This is my fourth letter in three months. I hope you don’t mind that this is turning into a personal blog series. Extraordinary times call for ever greater honesty and transparency.
Now, please bear with me as I muddle my way through this. I am a white woman of inherent (and otherwise) privilege so I’m not confident that I can contribute anything profound to the conversation. All I can say is that I stand with you. I support you. And I will do my part.
BookBar’s mission is to promote literacy through community. If you know us, you know that we are fiercely dedicated to literacy, community, and equality (not necessarily in that order). As a small, independently owned bookstore, we have the freedom and flexibility to answer the calls of our community. I often say that, for us, bookselling is a dialogue. We track our sales for analytics purposes but also to gauge what our customers are essentially asking of us. I am heartened by the fact that our top sellers have all been anti-racist titles. Not only are we sold out of many of these titles but they are on back-order with our wholesalers and publishers, too. So – even if it wasn’t just the right thing to do – our customers are also telling us that this is what they want. We’re more determined than ever to get these titles into readers’ hands.
It seems that many of us have ridden a mutual wave of emotions these past few weeks: outrage, sadness, exhaustion, pain, determination, and only recently a sliver of hope. We’re starting to see real proposed changes taking place in policies and budgets. I’ve been thinking nonstop about what I can do. What we can do. My whole frame of reference, of course, is in regards to
independent bookstores. Honestly, I know little else. So it’s a start.
This is not the time or the place to promote the actions BookBar has taken but I would like to take the opportunity to lay out some things that we and other independent bookstores across the nation can do. The American Booksellers Association has a diversity and inclusion task force that can provide much better suggestions than I so this is not an exhaustive list and I am by no means an expert:
Commit to hiring a diversified staff: I will be the first one to admit that BookBar has not done enough to accomplish this goal. That changes now. My hope is that everyone will be able to walk into our store and talk about books with someone who looks like them.
Support and amplify Black voices: Through displays, shelf-talkers, and knowledgeable staff. Break your own rules of event requirements for Black authors. Offer sales, discounts, and giveaways to better get these titles out there.
Hold mandatory diversity training for staff: Again, confession here, I’ve not yet done this but am scheduling one. I’m ashamed to admit that it wasn’t my idea even though it is the most obvious thing in the world. My caring staff suggested it. It is necessary. And don’t forget to include training on disability and invisible disability biases; gender and sexual orientation biases. Bookstores must be inclusive, safe spaces for all.
Host anti-racist book clubs Well-Read Black Girl, ‘provides a vital space for Black women readers and writers to connect and grow in conversation’ and is a great place to start. Loyalty Bookstore in Silver Spring, MD and Washington D.C.’s ‘Stamped’ book club is a shining example.
Give back: If you do % of sales to a nonprofit organization, give to a Black-led organization. Give gift cards to these organizations for silent auction fundraisers.
Give to BINC: Book Industry Charitable Foundation provides resources to booksellers. Black-owned bookstores have been hit particularly hard by Covid-19.
Mentor a bookseller of color: Really, the most important thing I wanted to say, that sparked this entire letter, is that I’m more committed than ever to giving my time to people of color who want to open bookstores. I had the honor of working with my now good friend, Noëlle Santos, when she opened LitBar, the only bookstore in the Bronx. She is having an immense impact on her community and the entire bookselling industry. Unfortunately, the shut-down canceled the plans of a potential bookseller from Memphis and another from Atlanta to stay at BookBed, our apartment above the bookstore, to learn some hands-on bookselling. Their plans to pursue their dreams have been delayed but hopefully not dashed. More bookstores in more communities, curated by people of color are a necessity. I hope more booksellers will consider mentoring and providing consultation services as well.
Our local governments can do more, too. Provide tax-relief for Black-owned bookstores, provide tax-relief for landlords of Black-owned bookstores, provide more grants and ensure better terms and access to loans. Encourage local schools, corporations, and organizations to buy bulk orders from black-owned bookstores.
As for BookBar and our staff, I know I can speak for everyone when I say that we may not always get this right but we will certainly do our best. Our ears are open for anything our community would like to see from us. We’re a small store recovering from having been closed for a few months but we’ll do what we can. We are learning and evolving with everyone. We are committed to justice.
If you are a person of color and need any help opening a bookstore in your community, please contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org. And, as always, if your community or organization needs books contact our non-profit organization email@example.com
Lastly, I always ask people to shop independently-owned bookstores, rather than Amazon. Now I’d like to ask everyone to shop Black-owned/operated indie bookstores – certainly rather than Amazon but even over my own store. We need these bookstores to survive. Here is a good list of stores across the country from our friends at LitHub. Most of them offer online sales and nationwide shipping. If you have limited time, you can go to bookshop.org and select a store to support. Same with libro.fm for audio books. Please shop for change.