“We honor your right as a reader to make your own decisions about which authors and titles you wish to consume…”
On its surface, this seems like such an obvious statement, coming from a bookstore. Of course, we’ll also join the thousands of other bookstores and libraries across the country who will be calling attention this week to the too many titles that have been challenged or outright banned. Just this past week, there have been headlines in national news outlets reporting on high-profile instances of attempts to ban certain books. In Pennsylvania last week there were, rightly, protests against the banning of several titles that address racism and diversity—all by authors and illustrators of color. Thankfully, this decision was reversed just days ago. But now we’re seeing a group out of Tennessee who are trying to shield children from reading about Martin Luther King Jr and… seahorse sex.
The banning of books is as old as reading itself. Throughout history, books have been banned for any number of reasons—mostly to keep from challenging political authority and to keep citizens uninformed and subjugated. In more recent history and in the present, the push has been from the far-right. Those behind these challenges feel they are serving the will of God by attempting to shelter children from themes that they fear will make kids uncomfortable or damage their morals. In the last few years, however, this feeling of a need to protect readers has spilled over to the far-left as well. As a member of booksellers’ associations and discussion groups, I have seen a disturbing trend among my colleagues on the left side of the political divide who are increasingly refusing to sell books and authors they find problematic.
As a kid who grew up in the ‘80s, angry at Tipper Gore for slapping warning labels on our music, I am very unsettled by a new generation of booksellers who feel they are providing a service to their customers by labeling books with trigger warnings and cautioning their readers about potentially problematic themes or authors. This only detracts from the importance of these books, however, focusing on critiques rather than seeing the book for the artistic expression that it is and recognizing the overall message or theme the author is meaning to convey. Labeling books removes power from readers to make their own choices and detracts from authors’ freedom of artistic expression. And the list of reasons to label or ban books outright from independent bookstores only seems to be growing.
I recently sent a letter to the American Booksellers Association to ask them to not participate in the normalization of booksellers rejecting book sales, and to not use language that contributes to the justification of banning books. I provided the example of a child who walks into an independent bookstore asking for a copy of Harry Potter. Most booksellers will sell J.K. Rowling’s books to children and their parents. Most even still shelve them. But a growing number will not. Some will explain to the customer that they will not sell this book because they find J.K. Rowling’s views on LGBTQ rights damaging. I’m not saying they are wrong. But the question of where, how, and when one should one draw a line between art and artist is an important decision that should be left to the individual. I won’t pretend to know the answer and it has never been in my job description to make that call. My larger concern, however, is that when we tell children that we will not sell a book to them because we do not agree with something the author said on social media, not only have we potentially lost a customer but we—the collective we—might very well have also lost a reader. And we desperately need more readers — now more than ever.
There is no doubt whatsoever that this all comes from a well-meaning place. It is kind to want other people to feel comfortable and to protect our loved ones and our communities from anything that might be seen as disturbing or painful, or from writings that might give fodder to the oppression of others. I also stand by any business’s right to choose who they do business with and how they make their money. I stand by the right of parents to guide their children in what they read if they so wish. But schools, libraries, and bookstores should be places for free and wide-open access to reading material. Not every book or idea is equal. There are a lot of terrible books and awful ideas out there. But readers must have the freedom to choose if they want to read an “awful” book or a “wonderful” book. As booksellers—promoters of ideas, fantastical worlds, heartbreaking stories, hilarious memoirs—we, more than anyone, should know the many varied reasons why people read what they read. Whether it is for escapism, knowledge, curiosity, or research; to justify our own ideas or for a tool to challenge those of others. We can never assume that we know what motivations one has for the reading materials they choose. I strongly believe that our job is to promote books and reading, rather than searching between the lines or behind the scenes to put focus on anything we deem to be problematic or uncomfortable. Books are just too important for us to seek out controversy and division in that which should unite us.
Independent bookstores already are faced with so many misconceptions that we find ourselves dispelling every day. We hear from customers that we are quaint because, “Aren’t bookstores going away?” We have to explain that our books are “more expensive” than on Amazon because we don’t have the purchasing power to buy in massive bulk and we sure don’t consider books to be our loss leaders. We work hard to convince our potential customers that they can order online with us with ease and have books delivered to their doorstep. Maybe not quite as fast as those with their own fleets—but nearly.
We have pulled out all of our wittiest and most creative stops to educate customers on why they should shop indie. We simply cannot afford to lose customers, nor can we let the narrative of indie bookstores be that we are expensive, inconvenient novelties, and that we will only sell you the books that we think you should be reading. We cannot unwittingly train our customers to just go ahead and shop at Amazon. I truly worry about the future of independent bookstores if more and more of us are restrictive about what we’ll sell and to whom. Too many of us are communicating to the very people we want and need to reach that indie bookstores are not for them, rather than using the opportunity to open minds.
I grew up in a small, conservative, Southern town and books were my windows to the world. Books (many of which are found to be ‘problematic’ by both the far-right and the far-left today) shook me to my core and opened my eyes to humanity. Once I discovered and devoured Nancy Drew and the Little House on the Prairie series, I was later led to John Steinbeck, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, J.D. Salinger, Anne Rice (yes, we all have a vampire phase), Harper Lee, J. R. R. Tolkien, Margaret Atwood, Alice Walker, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, and Gabriel García Márquez just to name a few.
I decided to dedicate my life to book access and to championing literacy. I see this as my mission in everything I do. It started with opening BookBar in 2013, and we have remained steadfast in making books available to our customers without curbing their rights to read or authors’ rights to free expression. At our non-profit association, BookGive, we distribute free books to those in need throughout Metro Denver. To date, we have ‘re-homed’ more than 70,000 books in a little over a year—any book to anyone. Our newest venture, BookBar Press, is publishing books by local and marginalized voices with diverse themes, and an eye toward social justice.
We believe we need access to MORE books and MORE voices. Not fewer. More importantly, we are dedicated to not serving as gatekeepers in an industry where political divisiveness is increasingly finding a home. You may not find everything you are looking for on our shelves at BookBar as we (like all independent bookstores) curate our inventory as a reflection of our values and those of our community. However, we will order any available title for any customer, and are committed to always doing so without judgement or an unsolicited lecture about your reading choices. This has always been, and always will be, our policy.
So, for this Banned Books Week we will have the usual displays and Banned Book readings, but we will also simply be doing what we do best—selling books. We honor your right as a reader to make your own decisions about which authors and titles you wish to consume, to bring home, to place on your own shelves, share with your friends and family, gain more insight into opposing viewpoints, or as a justification to fight for justice. That is your right and we stand by that. We know a lot about books and authors and our booksellers are empowered to give their honest opinion, if asked, about a particular book or author. But we’ll not get into the business of labeling or banning. We will not be arbiters of ideas or words. We just don’t think we are that important or qualified enough to make those decisions for YOU. We don’t believe anyone is. We trust you, dear readers, to make your own reading decisions. It pains me, as a book lover and certainly as a bookseller, that this basic idea has become controversial. I believe that all books are gateways: to other books, to more reading, to new ideas, which lead to more understanding, more empathy. It may start with Harry Potter but lead to How to be An Antiracist.
For Banned Books Week, read a banned or challenged book. Or, hell, just read a book. Then keep reading. Keep challenging your own ideas and keep opening your world wider and wider. That may be the only way we all eventually find ourselves in the same space. I couldn’t agree more with the theme of Banned Books Week this year: Books Unite Us. Censorship Divides.
And, if you’d like to do more, please consider a donation to PEN America. They are doing important work to ensure that stories will still be told and that authors can continue to contribute to our multi-faceted, imperfect, gloriously messy literary fabric of American life.
Nicole Sullivan – BookBar Owner