This award recognizes a Colorado individual (or group) not directly affiliated with libraries who promotes intellectual freedom. CAL cited Nicole Sullivan’s “brave response to the American Booksellers Association and staunch support of protecting the intellectual freedom of those in the bookstore community and their customers” in the nominations they received.
The best way for me to express how meaningful this award is, is to tell you a bit more about what compelled me to write my letter to the American Booksellers Association. When I opened BookBar back in 2013 I had no previous bookselling experience but as a life-long reader who grew up in a small, conservative town in Southern Missouri, what I loved most about books was that they gave me insight into other cultures, histories, and ideas that I otherwise had no access to. Stories allowed me to live a much broader and more colorful life than what was in front of me at that time. Like many of my bookselling colleagues a decade ago, I looked to Joyce Meskis, former owner of Tattered Cover, and a 2002 recipient of this very award, for inspiration. While I never had the pleasure of working for Joyce, I absorbed her philosophy regarding bookselling and the crucial role the First Amendment still played in the industry at that time. Most of us did. Until we didn’t.
Upon opening my store I became an active member of the ABA. I was overjoyed to find a community of book lovers like myself for whom there was no such thing as a ‘bad’ book (only bad writing and book covers) and we were more or less united in the fact that it was our duty as booksellers to serve our customers, rather than our own political agendas. Then in the social upheaval that was 2020 I began seeing more and more chatter from my colleagues regarding the books that they increasingly refuse to sell or the authors they won’t support whether because of comments made on social media or behaviors that they had been accused but not convicted of. This chatter was followed up, shockingly, by the ABA’s change to their Ends Policies. This change is so slight as to have almost gone unnoticed. But it was noticed by one board member who resigned in protest and shined light on the implications. This change in policy essentially removed from The Association the commitment to present a united front in upholding free expression. They would instead provide individual booksellers the resources we may need to uphold this basic right. And the message conveyed by making this change is unmistakable. The First Amendment was no longer a cornerstone of our mission. They decided to pass the buck and rely on already beleaguered booksellers to shoulder this weighty responsibility.
After pressing the ABA repeatedly on their reasons for making this change, I received a variety of answers from the board members and staff. I’ve been told that the First Amendment conflicts with the Fourteenth Amendment, that it is a tool of the oppressor, or that they weren’t actually abandoning their commitment to free speech but simply adjusting the language of their bylaws; A sort of ‘nothing to see here’ answer. This mixed messaging, lack of transparency, and obvious misinterpretation of what the First Amendment actually does, is, and has done throughout history is chilling coming from the organization tasked with representing booksellers all across the U.S.serving a variety of communities large and small, conservative and progressive, in states red and blue. In subsequent conversations with my colleagues who were also concerned by this shift I was told time and time again that they would love to speak out but were fearful of the backlash and how it would affect their businesses. Think about that for a moment, seasoned booksellers were afraid to speak out in support of freedom of expression because they feared backlash by the very association tasked with representing them.
Unfortunately, they were right. After my letter was published, I received an initial outpouring of private support from publishers, authors, readers, and booksellers. The common refrain from booksellers was to thank me for expressing what they wished they could also express but were too afraid of the aftermath. And then, very soon and very predictably, the social media attacks began. The attacks were vicious and all aimed at me personally. There was no substantive counter-argument to my plea to support freedom of expression. Instead, my character was assassinated, my reputation smeared, and my motives called into question. One current ABA Board Officer derisively called me a ‘white savior’ for my work mentoring new and potential booksellers of color, something I’ve been very passionate about as we’ve all been calling for more diversity in the book industry. Anyone who has survived middle school, high school, or an hour of watching Fox News knows that if you don’t have a good argument against something with which you disagree, just go after the messenger. Silence them by attacking them. It is a tactic used by demagogues and authoritarians with limited diplomacy skills. The attacks on me by board members and association members were acknowledged by the ABA but, to date, there has been no response. Unfortunately, this has had the, I can only assume, desired effect of suppressing the many dissenting voices in the industry. For the moment, anyway.
The thing is – once you’ve already been called all of the names, accused of all of the things, had your words twisted around and used against you, you turn off your computer and go about your business which is what I did. I did so feeling like I was working from a deserted island (granted, one with decent wifi), having been rebuffed by my community and those who do support me and my position, being scared into silence. So when I received word of this award, it couldn’t have come at a better time. Sometimes awards serve the purpose of recognition. And sometimes awards serve the purpose of motivation. That’s what this does. It not only makes me feel less alone in this fight but it sends a message from all of you to keep going just as you all have. Librarians have been doing this work for decades and today are increasingly fighting the threat of censorship, facing those who wish to silence that which with they don’t agree or even understand, with resilient bravery. You are all my inspiration and my new community. You get it. Words, stories, ideas are bigger than any one of us and the freedom to not only express them but to access them, whether as patrons or customers, must be protected at all costs. I’m not sure what the future holds for booksellers who don’t respect the rights of their customers to choose and have access to whatever reading material they desire for whatever reasons they have for desiring it, but I will be fighting alongside all of you to not only uphold the fundamentals of our democracy but also our shared humanity. When booksellers are both silencing and being silenced, it’s the libraries we will turn to for book access. From the bottom of my heart, thank you for this acknowledgement, this motivation, and for all that you do.