Free Expression Friday: The Bottom (Annastasia Williams)

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Annastasia Williams is the Bookstore Director for The Bookshop at the Bottom in Knoxville, Tennessee. 

Can you tell us a little bit about The Bottom? What does the name mean?

The Bottom was started in 2020 — I like to say that we're a pandemic baby — but it  sprung out of the research and work of Dr. Enkeshi El-Amin, a sociologist who at the time was finishing up her doctoral program at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. She was studying race and place, essentially, and uncovered this neighborhood in East Knoxville, Tennessee called the Bottom. There are bottoms all over the US: they were kind of synonyms for Black neighborhoods, Black community spaces. Then in the 50s and 60s, folks were forcibly removed from their homes under the guise of urban renewal, and that community was lost.

As Dr. El-Amin was uncovering this history and speaking to elders who lived in that neighborhood, her thought was, “I want to reclaim some of that space in East Knoxville where the Bottom used to stand.” The space was the initial impetus of The Bottom. We just need the space. We want to reclaim the space and the land. But from there it became more like, what do we want to provide to our community? And we settled on a bookshop and arts programming. 

So, we're a nonprofit organization, and those are our two arms: literature and art. We provide a Black-affirming space in both of those areas [for] not only the Bottom that came before, and to honor the elders that are still showing up and supporting our space, but we're also doing it for the future of Black Knoxville and supporting our community through the arts in that way.

How have you experienced the book ban crisis as a Black bookseller and as a champion of Black books?

Especially in the pandemic era, when we saw the murder of George Floyd happening before our eyes, a lot of people were engaging with diversity, equity, and inclusion work. A lot of people were seeking resources and education around, “How did we get here? Why did this happen and how can we make sure this doesn't happen again?” And so at the time that we opened the space, we had just 40 titles on our shelves. We now have over 4,000 titles in our bookshop. Part of that growth and the speed of that growth is because there was, at some point, that demand for the types of books that we had in our space and learning more about anti-racism work and resistance work over the years. I think there's been counter-resistance to that, and we're seeing that in the way that books are being banned and challenged in spaces in our state, in our school districts, and in our public institutions, our libraries. It trickles down to the indie bookstores as well. Books by Black authors already take up so little of the publishing industry. For us, that visibility for Black books is super important. And if a book is banned that means that access to it dwindles even more, and the visibility of that book and that author dwindles even more. So it's deeply personal for us, something that we think about often and try to combat in whatever ways we can.

Have you seen those conversations spill over into the bookstore at all? Has that informed how you approach the work that you're doing?

Absolutely. We sell a lot of children's titles in our space, and parents and children are looking for material that reflects their experience. So, a lot of times we hear from those kids and those parents, “I'm so glad I found you, this is exactly the store I want to see. I feel like I see myself in this book. This book is better than anything I'm reading in school. And this is not something I have access to otherwise.” It's something that we see all the time. We created a free literature program called LitKidz, where parents can sign up their kids from 0 to 18. Those kids get a punch card for the year, and they can come get a free book every month. Part of the design of that program was we wanted to make sure there wasn't a financial barrier or an access barrier to Black literature for kids under 18. So that's a direct response to book banning and some of the other challenges that Black authors and Black books face in the industry.

We also do a lot of education around book banning, because we've seen that a lot of people, if you're not paying attention, kind of miss it. There's a lot of coded language around banned books, and people aren't always reading the titles that are being banned and seeing for themselves why that might be. So, we're hearing that, too: “I saw that this Toni Morrison book was banned, and I read it, and I don't understand.” So, we're seeing people challenging that for themselves also.


How do you see institutions like The Bottom Bookshop contributing to a fight that, in many cases, is playing out in school libraries and in public libraries?

We see literature as a form of liberation, and we also see literature as a form of resistance in and of itself. First and foremost, we want to make sure that when people walk into our space, they have access to literature, regardless of whether it's banned, or challenged, or not. And because we are the type of organization that we are, we're able to do that. And we provide a lot of education on that too, and we’re promoting even those books that are being challenged in other venues. And we encourage people to pick up the book and read it for themselves, make their own judgments. We're incorporating these types of books into our book clubs, into virtual discussions, and having community conversations around the content and why it's so important — especially to our community members who are often getting left out of these conversations on a larger scale.