On April 24, Independent Bookstore Day, Ontario-based publisher and independent bookstore Biblioasis did a soft launch for a new chapbook, but it’s not aimed at the typical bookstore customer. Instead, Josh Cook’s The Least We Can Do: White Supremacy, Free Speech, and Independent Bookstores is the first in a series intended to spark discussion and debate among booksellers about important issues in the trade.
The idea for the bookseller-authored series came about last winter, when Biblioasis publisher Dan Wells read an essay by Cook, a veteran bookseller at Porter Square Books, PW’s 2020 Bookstore of the Year, in Cambridge, Mass. “In the pandemic, we were thinking about ways to become more responsive and responsible publishers,” Wells said. “We hit on the idea of returning to the pamphlet and trying to modernize the template.”
Wells first thought about publishing pamphlets after opening Biblioasis as a bookshop in 1998, but the idea fell by the wayside, even as the publishing arm of his business became successful. Still, he said, chapbooks and pamphlets were never far from his thinking. In 2019 he published a pamphlet version of Lucy Ellmann’s I Dated Graham Greene in honor of Independent Bookstore Day. That year, he also published Jorge Carrión’s Against Amazon. Those led to the creation of Field Notes, a pamphlet series launched during the pandemic.
When Cook’s essay came across his screen, Wells quickly envisioned a new series just for booksellers. Each title will be no more than 48 pages and will retail for $7.95. Consortium distributes Biblioasis in the U.S.
Wells said his goal for the series is to remain open to varying approaches and vantage points. For instance, one bookseller has proposed creating a glossary of terms associated with bookselling. “Bookselling symbolically and practically plays a range of important roles in our lives,” Wells said. “It would be great, I think, just to get booksellers off of Twitter for a little while and arguing between pages.”
Many of the books will take up challenging political issues that booksellers are confronting, Wells said. The Least We Can Do delves into the heated debate surrounding publishers’ ongoing rollout of books by authors associated with white nationalism, white supremacy, and the politics of former president Trump.
Confronting white supremacy
Cook—who noted that his positions are his own do not represent the policy of Porter Square—argues that the current crop of conservative titles are avowedly white supremacist in nature, and that booksellers need to take a stand against giving them a platform. “We’re not talking about Eisen-
hower Republicans, we’re not even talking about Nixon Republicans, and in a lot of ways we’re not even talking about Reagan Republicans,” he said. “We’re talking about Trump Republicans. We are talking about a political party that has essentially become the KKK.”
Cook asks booksellers to consider the impact that publishers have had in creating today’s divisive politics, pointing to figures like Rush Limbaugh, whose books were as crucial to establishing his fame and cultural influence as his radio program was. Yet Cook does not take a side about whether bookstores should ban books by right wingers, like former vice president Mike Pence. “I don’t argue for not selling certain books—I argue for not stocking them,” he said, suggesting that stores could still order these books for customers. “There’s a chance you’re a journalist who’s reporting on a book, or a political scientist who is working on a study. There’s a chance you study right-wing fascism. You might have a not-terrible reason why you should own it, and I have no right to know why you would buy a certain book.”
Cook writes that arguments about free speech have obscured basic obligations that booksellers have, including the obligation not to display books that contain hateful speech targeted at them or their communities. “Just because you’ve written something doesn’t mean that you have a First Amendment right to have it published,” he said—or to have bookstores stock it on their shelves. But something deeper is also at play with the free speech arguments put forward by conservatives, he noted: “It’s in bad faith.”
Cook points to the confrontations that customers have occasionally had with booksellers about not displaying controversial titles. “I have never seen an instance that was not performative,” he said. “I’m sure it’s been done. I’m not a bookseller in every bookstore, but I’ve never seen that not be performance.”
How does he know? “Because when you say, ‘We can order it for you,’ they don’t order it,” Cook says. “They never do. They just keep talking about the absence of the book in the store displays as if those are the only books in the world that exist.”
Those observations, born as much of experience on the sales floor as they are of the pages of books, are why Cook said he was eager to share his thoughts in the inaugural issue of a bookseller pamphlet series.
For his part, Wells is happy to kick off the series with ideas he can think about as he goes through publisher catalogs to stock the shelves at his own bookstore. “One of Cook’s arguments is that a bookstore without curation is just a warehouse,” he said. “There are hundreds of thousands of titles available to any bookseller in a given year. We are consistently selecting which books we want to give shelf space and visibility to on the basis of a range of criteria. He argues that this is no different than that.”