New Voices New Rooms, the joint virtual gathering of the New Atlantic and Southern Independent Booksellers Associations, convened from August 8-10.
The “new rooms” approximated in-person experiences through an owners’ discussion and a children’s booksellers’ retreat on Zoom, and attendees could browse a galley room featuring 314 DRCs and an online grid of 40 publishers and vendors. The “new voices” included authors introducing their books and booksellers navigating up-to-the-minute concerns about planning pandemic-era events, setting up point-of-sale systems, and navigating political divides in their communities. Alison Reid of Diesel (Santa Monica) and Josh Christie of Print (Portland, Me.) walked booksellers through “Buying Criteria,” suggesting ways of filtering the vast middle ground of titles that may not align with a store’s mission: “I always keep in mind what I want my shop to represent,” Reid said.
That question—what does a bookstore represent?—guided two powerful panels at NVNR: “Responding to Hate” and “Banned Books.” In the first, moderator E. R. Anderson of the feminist bookstore Charis Books and More talked with Nathan Bernstein of the D.C.–area restaurant-and-book chain Busboys and Poets, Hannah Oliver Depp of Loyalty Bookstore, and Kirsten Hess of Let’s Play Books about their interactions with detractors, troubled customers, and community members who come to argue rather than to browse. Their discussion acknowledged an ongoing need for safety plans and de-escalation training, along the lines of a popular 2021 ABA workshop.
“Sometimes there’s this idea that bookstores can be utopian spaces, [yet] they’re part of the world,” said Anderson. All of the panelists reflected on uneasy confrontations in person and online. At Let’s Play Books, in Emmaus, Pa., Hess’s neighbors often disagree with her anti-racist, social-justice standpoint. “They will not step foot in the store, and therefore most of the hate comes on the Internet in forms of trolling” or via postcards, Hess said. “It feels very personal,” and she fears for her teenage employees, yet she sees it as her role to speak out locally and to be a resource for small-town booksellers.
Depp said that when she opened Loyalty Bookstore, which has locations in Silver Spring and in the gentrifying Petworth neighborhood of Washington, D.C., “I knew I was creating a target.” Loyalty “is clearly Black- and queer-owned, with a mission to increase diversity of all marginalized voices in the book industry as well as creating career booksellers of color. But most people see us as their general neighborhood bookstore.” She feels fiercely protective of her employees and her community members, and while she willingly engages in genuine debate, “When someone has no recognition of your humanity, that's how I decide whether it's de-escalation, or starting a conversation, and when it's out of the store, shut the door, we're done.”
Bernstein, who said, “I am very obviously and visibly queer, and I’m specifically nonbinary,” finds that “people occasionally will engage with me” around pronouns and identity. “One of the incidents that firmly established Busboys as a positive working environment for me was that somebody put in a special order for Helen Joyce’s Trans and did not realize what the book was about,” Bernstein recalled. “It's an extremely transphobic book, and I turned to my supervisor [to say] this is not a book that I want to sell. My manager backed me up 100%.” Bernstein, now a supervisor, strives to respect staffers’ decisions at such tense moments.
Book Bans and the Censor’s Marker
If the banned-books panel has become obligatory at bookseller gatherings, NVNR’s trio came to the topic with productive fury and practical talking points. Author Amy Sarig King joined Sam Droke-Dickinson, co-owner of Aaron's Books in Lititz, Pa., and David Grogan, who represents the American Booksellers for Free Expression (ABFE).
King’s forthcoming novel, Attack of the Black Rectangles (Sept. 6), concerns censored copies of Jane Yolen’s The Devil’s Arithmetic, and is based on a real experience. “Black rectangles,” crossing out words deemed offensive, marked every copy of Yolen’s novel distributed at her son's school in 2018. “I went to try and figure out who did this, and why, and the school laughed me off,” said King. “I wanted a better outcome, so I made a fictional one, and in that fictional outcome, the students needed to be involved.”
King expresses immense compassion for teenagers, and her anger stems from a lifelong critical stance: “I was one of those kids in the eighties… It’s the same as when Tipper Gore wanted to come after my Prince album.” King’s neighborhood bookstore is Aaron’s Books, and she has a close ally in Droke-Dickinson, who came prepared with a list of action items: get to know your school board, keep up with the ALAs challenged book lists, “make displays of recently challenged books, local and nationwide,” and “Donate the books to parent groups, little free libraries, local non-profits” if possible.
In 2021, Droke-Dickinson’s run for school board coincided with a notorious book-banning campaign in York County, Pa.’s Central York School District. “So I reached out as the bookstore to the other candidates who were running to stop this, and I worked with them to do a book drive to get these banned books into the hands of the children in the community,” she explained.
“As citizens, but specifically booksellers, you can help your community, because I 100% guarantee, no matter where you are, there is a book currently being challenged in your school.” When she helped young people get involved, their outcry helped raise awareness of censorship. But burnout took its toll: “I will be blunt,” said Droke-Dickinson. “I do not go to school board meetings anymore, because the trauma was too much for me. So keep an eye on your mental health. Be aware that there could be retaliations against your store.”
In the chat, listeners suggested using a popular sideline, stickers, to promote conversation around bans. Others directed booksellers to the Violet Fox Bookshop’s resource page on the pending Virginia case on obscenity.
Sidelines and Adding Value
Lisa Swayze, of the cooperatively owned Buffalo Street Books in Ithaca, N.Y., and Valerie Koehler, of Blue Willow Bookshop in Houston, Tex., led an education panel on “Income Beyond Selling Books.” Swayze’s research indicates that “a successful indie bookstore needs to make 20% of their income selling something other than books.” Koehler agreed that “20% is about what we do in sidelines” like stationery and games.
Where stores like Chicago’s Seminary Co-op become nonprofits, “building donations into their bottom line and claiming bookselling is a social good,” said Swayze, traditional bookstores need to keep up with “the rapid pace of retail profitability.” She explained that Buffalo Street partners with literacy organizations and started the Ithaca Book Festival to raise their profile, and they have followed the lead of restaurants by adding a simple donation option to the checkout process: “It's really small, like two, five, or 10% on a sale. We find that 99% of customers happily want to do it.”
“An idea may seem small, but with margins as tight as they are, a small wiggle, a small amount can make a big difference when your percentages are already that tight,” said Swayze. The examples poured in from listeners. Bill Reilly (River’s End, Oswego, N.Y.) charges for home deliveries of books, and Candice Huber (Tubby & Coos, New Orleans) offers board game rentals. Julia Davis of the Book Worm in Powder Springs, Ga., brings in pop-up shops to “generate traffic to your store; people want to support local.” Davis also turned her store floor into an oversize, playable Candy Land board to lure visitors.
Adah Fitzgerald of Main Street Books in Davidson, Ga., organized a bookstore crawl and encourages artists to do multiweek pop-up shops in her space: “A felt flower artist worked really well for us in the weeks leading up to Mother’s Day.” Dorothy Pittman of Horton’s Books and Gifts in Carrollton, Ga., has a cat treat dispenser, encouraging customers to get to know the bookstore cats, and Erin Matthews of the Last Word in Mount Airy, Md., generates donations with “an Amazon swear jar,” a joking reference to the A-word.