Indie Booksellers Share Strategies for Creating Inclusive Environments

Printer-friendly versionPrinter-friendly versionSend by emailSend by email

Just as book lovers are not limited by age, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity, ability, or native language, neither should the bookselling population be, according to several booksellers who spoke with Bookselling This Week about efforts to become more inclusive in hiring and nurturing diverse employees.

Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose, manages a staff of more than 120 people across two bookstores and a café in Washington, D.C., with a third bookstore coming soon to Union Market. “We have been sensitive to the issue of diversity as have many other booksellers around the country,” he said. “Particularly in Washington, D.C., which has a multiracial, multiethnic population, we want to make sure our staff to some extent reflects the city where we are.”

Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine are striving to include diversity on the staff of Politics and Prose.
Bradley Graham and Lissa Muscatine are striving to include diversity on the staff of Politics and Prose.

Graham, who purchased Politics and Prose with his wife, Lissa Muscatine, in 2011, said increasing the diversity of the staff has been a goal whenever there has been a job opening over the past six years.

“We’ve been pretty fortunate that the pool of people who apply reflect many of the different backgrounds in our community,” he said, noting that “the makeup of the staff does tend to vary over the course of time. There are some periods when our staff appears more diverse than at other times.”

Having a diverse staff has enriched the environment at Politics and Prose for customers as well as employees, said Graham, who is on the board of the American Booksellers Association.

“We benefit from having various points of view on staff when it comes to figuring out what books to stock, but also many other matters that come up, in terms of policies the store adopts or positions the store might take or how we conduct our own outreach,” he said. “Whenever we have staff discussions, it makes for a much richer dialogue when there are various points of view reflected.”

For instance, during the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement protesting violence by police, the staff at Politics and Prose had a voice in shaping the store’s position on the issue.

“We at Politics and Prose had our own very active debate about how to respond as a store, particularly in terms of displays that would feature books on these subjects and even what to call the display,” Graham said. “It was really helpful to have various points of view reflected in that discussion, and points of view that were deeply felt and well expressed. That’s been true on women’s issues, a range of immigration issues — it’s been true on all the topics that are of national concern these days.”

Politics and Prose recently opened its second store, which is located at The Wharf, a new waterfront development in a diverse neighborhood south of the National Mall. Part of the preparation for that venture was a two-year partnership to sell books inside the Busboys and Poets group of restaurants, which placed Politics and Prose in parts of the city that are more racially diverse than in the area surrounding its flagship store on Connecticut Avenue NW.

“It helped us sort of look at ourselves in a different light, and it pushed us to think even harder about the books we were ordering and displaying, not only because those locations were in different parts of the city but because we had much less space to work in,” Graham said.

The Busboys outlets were less than 1,000 square feet, whereas the main store is 10 times that size. “We were able to do it, and be welcomed in these other neighborhoods,” Graham said. “We have put all that experience to work in setting up The Wharf in Southwest D.C., which is a neighborhood that has a different makeup than Northwest D.C.”

Earnest Duffie
Earnest Duffie

Earnest Duffie, the newly named director of human resources at Christian Brothers University in Memphis, Tennessee, recommends booksellers eager to diversify their staffs reach out to community nonprofits.

The Urban League, women’s groups, and organizations that support people with disabilities are good places to find diverse employees, Duffie said. “You want to be known as the indie neighborhood bookstore that builds relationships,” he said. “That does a lot for your brand. If you continue to do that, you will create an even greater flow of candidates.”

Gwendolyn J. Tucker, a career coach and president of the Memphis chapter of the National Association of Women Business Owners, said business owners often overlook their customers as potential employees or a source of referrals.

“We neglect our customer base,” Tucker said. “If your customer base is diverse, and you see people walking in your store, say, ‘We have some positions coming open, do you know anyone who would love to work for our company?’ It’s already a captive audience.”

Duffie, who has more than 20 years of experience as a manager of human resources at such firms as International Paper, Coca-Cola, AutoZone, and Time Warner, said embracing diversity is good business.

“Diversity makes you stronger. You are building a brand, building a relationship. All of that increases your bottom line,” he said. “We are in a time of massive generational shift, age shift, gender shift. This shift demands that you’re diverse.”

Duffie warns that while it’s easy to lose focus on diversity amid the pressures of running a business, there is peril in ignoring the issue. “You’re going to lose out,” he said. “You’re going to become extinct if you don’t change. Time waits for no one. You don’t want to wait until it’s too late. Demographics are changing, and your customer is changing.”

Data from the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan fact tank, demonstrate the changing nature of the U.S. population.

The number of whites decreased slightly between 2016 and 2017 to reach 198 million in the United States. Meanwhile, in the same time frame, the U.S. Hispanic population rose 2 percent, adding 1.1 million people to reach 58.6 million. The U.S. Asian population was the fastest growing at 3 percent to reach 18.3 million people, up 521,092. The black population rose just under 1 percent to 18.3 million, up 344,700.

The work force is also set to become younger as the Millennial population becomes the U.S.’s largest living generation, according to Pew. Baby Boomers ages 52 to 70 comprised 74.1 million people in 2016 versus 79.8 million Millennials between ages 18 and 35.

The workforce is also becoming more female, with 46.8 percent of women in the labor force in 2015, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics projecting that share to reach 47.1 percent in 2025.

The number of Americans identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender (LGBT) is also on the rise with 10 million people, or 4.1 percent of the U.S. adult population, identifying as LGBT in 2016, Pew reports. That’s up from 8.3 million (3.5 percent) in 2012.

Duffie pointed out that leading a staff with differences in background, age, gender, sexual orientation, and ability requires managers to evaluate their own skills.

“In terms of building that culture and environment where diversity flourishes and using that to your advantage, training, reading, and researching is important,” Duffie said. “Booksellers naturally do that. Building a great understanding means training your leaders. In a Ma and Pa Bookstore, where you are the one who hires everyone, you have to train yourself. For any leader, understanding your employees is the start of how you build a more cohesive team.”

When Duffie was at Coke, for example, he managed potential conflicts among shifting generations in the warehouse and between the sexes as more women were hired for forklift jobs by holding breakfast meetings where people could freely share their experiences.

“You want to do things that keep the air light. In those sessions, the important thing is to listen to what they want,” he said. “We all feel like we’re OK listeners. However, listening requires an open mind. We have to be open to diversity in order to welcome it, embrace, and utilize it.”

Hannah Oliver Depp
Hannah Oliver Depp of WORD.

Clear policies in an employee handbook along with instructions on seeking redress for a grievance can promote a feeling of safety and inclusion for all employees, said Hannah Oliver Depp, communications director at WORD Bookstores in Brooklyn, New York, and Jersey City, New Jersey.

“A lot of stores have just gotten around to putting in that stuff about sexual misconduct or inappropriate behavior. This is the same thing. This needs to be written down somewhere for staff,” Depp said. “These are our goals. This is the kind of community we want to create as a store, and this is how we expect people to behave.”

Bookstores need to get this right because embracing diversity is a matter of competitive survival, contends Depp, who praised the business acumen of WORD’s owner, Christine Onorati.

“Christine has always been very conscious in her hiring to bring in as many different kinds of voices as possible,” Depp said. “She wanted lots of different kinds of readers, which is a smart move as a bookstore because the more different readers you have, the more different kinds of books you can recommend, and the more money you can make.”

It takes effort for a bookstore manager to seek beyond the ever-renewing stack of applications submitted by the enthusiastic, college-educated, young white women that are perennially drawn to bookstore gigs, said Depp, who is a member of ABA’s Task Force on Diversity.

“Christine brought me on, and we started to get more and more diverse applicants, which is something I always talk about,” Depp said. “When the face of your store is identifiably a diverse face, it opens a floodgate. For better or worse, it’s still one of the ways that people can identify, often subconsciously, a safe place to work.”

Depp joined WORD this year after earning a master’s degree in literature from American University in 2011 and launching her professional bookselling career at Politics and Prose.

“It was supposed to be my gap year working in a bookstore, but I found that I was able to influence my community in such a direct way in that bookstore, to teach and be politically engaged and have this wonderful connection to the book world that I wasn’t able to within academia,” Depp said.

She also saw that her recommendations affected book sales, and realized she could directly influence how publishers calculate demand for books by diverse authors. “I began to see the effect of staff picks on an order and then quite literally the print run of a book,” Depp said. “Booksellers are, in a way, gatekeepers, so I wanted to bring more good things through the gate.”

Depp believes that her fellow Millennials are ready to embrace indie bookstores as long as they feel welcome. “My generation, for all of its flaws, is one of the most diverse in history,” she said. “How do you make people feel welcome? Have books for them. Have sidelines for them. If you look at your card wall, is your card wall only white faces? If your book wall was all male authors, you’d say, we need to do some returns. It should be the same way for people of color.”

Depp believes that respecting diverse booksellers for their individuality also means understanding that their race, ethnicity, age, gender, sexual identity, or other characteristics aren’t all they bring to the role.

“I don’t think singling someone out for their race is ever helpful. I do believe in singling someone out for what they bring to the table,” she said. “If somebody were to introduce me and say, ‘This is Hannah, she is an expert in medieval literature and modern literature and diverse romance and mysteries,’ that would all be accurate. If you were to introduce Hannah and say, ‘She’s brown, so you can give her all the African American fiction,’ that would be wrong. I am not the person you want to go to for that. I am the person most customers walk up to and ask for that. And I go, ‘Actually, you want to go to this blond chick to my right because she studies that in college.’”

Lane Jacobson, manager and lead buyer at Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said that booksellers in less diverse areas can also successfully embrace differences.

Lane Jacobson at Flyleaf Books.
Lane Jacobson at Flyleaf Books.

“Our customer base, along with that of a lot of other trade bookstores, is overwhelmingly white, upper-middle class, educated, and probably 70 percent female,” Jacobson said. “But we’re in a university town that is pretty overwhelmingly liberal, so we have a customer base that’s interested in issues of diversity.”

Jacobson said Flyleaf’s staff, which has 12 to 16 booksellers depending on the season, is about two-thirds female. Nearly a third of the staff identifies as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or queer (LGBTQ). There are also three members of Hispanic heritage. Most are young, like Jacobson himself.

“We want our staff to be representative of our community, not necessarily just our customer base,” he said. “We want to expose our customers to more diverse folks who they might not see every day.”

Jacobson, who also serves on the ABA Task Force on Diversity, said that while booksellers may value diversity, putting the principle into practice isn’t always easy. “If you live in a rural community where there is hardly any diversity, it’s not realistic to expect a small store with five employees will have a lot of diversity on staff,” Jacobson said.

Finding an employee who combines a passion for books with customer service skills is hard in general, Jacobson said. “If people aren’t sending in applications, it’s hard to find those resources to pull from the community,” he said.

One strategy Jacobson recommends that’s been successful at Flyleaf is reaching out to job placement offices at local universities and colleges. “The answer is being proactive about it — seeking out qualified candidates and acknowledging that it is something your store needs,” he said.