Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) members tuned into the fall trade show’s final virtual panel on Friday, a practical discussion about how to keep activism front and center at bookstores—even as the Covid-19 crisis limits physical interaction and community events.
Annie Carl, the owner of The Neverending Bookshop in Edmonds, Wash., spoke about how activism begins with a bookstore’s selection. During the national quarantine in March, she reconfigured her store’s offerings after realizing her shelves had been dominated by white male authors. “I started putting my money where my ethics and morals are,” she said. “Bringing in titles by people of color, LGBTQ+, and disabled voices. I would say right now my shop, including the kids section, is 95% not white dude.”
Bookstores can also partner with local activists and express solidarity during key moments of national protest. King’s Books in Tacoma, Wash. is currently closed to the public, but is offering online orders and curbside pickup during quarantine. Nevertheless, owner sweet pea Flaherty said his store has promoted local activists and Black booksellers in the region by “amplifying voices” through social media and online campaigns.
The bookstore fully closed on June 12 to support the Black Lives Matters’s movement’s call for a statewide general strike. In addition, bookstore patrons can purchase books on a special online wishlist and donate books by people of color to young readers in the community. Teenage Tacoma-based activists called Seeds of Peace Scholars sanitize and hand-deliver and distribute these books to Little Free Libraries around the city. “This is a fully student-led thing,” he said, “but a lot of our customers have jumped in with order after order.”
Sho Roberts, the owner of Maggie Mae’s Kids Bookshop in Gresham, Ore., stressed that children’s bookstores can also play an important role. “We donate a lot of books,” said Roberts, as part of her effort to share diverse books with all readers. Her bookstore occasionally hosts free book days, and makes sure everyone has access to reading materials. “So that way, people who might not be able to always afford a book will still be able to have something to read, and for their kids to read,” she said.
Any kind of activism will always earn what Annie Carl called “pushback” from some customers. When she radically reconfigured her bookshelves to reflect a spirit of feminism and activism, one former patron expressed displeasure at the changes and angrily hurled two books at the owner. “I’m sure he’s found another used bookstore to cater to his particular brand of reading,” Carl said. “And I am totally cool with that. I had to be okay with losing those dollars, I had to be okay with the idea that I was losing customers. But I was also gaining customers.”
“We haven’t had much political pushback at all,” said King’s Books owner Flaherty. “We’re a very political bookstore, but we don’t endorse candidates and we don’t talk about politics at the store. The books kind of talk for us. If someone wants to talk politics at the counter with us, we don’t engage in that.” His bookstore, however, hosts civil conversations around 11 now-virtual book clubs that push boundaries and encourage greater inclusivity, including Feminist Utopia Book Club, the Banned Book Club, and the Queerest Book Club Ever.
The panelists agreed that bookstores need to be inclusive and responsive to all kinds of customers, even when faced with pushback. At Maggie Mae’s Kids Bookshop, Roberts faced her most dramatic community pushback when the bookstore hosted its first Drag Queen Story Hour events for kids. Employees received phone calls, emails, social media comments, and in-store visits from people complaining about the event.
Roberts trained her employees to answer critics with an even-handed response. “It’s not political, it’s humanity. We want to help others,” she said, sharing language her team used in these tricky situations. “You don’t have to shop here. You can feel angry and your feelings are valid, but that doesn’t change our values,” she said.