, leadership, and bookstore owners, because Donald Trump rose to power on the back of white and male privilege. And we, the entire book industry, are owned, operated, and run by a privileged few.

ANGELA: Until we come to terms with that very uncomfortable fact, there can be no change or true progress. We pride ourselves on being an industry that offers safe spaces for all people to learn and discuss and develop, but in truth, we do not. Know that all around the country, bookstores have very few non-white booksellers.

HANNAH: It is vital to not make the mistake of thinking simply because you sell books by people of color that you have created a wholly safe space for people of color.

ANGELA: We know you are compassionate people, and we see your desire to be allies. We’ve worked for and with people like you for years and we know you would never intentionally further the status quo. But as the independent bookstore community grows, we must acknowledge and take action — that we need far more people of color and LGBTQ identity owning and working in bookstores.

HANNAH: To most of our industry, diversity, multiculturalism, intersectionality, queerness, whatever you prefer to call it, is an afterthought, not the mission. So I challenge you, the ABA board and leadership and all member bookstores, to make it the mission.

ANGELA: Actions, not words, are truth. While we applaud Roxane Gay’s keynote speech, we need concrete, actionable steps to make bookselling more inclusive. There is not a single workshop or panel for the adult trade bookstores or booksellers addressing how to make our stores and staff more diverse, or how to reach out to minority communities, or training on how to be better and more informed managers to our staff members who are from the same marginalized and oppressed communities that we marched for only a week ago.

HANNAH: So today, we challenge you, the ABA leadership and staff, to make diversity not just symbolic, but systemic. We challenge you to have a more representative, diverse staff and board come 2018.

ANGELA: We send the same challenge to all store owners in the ABA membership. Have diversity sensitivity trainings for your staff, look at your management, especially your senior managers, and ask yourself if it’s truly representative in ALL areas. Educate yourself on what it means to have privilege.

HANNAH: Now is the time to be brave. To understand that real inclusivity means being uncomfortable and truly listening to those who have been systemically oppressed all their lives, and to face the idea that, unwittingly, we might be supporting a culture of institutional racism.

ANGELA: We have chosen this career partially because of the spirit of inclusiveness at the heart of the book industry. So, ABA booksellers, it’s our turn to take up the challenge of working toward being a truly diverse and inclusive industry.

HANNAH: And the only way to do this is to break the silence. We believe in all of you. It’s time to work together to achieve the ideals we strive for as an industry.

ANGELA and HANNAH: We can do this. Si, se puede. Yes, we can.