On Curation and Diversity

Roxane Gay, well known for her provocative and insightful writing, walked the walk last week when she pulled her next book from Simon & Schuster in protest of that publisher’s book deal with Milo Yiannopoulos. Was this “censorship” as some claim?

Of course not. For right now at least anyone in the U.S. is welcome to publish pretty much whatever they want. But publishers, like booksellers, are gatekeepers and curators. In a country where literally well over a million books are published every year, anyone can find a platform to be heard. Bookstores and publishers gain credibility to the degree that they offer a “quality filter” for readers looking to educate and entertain themselves. The bookstores I love best do the heavy lifting of getting great writing and thinking in front of me.

I expect publishers and bookstores to find ideas that will challenge me–not just reinforce my bubble. Increasingly, I understand that I need to read a variety of well-argued viewpoints if I’m to play my part in healing America’s divides. So I look for bookstores to find the very best writing on a range of opinions.

What Gay is saying is that writers also curate in the way they choose to be aligned—with other writers, with ideas, with publishers. While honoring freedom of speech, she doesn’t have to align herself with Yiannopoulos, what he says and what he stands for. She decided it’s is a bridge to far. Good for her.

What made me think of this was reading PW’s coverage of Gay’s opening remarks at Winter Institute. While she didn’t specifically mention her decision to pull her book from S&S, she did say, “Language matters, and sometimes, like diversity, it becomes an empty container.” She invited booksellers to “get uncomfortable” around building bridges. She pointed out that it isn’t the job of minorities—racial, sexual and economic—to school the largely liberal, largely white gatekeepers of bookselling and publishing. It’s up to booksellers and publishers to seek out diverse audiences and invite them in.

I think of that often when I’m selling a book with an African-American theme and a buyer says, “You know, we just don’t have that audience. I wish we did.” I don’t doubt that. But I do wonder the degree to which one’s curation becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. In her speech Gay pointed out “Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee, where owner Daniel Goldin reached out to the black community when she made an appearance there so that every face in the audience was not white.” I’d be willing to bet Daniel’s inventory collection reflects that welcome.

This isn’t a beat-down of booksellers. I can flip through Harper’s catalogs and show you the ways in which what we publish still appeals in large part to a pretty narrow audience of middle and upper-middle class white readers. But we’re trying. We’re all trying. Now it’s time to try harder. Negotiating the line between commerce and ideas has always been tricky. Our livelihoods depend on giving people things they want. Now it’s time to help them—to help all of us—want better.

Some Holiday Thoughts about Bookstores and Giving

img_4680A funny thing happened the other day. There was a small pile of brand new gloves on our dining room table and I asked my wife if they were presents for her family. She said they were the gloves she’d bought for street people in our town.

I was impressed and asked, “When did you decide to do that?” I wasn’t totally surprised when she told me she’d been doing it for years. I can be pretty oblivious.

But later it occurred to me this is how compassion works. People make a point of noticing and then they do something. Small or big, it starts with the noticing.

It happens all the time; it’s even institutionalized at this time of year. A gift card for the postman, cookies for your child’s teacher, financial gifts to the charities reaching out for help… Maybe some of it feels like duty or mere tradition but drill down and one feels the spirit which animates the tradition.

It’s remarkable to see that spirit of gratitude in the bookselling community. So many of the stores I work with actively partner with charities and nonprofits in their communities 365 days a year.

This holiday some, Like Parnassus Books, linked to a list of their favorite partners locally and nationwide. Skimming over that list, I was moved by The Compassion Collective, a group of authors, filmmakers and activists who have organized to feed, clothe and shelter both refugee and homeless U.S. children. Check them out—100% of donated money goes directly to the children. (And they have a kickass manifesto reclaiming Mother’s Day.  🙂 )

Speaking of authors, James Patterson once again gave a quarter million dollars in holiday bonuses to frontline booksellers across the country. Seeing so many really remarkable booksellers get that kind of thanks and recognition truly touched me. Patterson looked around and saw what kind of gloves he could give.

Patterson, who along with Ann Patchett is an ambassador for The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, also invites readers everywhere to support their local bookstores mindfully and with a spirit of gratitude.

He suggests there are lots of ways to support your local bookstore: 1. Buy a book. 2. Give a book and encourage a love of reading. 3. Donate to Binc to help your local bookseller.



I hope you have a wonderful holiday. Give away some gloves.










Know More Than a Bookseller? Probably Not.

I’m sort on hiatus till the new year while publishers slow down new releases and booksellers get a chance to concentrate on putting great reads into the hands of holiday shoppers.

But  just for fun I offer an interactive quiz I bumped across in the NYT the other day.

It’s an employment test that The Strand Bookstore uses for prospective hires. Give it a shot–it’s harder than you’d think.

My takeaway? I’d probably only be hired to do returns and receiving. And I need to work on my Greek and the Russian classics. 🙂

Props to you, my bookseller pals!



Giving Tuesday – Consider The Book Industry Charitable Foundation

Started in 2012 as a response to Black Friday, it’s been wonderful to see how strongly Giving Tuesday has taken hold in just four years.

If you read this blog, you care about books and book culture. One of my favorite charitable organizations helps keep that culture vital by helping booksellers in need.

Here’s The Book Industry Charitable Foundation’s inaugural ambassador Ann Patchett explaining what Binc does to help booksellers stay on the job and in careers they are passionate about.


Full disclosure: I’m on the board of Binc. So I could give you a bunch of stats about how much money has been given away and the number of people Binc has helped over the years–but this thank you note from a bookseller explains it so much better.

Earlier this year I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. This isn’t easy to diagnose, I learned, and the process required many expensive tests and expensive visits with specialists, as well as a hospital stay and time off work. I paid what I could, but I don’t know what I would have done without Binc to help with the remainder. They made the process of applying very easy, even in my exhausted and mentally foggy state, and paid my outstanding bills promptly. The person assisting me even sent me a book on living with chronic illness, and this small kindness meant so much to me. This organization is a true blessing for people in the book business and I can’t thank them enough.”

Please consider Binc in your year-end giving plans. This is a great day to do it–and through the end of the year the Binc Board of Directors will match your gift!

20 for 20 sidebar

Shop Local This Weekend–and Year Round!

introTomorrow is Small Business Saturday–I’m sure you’ve seen the American Express ad. It gives you a vague warm fuzzy, right?

Well, the specifics about the good shopping local does for your community should make you feel even better. Check out this fun infographic by one of my favorite writers and cartoonists–Mary Laura Philpott of Parnassus Books. (If you like her illustrations check out her book Penguins with People Problems. )

You’ll come out the other end feeling even better about buying books (and shoes and hammers and lattes) from the local merchants who make your town a place you want to live!

Mary Laura allowed me to be grab a few images here–but get the whole story by going to Musing–a laid back lit journal.



Chalk Board/Sounding Board: Bookstores


So. Dispiriting week. My bright spot? Booksellers.

This chalkboard from The Bookloft went viral earlier in the week and got me thinking about how bookstores are responding to the election.

Here are reactions from three stores I work with.

Peace – Kate

Carmichael’s Bookstore – Louisville, KY

“Carmichael’s opened in 1978, so this makes this—let’s see—the eleventh Presidential campaign season we’ve witnessed, so our view tends to be a long one.  It has been the most coarse and divisive of our lifetime, and even though we know campaigns in the 19th century were much worse—because we’ve read about them—the Republic sails on.  The election is already in our rearview mirror as we get back to trying to do our important work—choosing books for the store, reading them, recommending them to our customers, and giving them the customer service and attention they merit.

“Books are, inherently, objects of hope and optimism.  Whether we read to escape, or inform, or learn from, reading is an activity that somehow organically brings a little more civility, empathy, curiosity, and humanity into people who immerse themselves in the world of books.  They foster connection with the Other, however it is defined for you, building on the lessons of the past and reaching towards a future of possibilities.  Fran Lebowitz said, “Think before you speak.  Read before you think,” which should probably be part of Carmichael’s Mission Statement, if we had one.

“Finally, there is the vital issue of children.  We don’t need studies to tell us that children who read a lot are more successful, have more curiosity about the world, have less anxiety about the future, and are more open to change.  Which is why we opened Carmichael’s Kids, a store beside our Bardstown Road store devoted exclusively to children and children’s literature.  Children’s books are the rough clay from which we mold a generation that will be kinder, more humane, more engaged with the plight of others, and far more successful in life.  When Old Age truly comes upon us, we can only hope that the generation we place our lives into is one that grew up with books.”
– Michael Boggs


Literati Bookstore – Ann Arbor, MI

Letters From Literati:  Another person’s skin…

“If you’re feeling like me, you may be feeling anger, hurt, sadness, loss, fear, confusion, anxiety, or all of the above. Or, maybe you’re happy, elated, feeling good. I don’t know. Today, though, I just don’t have many words to say. I had been intending to get this newsletter out earlier, but couldn’t.

“In the days ahead, I will turn to books. Reading, for me, has always been a way (to quote Harper Lee) to jump inside another person’s skin. To leap inside their narratives and experience their thoughts and feelings and beliefs. Which I think, right now, for me at least, is a great endeavor to do.

“In the meantime, we will be here, at 124 E. Washington. We will keep putting out the books we believe in, books that push ideas, experiences, boundaries, thoughts — books that open up new worlds. We will be a welcoming space, a community space to gather. I encourage you to come and talk to us about anything. We’re here.

“And I’ll also turn towards the words of others: I’m going to re-read Between The World and Me. I’m going to browse our social studies, race, gender studies sections. I’ll re-read The New Jim Crow. Hillbilly Elegy. Women, Race & Class. Strangers in their Own Land. I might throw in there a good mystery, too. And so much more. Because there’s so much more.

And read, read, read, read.”


Parnassus Books – Nashville, TN

Notes from Ann: Shelter

“When I dream of some tiny step to counteract the current madness, I think about how nice it would be to make a safe place for myself, my family, my friends, and total strangers, a place that is quiet and cheerful, a place that welcomes everyone exactly as they are, while at the same time encouraging them to be better, smarter, and more curious. A place that celebrates different points of view (and yes, in different I include the free and respectful exchange of political points of view that are not my own). I would like to build a place where people would feel cherished for their life experiences, where people could learn from history and be comforted by art. A place where babies are welcome, children can play, and teenagers feel respected. A place where people who are pulled in a hundred different directions can find a moment’s peace, and old people would be offered a comfortable chair to sit while they read a book.

“You see what I’m getting at here.

(Photo: Heidi Ross)

“After days of wondering if I should sign up for Teach for America or join Green Peace or, heaven forbid, run for some small local office, I thought the thing I would actually most like to give people at this moment is a bookstore. Here at Parnassus — and at bookstores all across the country — we are offering shelter from the storm. Not only do we promise a culture of intellectual freedom and intellectual expansion, we promise dogs who love without judgement.

“Love without judgement, people. Try topping that.”
— Ann Patchett


Bank on Booksellers Auction This Week!

Ann Patchett, "Pigs Make Hard Choices"Don’t forget to sign on tonight for Parnassus Books’ charity auction BANK ON BOOKSELLERS. (You can see the piggy banks now; bidding starts at 7:30 pm EST)

You’ve probably heard about the auction by now, but if not details are in this blog post from earlier in the week.

It’s going to be a blast! And proceeds will not only help Steph Appell at Parnassus but booksellers throughout the country since Parnassus is donating part of the proceeds to Binc.