Once again, J.K. Rowling is stirring up the book world as few other authors could possibly do. This time, she has been drawing criticism, including from indie booksellers, for her views on gender identity since tweeting in December her support for a British tax specialist fired for transphobic tweets. The controversy has only intensified after Rowling published three weeks ago a 3,700-word blog detailing her concerns about people who transition to the opposite sex. In response to what they regard as hate speech, three mission-driven indie bookstores have decided to stop stocking Rowling's books. While these stores acknowledge some impact upon their bottom line, all three owners speaking to PW emphasize that they have no obligation to provide shelf space to authors whose views contradict their personal philosophies and their stores' missions.
The three indies that have pulled all of Rowling's books from their shelves, however, say that they will fill special orders for customers.
Left Bank Books, which was founded 51 years ago this month and is co-owned by Kris Kleindienst and Jarek Steele, is the only indie thus far to make it public, by announcing on the store’s website and on social media that despite “having read, recommended, sold, and celebrated” Harry Potter for the past 23 years, it would no longer carry that series or any other book written by Rowling, including the adult thrillers she’s written under the pseudonym of Robert Galbraith.
“Rowling’s public comments about transgender people, particularly transgender women [are] abhorrent, hurtful, and willfully ignorant,” Steele, who is himself transgender, wrote. “Not only that, but she has a worldwide platform for that bigotry, which makes her even more dangerous. As a transgender person, I’m personally disappointed, hurt, and angry.”
Describing Rowling as an author of stories “that were truly inclusive and affirming celebrations of community,” and expressing an appreciation for Rowling’s subsequent revelation that Albus Dumbledore was gay, Steele asserted that Rowling’s transphobia “demeans the very people” who read her novels.
Emphasizing the negative impact, due to Rowling’s stature, that her words might have on people who identify as GLBTQ, especially young people, Steele wrote that, while he and Kleindienst and their staff might still love the characters Rowling created and the stories she wove, Left Bank will not carry “books we love written by people who hate us.”
“We no longer feel comfortable giving her shelf space while she uses her extensive platform to deride the humanity of trans women,” Steele wrote, illustrating his point with the screenshot of a tweet by Rowling mocking transgender people by asking what to call “’people who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?”
“We've been here before,” he added. “We know we'll hear cries of censorship and First Amendment rights violations. We'll remind you that there are millions of books that aren't on our shelves. We curate. It's our job. That series doesn't need our help. She won’t notice. But we will, and our transgender staff and customers will.” The store is compiling a list of books to recommend as alternatives to Rowling’s work that will accompany the store's statement.
Steele told PW that he and Kleindienst had been discussing whether or not to do this "for about a week before we pulled the books. In the end it came down to this: do we want to celebrate an author who publicly denounces many members of our staff and many customers who shop at our store?" he asked, "Can we, in good conscience, display, promote, sell and further the career of someone who is using perhaps the loudest microphone in bookselling to cause harm? When I sent out the notice to our staff, they were very happy and relieved that we were doing it. Our booksellers had been talking about it amongst themselves too."
"We'll still sell Rowling's books [by filling special orders]. We just don't celebrate them. It's a matter of self-respect."
Feminist Stores Promote Inclusion
It's personal as well at Charis Books in Decatur, Ga. regarding the 45-year-old feminist bookstore's decision not to stock Rowling's books; the store stopped replenishing its stock after selling out during the holidays, Charis Circle executive director E.R. Anderson told PW. Disclosing that he himself is a transgender man, Anderson wrote in an email that he, as well as store owners Sara Luce Look and Angela Gabriel subscribe to the philosophy that "transphobia, homophobia, and misogyny are all fruit of the same poison tree and that you cannot fight against one of those oppressions without fighting against them all. You cannot profess to love queer and trans people and then demean us in the same breath."
"It is painful," he added, "that Rowling would choose this moment in history when so many activists are focused on uplifting and centering trans women, especially Black women, who face a disproportionate likelihood of violence, to harm trans women with her words. If violence against even one trans person is justified because of [Rowling's] bigoted and essentialist views, that is one too many. If one trans or gender questioning child feels less valid or safe in the world, that is one too many. We are taking the same approach with her books that we have taken with other authors whose personal views or conduct have marred the otherwise lovely works they have created--we don't give them attention."
Instead, Anderson wrote, Charis regularly spotlights transgender authors, including scheduling a virtual event that will take place on July 16 for two transgender authors of "transmasculine narratives" for children: Lexie Bean (The Ship We Built, a middle grade novel) and Tobly McSmith (Stay Gold, a YA novel). It also organizes support groups for trans teens and for parents of trans children.
"We believe in elevating what we love, not denigrating or harming those who would harm us," Anderson wrote. "We hope that Rowling will get help for her transphobia and understand that it is not feminist to fear and demean other women. We believe that people are capable of growth, education, and change. We are booksellers, after all."
Chicago’s Women & Children First, a feminist bookstore founded in 1979, had already, after what co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck recalls as a “very thoughtful and passionate” staff meeting in January, removed some Harry Potter books and related sidelines and the Robert Galbraith novels from store shelves. It, however, continued selling the original Harry Potter series, donating all profits from the sales of those books to the Safer Schools Alliance, which Hollenbeck describes as a “radical organization that does advocacy and education work to promote safety and support for LGBTQ youth in Illinois schools.”
On Wednesday, WCF decided to pull from its shelves the original series as well. “The staff as a whole made the decision,” said Hollenbeck, who owns the store with Lynn Mooney. “Considering our community, our mission, and that we’re trans-inclusive, it just made sense.” Store personnel are currently putting together a list of YA fantasy novels to recommend that people read as an alternative to the Harry Potter series. When completed, the list will be posted on the store’s website and on social media.
“Providing alternative titles is important,” Hollenbeck said. “We’re also communicating to publishers that we want to carry books by queer authors and by trans authors. There should be more of them.”
Other Indies Want to Be Allies
Although Unabridged Bookstore, another iconic Chicago indie with a large GLBTQ selection, has not stopped carrying Rowling’s books, manager Shane Khosropour wrote in an email to PW that the 40-year-old store is taking “a proactive stance against [her] recent statements, putting together a display of non-binary and trans sci-fi/fantasy authors to read instead of Rowling,” that it featured in its weekly newsletter. Khosropour added that Unabridged also is making contributions to charitable organizations that address systemic social injustices, such as Brave Space Alliance, “the first Black-led, trans-led LGBTQ center” on Chicago’s South Side. The bookstore also donated 10% of its June sales to the Equal Justice Initiative.
In Philadelphia, Alan Chelak, manager of the Philly AIDS Thrift @ Giovanni’s Room, told PW that as the oldest gay-oriented bookstore in the U.S., founded in 1973, Harry Potter has “really never been on our radar." He added in an email, “Whenever J.K. decides to go on one of her ridiculous rants, we always like to remind people of this amazing book,” Magical Princess Harriet: Chessed, World of Compassion by Leiah Moser, a middle grade fantasy novel.
As for other indies responding to PW's query, Luisa Smith, Book Passage's buying director, says that its two San Francisco Bay Area outlets will continue to carry Rowling's books. "We absolutely respect Left Bank Books' stance on this," she said. "Our belief is that the world of acceptance that many of our readers discover inside the pages, a world that is in many ways constructed by young readers’ hearts and minds, outshines the disturbing recent statements by the author."
But, Smith added, Book Passage also feels that "it is vitally important to promote books with diverse characters that explore themes of identity" such as the YA novel PET by Akwaeke Emezi, a Stonewall Book Award recipient.
Another San Francisco bookstore, Charlie's Corner, a children's bookstore in the Noe Valley neighborhood, will continue to stock Rowling's books for children and YA readers, but also will, its owner Charlotte Nagy wrote in an email, "support the LGBTQ community in many ways. Our collection is curated for everyone."
While Rowling’s U.K.-based publicist, Mark Hutchinson, declined comment, her American publisher, Scholastic, responded to PW’s request with the following statement: “We support J.K. Rowling’s right to express her personal views and beliefs. We also fully support the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. As the Scholastic credo states, we believe in the worth and dignity of all individuals, and are opposed to discrimination of any kind.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that E.R. Anderson is a co-owner of Charis Books. He is not: Anderson heads Charis Circle, the store's nonprofit foundation. Angela Gabriel co-owns Charis Books, along with Sara Luce Look.
Editors' note: Comments have been removed from this story due to transphobic content.