As questions over freedom of expression continue to spark heated debate in the book industry, the country’s independent regional bookseller associations convened a panel on Tuesday to discuss the impact of the issue on independent booksellers. The wide-ranging conversation, moderated by Jonathan Friedman of PEN America, picked up and clarified crucial themes in a highly controversial debate over which books should be on the shelves of community bookstores.
Panelist and bookseller Luis Correa of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, rejected the First Amendment premise used by proponents of such controversial titles as former Vice President Mike Pence’s upcoming memoirs as unrelated to the whether individual bookstores should stock such books. Those who use such arguments, Correa said, do so in order to “circumvent the consequences of their harmful speech.”
“The First Amendment applies to government, first and foremost,” Correa said. “It is important that the government does not infringe our rights of expression. [But] deciding whether or not to store something is not necessarily something as far as the First Amendment goes.
More important in the discussion of what to store, Correa said, is the recognition that “when you sell a book, as I see it, you are not just selling a book. You provide funding, you provide a path, a door. And if we are booksellers because we believe books can change lives, we also need to recognize that they can do real damage to the most vulnerable.
Josh Cook, a bookseller at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., Said recognizing this potential impact on readers, good and bad, raises fundamental questions he constantly asks about his book sale. “The challenge and the point of potential conflict is in determining… what should we do with expressions that endanger others, make them dangerous, or make them fearful of actually speaking out? “
But Derrick Young, co-owner of Mahogany Books in Washington, DC and Baltimore, said he was troubled to see how the company views its efforts to meet readers in its community where they find themselves with a wide range of titles. He explained that when black booksellers open their own stores, the mere fact of being a community institution is often characterized more broadly as dangerous and subversive.
“The interesting thing about how black bookstores are viewed is that even on Wikipedia it says black bookstores are seen as radical in terms of what we sell, what we are aligned with. “Young said. While trying to provide a diverse collection of titles, he said, the company is “already putting us in a corner.”
University of Mississippi professor and author Kiese Laymon has repeatedly weighed in to deepen and advance the conversation, challenging booksellers to stop believing their position in the publishing industry is above of criticism. The industry’s problems are too closely linked, Laymon said, for an individual to believe they are not doing work that supports the publication and sale of racist and discriminatory books.
“It’s easy to be innocent of… Mike Pence,” he said. “[But] we are involved. We are not innocent, and more than that, we are harmful. Speaking to Young, Laymon said the impact of this harm could not be overstated. “I think we know what it’s like to open a book and be treated like a ***** by a book,” Laymon said. “We ourselves are part of something that is despicable. We are not virtuous because we love books.
Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak and Garrett booksellers, who recently resigned from the board of the American Booksellers Association and cited free speech issues as contributing to his resignation, said there had books that he would no longer carry. Brechner used Bill O’Reilly’s children’s books as examples, claiming that the books “lie to the children.” Such decisions, however, are subjective, Brechner said. He urged his fellow booksellers to be careful not to let individual decisions become a general consensus on the choice not to sell certain titles to the entire community of independent booksellers.
“[A] the gradual rejection of free speech by the bookstore community would be a serious mistake, ”said Brechner. “As we sit here now, there is an absolute avalanche of curatorial lit book bans and challenges directed at school boards and libraries across the country. These challenges have been directed to books whose treatment of themes of gender, gender identity, sex, and critical race theory are the ones that many of us hold dear. This is the purpose of this. And for me, there has never been a less opportune time to take a step back from supporting free speech.
Panelist Vicky Titcomb, owner of Titcomb’s bookstore in Sandwich, Massachusetts, brought the conversation back to her customers, recalling a recent visit to the store from a young reader who looked up from a book to say : “Mom, it’s like me. Titcomb said, “I can’t imagine growing up and finding books that don’t help me as a person, but are actually harmful.”
Titcomb expressed gratitude to fellow panelists for the conversation’s focus on a more intentional book sale, which resonated as a way to help readers navigate troubling ideas through books. Titcomb said she was willing to stock some books that divide, but her fellow booksellers raise important questions about the damage and power that helps her think about which titles she wants to stock and which ones don’t. not, ensuring that its readers feel taken care of, supported and seen.