In September, the New England Independent Booksellers Association held a panel at its fall trade show that addressed bookseller activism in today’s political climate. In the intervening weeks, the midterm elections seem to have done little to dampen the current divisiveness in the U.S. Some of that anger has spilled over into bookstores, with some customers complaining about the books they carry (or don’t).
As panel moderator Dave Grogan, director of the American Booksellers for Free Expression, Advocacy, and Public Policy at the American Booksellers Association, noted at NEIBA, “Obviously, the First Amendment doesn’t require booksellers to sell any book, and you can sell any book you want.” But that fact hasn’t diminished the scrutiny that bookstores get from the right and left alike. Over the summer, BookPeople in Austin, Tex., which stocks books from both sides of the political aisle, was targeted by the far right for its “Radical Reads for the Revolution!” display. It was the subject of an Infowars video, which claimed the store was promoting communism.
PW talked with indies from different parts of the country to find out how they balance politics and business, including a few booksellers who have taken active roles in their communities by running for office and the owner of one store that served as headquarters for a political candidate.
Holding the Center
“You can’t be neutral on a moving train,” wrote historian Howard Zinn, who used that line as the title of his autobiography. But that hasn’t stopped some bookstore owners from aiming for the center and attempting to satisfy as many political perspectives as possible.
Chris Morrow, co-owner of Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vt., and Saratoga Springs, N.Y,. wants to make sure all viewpoints are represented at his stores, even if it means rankling some readers. “We try to make the store for everyone, and when something conservative comes in, we stack it up like other titles,” Morrow said. “I have consistently reinforced that being in the book business is different from selling clothes or hardware. We are a cultural institution. We have to be able to be comfortable with discomfort.”
In August, Morrow’s decision to sell books at an off-site event in Saratoga Springs for Sean Spicer, former White House press secretary under President Trump, became a flash point for activists in the community and a source of division among store staff. “This level of polarization is new,” Morrow said. “What has changed is the public’s lack of tolerance for opposing views.”
Becky Anderson, co-owner of Anderson’s Books in Naperville, Downers Grove, and LaGrange, Ill., agrees. “We tell our staff to never talk about their own politics on the floor, which is really hard in the climate right now,” she said. “But we do want to make sure to respect everyone who comes in.”
Anderson, a city councilwoman in Naperville who made an unsuccessful Democratic primary bid for a U.S. House of Representatives seat earlier this year, has learned from past mistakes—particularly those of the store’s founder. “My great-grandfather ran for Congress as a Democrat in 1948, and he would talk politics in the store all the time, because he was passionate about the New Deal,” she said. “But he lost customers as a result, and so that’s something we have sworn not to do.”
Instead, to try to bring together people with differing points of view, the Downers Grove store hosts a monthly book club called the Whole Story. Anderson described it as a “kind of salon” with discussions of community topics coupled with advocacy activities such as postcard writing or calling representatives.
In January, Anderson will take part in the launch of the Open Discussion Project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, in collaboration with the ABA. The goal is to promote civil discourse on political topics through books, much like the Bridging the Divide reading group begun last year by Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, N.C., which alternates selecting conservative and liberal titles each month.
Taking a Stand
By contrast, Nancy Braus, who founded Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro, Vt., in 1984 with her husband, Rich Geidel, broadcasts the store’s sensibilities through its tagline, “For Social Justice and the Earth.” The store carries progressive titles for adults, as well as a large inventory of children’s books related to emotional and social development. Sidelines include a large collection of progressive bumper stickers. It’s not a store to visit in search of books by ultraconservative, misogynist, or racist authors, but customers are welcome to special order those or other titles.
Everyone’s Books is very much an activist bookstore; its owners and staff both attend political demonstrations. As of this writing, Braus is awaiting trial after being arrested at a demonstration in Williston, Vt., where ICE has its Law Enforcement Support Center. Some of the store’s activism is centered on matters much closer to home: the stockroom served as campaign headquarters for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders when he was starting out in politics in the late 1980s.
Casey Coonerty Protti took over management of Bookshop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2006 after her father, Neil Coonerty, became a city councilman. He went on to become mayor of Santa Cruz and later served on the County Board of Supervisors. But Protti has no aspirations to follow in his footsteps. “What we saw more than ever [after the 2016 presidential election] is people who need escapism but also people who need activism and a basic understanding of democracy,” she said.
As a result, Bookshop Santa Cruz added a shelf of books in its politics section on tactical forms of political engagement. Over the past few years, the store has sold hundreds of copies of the U.S. Constitution, and Protti expects that Jill Lepore’s new tome, These Truths: A History of the United States, will be one of the store’s bestselling nonfiction hardcovers of the year.
After the 2016 election, Protti and her staff launched an events series called Words to Act On, in partnership with three nonprofits: Community Action Board Immigration Project, Ecology Action, and Planned Parenthood. Every three months, the store highlights one organization by focusing on democratic ideals that they feel are under attack and outlines steps that individuals can take to help. A literary fund-raiser for Planned Parenthood Mar Monte included a performance from The Handmaid’s Tale, a community read of Willie Parker’s Life Work: A Moral Argument for Choice, and a literary refreshment lounge with drinks served by authors.
Some booksellers approach their inventory and events from different perspectives. Shane Gottwals—who founded 11-year-old Gottwals Books, based in Warner Robins, Ga., with his wife, Abbey Gottwals—views his four stores and 11 Walls of Books franchises as Christian bookstores in all but name. “I have an English degree,” he said. “I studied at Oxford. We have every romance novel, every thriller. But when I see something that’s too far, we don’t carry it.” That applies to the Gottwals stores; the franchise stores can carry anything but erotica.
Gottwals said that, like a number of his bookselling colleagues, he is considering a run for public office—most likely on the state or federal level, where he thinks that he can have the biggest impact on abortion and gay marriage, both of which he opposes. While acknowledging that there’s “a fine line between free expression and inappropriateness,” he noted that his stores tend to reflect the politics of the Bible Belt. He won’t carry teen books—particularly lifestyle titles—with what he regards as inappropriate touching on the cover or religious content from a non-Christian perspective. And although Gottwals stocks Glimmer of Hope by the Parkland students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and books by politicians such as Hillary Clinton, he does not actively promote them.
Politicizing Kids Books
Gibran Graham, who has been transforming the Briar Patch in Bangor, Maine, from a children’s bookstore into a general bookstore since he bought it in April 2017, is in his second term as a city councilman. He said his goal in office is much the same as his goal as a bookstore owner: “I wanted to give back to the city. Part of my mission on the council has been to make all voices heard.”
In the store, that means stocking a large selection of LGBTQ books, multicultural titles, and both girl and boy power titles. Graham actively seeks out diversity on the covers of the books he stocks, so that kids can literally see themselves reflected in the books. He also has a display of the adult board book Trump’s ABCs by the register as a conversation starter.
The Briar Patch flies the rainbow flag every June in support of LGBTQ rights. Earlier this year, after calls for teachers to be armed in the wake of the Parkland shooting, Briar Patch posted a photo project on its Facebook page called “We Are Already Armed.” It features images of a dozen educators posing with their preferred weapons: books, pens, and pencils. It engendered a lot of debate about schools and safety.
Like Northshire, Quail Ridge has faced angry customers on both the left and the right for its book selection. “We have gotten some flak from customers from both sides; they think we’re taking a position,” said children’s department manager Carol Moyer, who noted that the store’s selections are made very carefully. “We do not want to be a business that tells customers how to think. We want to provide a wide range of views so that customers can be informed and make their own decisions.”
Moyer said she has found that, at least for now, some books for teens are immune to political divisions. She has been able to hand-sell books such as The Hate U Give, about police violence, and Harbor Me, about the effects of social and political issues on kids, to a wide range of readers.
Moyer also noted that she has seen a recent uptick in sales of biographical picture books with political connections. “I see teachers and librarians wanting the new Sonia Sotomayor picture book, Turning Pages,” she said. “There’s been a huge burst of production of those kinds of books, biographies of women and the underrepresented.”