Wi15 Education: “Together in Courageous Conversation: Politics of Curation”

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The 15th annual Winter Institute in Baltimore brought together a panel of booksellers to share the challenges of curating inventory for their stores. Moderated by Robert Sindelar, a managing partner at Third Place Books in Seattle, Washington, the booksellers spoke about how each decide what books to carry, with no one approach being superior. The panel included Kenny Brechner of Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine; Luis Correa of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia; Lexi Beach of Astoria Bookshop in Queens, New York; and Valerie Koehler of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Texas. The geographically diverse group’s intention was to illuminate why there are multiple ways to curate a store. Logged-in booksellers can view the video from the session on BookWeb now.

Correa, an operations manager, began the discussion by describing the demographics of the Athens community, a liberal college town vocal about political leanings, yet with conservative surrounding areas. When deciding whether to carry such authors as Junot Díaz, Dr. Seuss, or J.K. Rowling, Correa said it’s a continuing discussion the staff has together — fostering an environment where minds are open to change. With regard to the 2018 sexual harassment allegations surrounding Díaz, “they kind of came to the decision that we shouldn’t actively stock and promote authors like [him]. For one, we feel as if he hasn’t given a proper enough apology for what he’s done. And, also, he’s alive.” In contrast, the store still carries scrutinized deceased authors such as David Foster Wallace, who cannot respond.

Correa also mentioned Jeanine Cummins’ American Dirt (Flatiron) as a title that sparked a discussion among the staff. While the store had ordered many copies of the book, Correa’s reservations about the content prompted the question: What can we do to educate people more?

Like Athens, Queens is politically liberal and “the most diverse county on the planet,” both ethnically and linguistically, said Beach. With a 1,000-square-foot shop, Beach said she has to make careful financial choices about what to sell, but there are also books for which she decides to sacrifice profits. Beach wanted to get Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau) into more hands, so she sold it at cost with a maximum of two copies per person. Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff (Henry Holt & Co.), on the other hand, was a book she felt lacked insight into the larger conversation, so she took her profits and donated them to CIANA, a local immigrant services group. When a trans woman complained that a prominent display of Mad Libs featuring RuPaul’s Drag Race made her feel uncomfortable, Beach took it into consideration.

While she continued to sell the Mad Libs, she did put them in a different section of the store. Beach extends making these kinds of judgments to her four-person staff. “I try to let my staff know that if they are taking a special order from a customer and it’s a book that the contents or the persona of the author or whatever it is makes them uncomfortable, they have the authority to say right then, ‘I’m sorry, we can’t get this for you,’” said Beach.  

Koehler’s store, however, is apolitical. While Houston is one of the most diverse cities in the U.S., it is completely embedded in a red state, and the west side of Houston is home to almost every oil company’s world or U.S. headquarters. “I decided very early on that I was not going to make a decision on the part of the customer who would like a book,” Koehler said. Over the years, she has hosted members of the Bush family and their books, while also hosting Chelsea Clinton. In fact, a woman accosted one of her staff members in the bathroom of a school for promoting Clinton’s children’s book. Though the store doesn’t feature a lot of political books, the staff still discusses them; reflective of the customers, the staff is diverse in its political leanings, and everyone doesn’t agree, Koehler noted.

Farmington, Maine, is a rural area and home to a small branch of the University of Maine, said Brechner, and it is a divided community — the university brings more progressive residents amidst the conservative portion of town. With a population of 7,000, Brechner said he sees a need to serve everyone. “The politics of curation are a complex interface between personal identity and the community of readers that you serve. And that there will always be a tension between, say, my personal values and the well-being of my secondary persona as a sole proprietor, which is my bookstore, which is another aspect of self,” he said.

His favorite thing to do is sell to schools because doing so enriches the community while helping to form future citizens. But it can be exasperating working with schools, he said, dealing with a secondary layer of curation from school boards, librarians, teachers, administrators, and parents. Selling to schools “can also go super sideways when you end up with challenges and problems within your community,” such as dealing with censorship for mild profanity, as battles like that can ultimately harm one’s business, he noted. Nevertheless, Brechner said he believes that constructive criticism is “the alchemy that turns difficult situations into gold” because without it, the conversation shuts down.