Bookstore Trouble Comes Out of the Blue

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By Chris Finan, President of the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression

Trouble often arrives out of a clear blue sky, even during the lazy days of August.

Three bookstore emergencies were reported to the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE) in recent weeks:

  • An outraged author handcuffed herself to a shopping cart to protest a store’s decision not to carry her new book.
  • A New Age bookseller received a subpoena demanding that she turn over the book purchase records of a customer as well as a list of appointments the customer had made with the store’s psychics.
  • Protests rained down on Books & Books in Miami over a scheduled reading by the lawyer who successfully defended the much-hated Casey Anthony.

Any bookseller could face these problems. ABFFE, which is the bookseller’s voice in the fight against censorship, can help — and did so in two of these cases. But it is important to think about how to handle problems before there is an emergency.

Many booksellers probably know that the handcuffed writer was comedian Joan Rivers, who protested with a bullhorn at a Costco store in Burbank, California. Rivers claimed that Costco had censored her book, “I Hate Everyone … Starting With Me,” because it has four-letter words on the back cover. She managed to sell 100 copies before the store manager and police escorted her and her film crew from the store.

The chances of Joan Rivers showing up at your store are slim. But many booksellers have been confronted by authors demanding to know why they won’t put their book on the shelves. Like Rivers, they may even accuse the store of censorship. “This is an anti-First Amendment freedom of speech issue,” Rivers said.

Of course, the First Amendment protects the right to sell whatever you want. But it is useful to be able to explain the difference between censorship and selection. ABFFE has created a video, “Scenes From a Bookstore,” that portrays the right and the wrong way to explain. (“Scenes From a Bookstore” features three “acts.” Act II deals with censorship and selection. Act I shows the right and wrong ways to handle customer complaints about “offensive” books. Act III is about protecting reader privacy.)

Costco decided not to respond to Rivers. But what do you do when you are forced to answer? This is the situation that confronted the owner of the New Age store. She received a subpoena from a lawyer in a divorce case who wanted to know what books her customer had been reading and what appointments she had scheduled with psychics. (I am withholding the bookseller’s name and the name of the store because it is necessary to fully protect the privacy of the customer.)

Subpoenas have deadlines and an answer was due in just a few days. Remembering the Tattered Cover Book Store’s successful fight against a search warrant, the bookseller called General Manager Matt Miller, a former ABFFE board member, who sent her to us. I immediately contacted Theresa Chmara, a lawyer on the ABFFE board who advises both ABFFE and the American Library Association on reader privacy and other free speech issues.

We recommended that the bookseller tell the lawyer seeking the records that the store’s privacy policy prevented her from turning over any information. We also suggested that she tell her customer about the subpoena and ask her to have her attorney attempt to quash it. Otherwise, the bookstore might have had to go to court to defend its refusal to turn over the records. The customer’s attorney succeeded in getting the subpoena dismissed.

ABFFE recommends that bookstores anticipate reader privacy problems by having a privacy policy in place. We have created signs that can be posted in the store indicating a commitment to defending both free speech and reader privacy. In addition, we have posted information about dealing with demands for customer information in Questions and Answers: Protecting Customer Privacy in Bookstores.

The crisis at Books & Books was also unexpected. Defense attorney Jose Baez approached the store about an author appearance as much to build business for the opening of his Miami law office as to promote his new book, Presumed Guilty: Casey Anthony: The Inside Story. Suddenly, the store began receiving threatening telephone calls and e-mails. Protesters also got busy on Facebook, posting complaints and threats on the Books & Books page and creating a page that encouraged a boycott of the store.

While panic is a normal response in a situation like this, owner Mitchell Kaplan and his staff kept their cool. They quickly determined that the protest had been ignited by a brief announcement of the Baez appearance in a Tampa newspaper. Using the tools that Facebook provides, they also learned that the protesters were all from the Orlando area where the Casey Anthony trial occurred.

Kaplan had to make a difficult choice. He could issue a public response to the protest that would undoubtedly have produced expressions of support from the store’s many loyal customers. But he worried about drawing more attention to the protest. He told Baez what was going on but decided not to do anything else until there was evidence that the protest was growing and had spread to the Miami area.  

In the meantime, Kaplan contacted ABFFE. As a member of the ABFFE board, he knows that author appearances are frequently a flashpoint. There have been several controversies in recent years, and ABFFE has created a model statement on author appearances to help booksellers explain the importance of allowing even the most controversial authors to defend their views in public. I suggested that the store have the statement ready to distribute.

As the day of the event approached, Kaplan concluded that the protest had not spread to Miami and discounted the chances that picketers would appear. Although he had a statement ready to distribute just in case, the event went off without a hitch. Baez spoke to 150 people, and the store sold a lot of books.

Thankfully, the booksellers in these recent cases successfully defended the First Amendment rights of their customers. Booksellers have a deep philosophical commitment to protecting free speech. But it isn’t enough to want to do the right thing. You have to prepare for the possibility that you will face your own free speech emergency.

The first step is the easiest. Put ABFFE on your speed-dial. Our 24-hour hotline is (800) 727-4203.

For more information about ABFFE and its mission is to promote and protect the free exchange of ideas, visit or e-mail Chris Finan.