The Politics of Curation: An Op-Ed by Rebecca Fitting

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Rebecca Fitting is the co-owner, with Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, of Greenlight Bookstore, which has two locations in Brooklyn, New York. Here, she shares her thoughts about independent booksellers’ role in today’s political climate.

As the buyer for an independent bookstore in Brooklyn, I generally love my job and find it interesting and rewarding to do what I do. I take my curatorial role very seriously, and I am proud of how my business partner curates the store’s events with a similar sensitivity toward the world and the political climate. We both work hard to create stores and environments that are politically and culturally sensitive while remaining politically neutral. It’s a delicate balance, but one that we believe is integral to how our bookstores function as accessible places for knowledge and information.

Since the lead-up to the election, my response to every pivotal national or world event has been to “go to the stacks.” To shore up our selection of books, to elevate the right kind of information so that people are better able to find it. While everyone was flocking to JFK to protest the “Muslim ban,” I went home and ordered books so that in the days after, when people came down from their impulse-reaction highs and wanted to learn and understand more, they had access. I could be one body at JFK, or five copies of the Koran on the shelf in my stores.

I’m a buyer and curator, but also a person. The hardest books for me are the ones on racism, violence, prejudice, and hate for children. Last night, after hearing about Charlottesville on the news while I was making dinner, my son asked, “What’s racism?” I had to stop cooking and have a conversation instead. As a parent, it saddens me; as a buyer, I can’t help but think about how many similar conversations are being had in other homes. Our job as parents is to show up for the hard moments; to be there not just for the joyful things, but also to teach language and sensitivity for world complexity as well. To educate. Books can provide help with this when our own words fall short. After my son went to bed and I finished my role as a parent, I sat down at my computer and shifted into my role as a buyer to make sure that my bookstores were stocked.

I ordered a book about the history of the KKK, which as a buyer felt important but as a person made me incredibly sad. I made sure we had that Hitler biography in stock. I reordered all the books where we try to understand white people (seriously? It’s almost a category at this point), and I made sure the stock levels were high on books about Jim Crow, racism, and prejudice in the history of our country and in our contemporary world. I want there to be tall stacks. In an era where most of us are bombarded by an overwhelming amount of information and are trying to separate the wheat from the chaff, I want people to have access to the right information. I call it “inflection by curation,” and I view it as a way to help guide people toward the information they’re seeking.

I’m fascinated by how many backlist books are on our bestseller list these days. Usually new releases take the top slots, but lately it’s about 50/50. People are watching aspects of history repeat themselves and are looking toward the past to understand the present. People are seeking out authors like Baldwin, Zinn, Lorde, Orwell, Hooks, Dickens, Le Guin, and Arendt. We live in an era where a book by Hannah Arendt that was published in the 1970s can be on a bookstore’s bestseller list. I am in awe of our customers and their desire to understand, and I feel a responsibility toward them to make sure we’re putting the right books forward for them to find.

I generally think a lot (sometimes too much) — it’s in my nature. It lends itself well to a buyer’s sensibility to be a person who thinks a lot, and to be a person who aims to think with emotional intelligence. In terms of my role as a buyer, I think about how important access to information is, and how it can help us understand this world we’re surrounded by. I think about my (and my bookstores’) grave responsibility in this regard. I think about how important it is for our stores to be welcoming places for people to come seek out information, understanding, solace, community, and knowledge. I aspire for our selection and our staff to do this in a calm, measured, mature, and reasonable way.

But it’s not just me and my bookstores that shoulder this grave responsibility. Now more than ever, booksellers, librarians, and publishers are tasked with being the bridges and the forecasters of what information people will need and what they will want to learn more about. Sometimes this is obvious; sometimes it’s subtle. When world events happen, as buyers and curators, we work so that when readers seek out information, it’s there. We watch what books or topics people gravitate to and we react accordingly. During an era where nonfiction sales are on the rise, it’s more important than ever that we provide easy, unintimidating access to knowledge, and booksellers as a collective group do an admirable job — I rarely go into a bookstore that isn’t impressive.

We have to keep thinking and talking about things, whether they’re obvious or subtle and intangible. We have to be informed as a society, educated about our world. I see how much our customers are craving information and knowledge, and it gives me hope. We want to learn, understand, grow, and improve. We want to be better than we are right now. We want to keep on reading until we understand what to do next. We must keep living in a thinking person’s world; it’s imperative.