Activist passion rose to a boil at the American Booksellers Association’s Community Forum, held at Winter Institute 2024 in Cincinnati on February 14. In no uncertain terms, ABA members expressed serious dismay and frustration that no conference sessions engaged directly with what they called “the elephant in the room”—the war between Israel and Hamas and the terrible toll it has taken on Palestinians in Gaza.

Members, many but not all of them young BIPOC booksellers, called for the organization to declare support for an Israeli ceasefire. Some connected the organization’s silence and inaction on Israel and Palestine to what they feel is a more general lack of recognition of marginalized booksellers’ concerns, despite stated good intentions. One member, identifying as “a Jewish person for Palestine,” said: “Please understand there are a lot of us, and [the war] is not in our name.”

After one of the first speakers read a poem by Noor Hindi, ABA CEO Allison Hill, seated onstage with the board, said, “That was a lot for this community to just hear,“ and “people are coming in with some important things to say related to a painful topic.”

“It is a painful topic, including for the Palestinians in the room,” a bookseller agreed, adding that “we’re all here to learn from each other” and develop the tools to enable meaningful action. “A ceasefire resolution by a national organization like this will carry weight,” due to “the advocacy infrastructure ABA has built up,” the bookseller added.

“We have realized just how urgent this is to people in this room,” board member Danny Caine, co-owner of the Raven Bookstore (Lawrence, Kan.), emphasized in response. “I’m sorry it didn’t happen sooner, but we are here, and we are learning.”

Grassroots Mobilizing Among ABA Members

Just ahead of the forum, booksellers had held an informal meeting on the crisis in Gaza during a scheduled break. More than 70 ABA members, including some board members and staffers, showed up to the ad hoc gathering. People sat in a circle and discussed the role of, and risk to, booksellers in speaking out. “Who are we, if we’re not political booksellers?” asked one participant. People commented that unionized booksellers can push stores for action, and others acknowledged that “anything we do, our staff are on the front lines.”

“I’m disappointed that it’s taken people on the margins to speak up for ceasefire—ABA should be more vocal,” said one individual, acknowledging the substantial cohort of BIPOC and LGBTQ members calling for change within ABA and adding: “We don’t want to continue to be your DEI bookstores” to be held up as success stories to the ABA’s benefit. (As a bookseller at the later forum put it, “There are only 18 Black-owned bookstores at this conference, and that’s a problem.”)

Several ABA members at the ad hoc meeting suggested a bookstore coalition akin to Publishers for Palestine, which provides resources and on February 13 launched a free, downloadable Poems for Palestine chapbook. Others cited Writers Against the War on Gaza and an open petition attributed to Booksellers for Palestine. Some were galvanized by ABA's February 13 “Beyond the Binary” panel, when Palestinian American author Maysoon Zayid (Shiny Misfits, Apr.) took a moment onstage to assert, “Stop the genocide, ceasefire now, use your words! Look for Palestinian voices to amplify. Their voices will be gone forever unless we tell those stories.”

Wider Concerns About Representation

At the forum, booksellers called for “actionable steps” that will show how ABA leadership is both hearing and facilitating diverse constituents’ aims, from solidarity statements to greater emphasis on BIPOC booksellers’ distinct channels.

Some who spoke admitted their discomfort but seized the moment. “Sometimes I am conflicted as a bookseller because I don’t know what the backlash is going to be,” one said. One BIPOC bookseller told the gathering, “We’ve come, we’ve tried, we feel invisible. I’ve seen tiny incremental change, but it isn’t enough.” And a Black bookseller said, “It’s not enough to invite people of color and Black people to these events, to be on your board, to be on panels, if at the end of the day all of the content is still aimed toward white people, white bookstores, the ‘traditional’—heavy quotes on traditional—bookstore model.”

Given the schedule limitations and sizable crowd, only a fraction expressed positions on ABA’s advocacy and inclusiveness. Meanwhile, the board weighed their responses in the moment, mindful of ABA governance and the legislation sure to result from this frank conversation. As one bookseller put it, ABA policies are “living documents” and subject to amendment.

Caine referred to “the ends-and-means split,” saying that the board’s job is “to shape the ends of the organization, which Allison and her wonderful team then implement through the means.” He interpreted the members as “bringing this into a question of freedom of expression, and that definitely is our concern, because it is, in the end, policy.” He encouraged booksellers to reach out to ABA’s advocacy team for support.

Board member Jenny Cohen of Waucoma Bookstore (Hood River, Ore.) told the gathering, “There’s just so much work to do.” But this intense interaction might have, as one bookseller said, “pushed the needle.” As the meeting concluded, ABA CEO Hill told booksellers, “I’m taking all this in. I appreciate so much that you spoke up. Thank you.”