Category Archives: diversity

Ringing in the New Year

What an interesting year to work in a book store! Annie Blooms is in a neighborhood with the largest Jewish community in Oregon and also a sizable immigrant African population. Here’s what I’ve found uplifting in a year full of ugly politics. Time and again, readers came in looking for a book that would help them make sense of their opponent’s point of view.

The conservative who just doesn’t understand what black people are so upset about, was willing to walk out of the shop with Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Willing to look into it. Eager, in fact, to understand better.

The talk of several local, and generally liberal, book clubs has been Hillbilly Elegy by S.A. Vance. “How can a bunch of white men feel so discriminated against,” say the bookclub ladies. “Where on earth can all these Trump supporters be coming from?” I don’t know either but these earnest bookclub members are searching for insight and talking about what they find.

Nearly everybody who comes into the shop talking about some crisis or other, the Standing Rock Sioux and the oil pipeline or the tide of refugees fleeing into Europe, has an opinion to start with. But here’s the cool part; they know they need to know more. They know that what is online masquerading as news is often not reliable. They already know what they think, but they want to know what the other guy thinks. They want to know the context, the history, the back story, the supporting science. And very often they want to know how to talk about these issues with their children. And yes, there are books for that! 

Although we need more than a few good books and people reading them to solve the mountain of issues we will need to address in the coming years, I do believe that books are a good beginning. A jumping-off place. An invitation to conversation. I’m grateful to have a shop full of good books to share, and a community open to new ideas.

My hope for the new year is that I will continue to listen and to and learn what I can, not to erase our differences or compromise on values I hold too dear to let go. But that I can see opponants more clearly and understand issues more fully, and rededicate myself to doing as much good in the world as possible–and maybe even a few good things that are impossible.

Diversity in the Bookstore

imagesI  work at my local independent bookstore and it’s been an education in all sorts of ways. I’m astonished by how often people are buying a book for someone they don’t know very well. I’m touched by all the people who come in just to make a face to face connection with one of the booksellers or to pet our store cat, the beautiful and heroically patient Molly Bloom. And I love it when a flock of middle schoolers descends in the middle oUnknownf a hot chocolate date and settles in the picture book section to sip cocoa and read aloud to each other. I think of Annie Blooms as a warm and welcoming place. But I had an experience over the summer that has me rethinking my assumptions.

One day last summer a pair of sisters, one about 12 and the other 4 or 5, came into the shop fresh from the yogurt place across the street. The older settled into the cosy chair in the back with a YA novel and the younger rocked the dragon and sang to herself. This sort of thing happens all the time. About 30 minutes later the mother of these girls came in visibly agitated and asked if her girls had been good. I assured her they had, pointed out other children shopping without their parents, and told her that we love to encourage independent browsing by young readers. It took much more than the usual amount of reassurance to soothe her. IMG_1287I would have just put it down to a mom having a rough day. I’ve had plenty of those myself. But this mother was black. And it made me revisit what I know about the black experience in a retail environment. For many black people their retail interactions are negative, and sometimes overtly threatening. It made me think about whether this bookstore is as welcoming as I want it to be. For one thing, none of our booksellers are black. I know quite a few booksellers in the region and honestly I can’t think of a black bookseller anywhere in town.

This brings up lots of questions for me. Does that lack of black booksellers all by itself make a bookstore a less welcoming place? Does the overall negative retail experience make a black family less likely to bring the family to a bookstore for recreational browsing, even if the bookstore itself is not overtly racist to it’s black patrons? Would a black-owned bookstore make a difference? Why are there so few minority-owned bookstores? And what would make minority ownership of a bookstore more likely?

So often when there is a discussion of diversity in children’s literature the bottom line tends to be “those books just don’t sell very well.” It seems to me that most of the energy in the We Need Diverse Books movement is on the production end of the equation. And yet I don’t see how meaningful change can be made with out as least as much, if not more, attention on the consumer end of the bookstore experience. I wish I had answers. I’m not even certain that I’m seeing this problem as clearly as I might. Please feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.  I do hope going forward that we have as many conversations about the retail end of diversity in literature as we do about the publishing end.