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.

6 thoughts on “Diversity in the Bookstore

  1. Nora

    Really interesting point, Rosanne, and one that I haven’t heard talked about before. There is a lot of discussion about the lack of diversity in characters, authors, and publishing houses, as there should be. But the issue of bookstores and who is selling the books rarely comes up. I wonder what the percentage of books sold online and in schools (scholastic fliers, etc) is compared to brick and mortar shops? You may know. But either way, what a wonderful force of change it would be to have more diversity in book retailers and also in bookstore locations. Though opening a bookstore is not an easy proposition these days, for anyone.

  2. Susan Lynn Meyer

    Fascinating post. I’m sure you’ve thought about this, but some easy touches that could make a bookstore feel more welcoming could be the pictures on the walls and some thought about diversity in the book faces that are turned outward. Even the color scheme and the music, maybe.

    1. Rosanne Parry Post author

      Thanks for chiming in Susan. I should be clear. I don’t own this bookstore so ultimately decisions of decor are not up to me. But we have been thinking and would very much welcome suggestions.

  3. Sheila Welch

    Hi Rosanne,
    You might remember in the fall of 2014, I was the moderator for an on-line discussion of WRITTEN IN STONE on Goodreads. So, whenever I see your comments on other sites, I read them. Just now, I was poking around and found your blog. Your experience with the two girls coming into the store reminded me of my own concerns with our children. While I’m white, six of my seven children are black. I often felt as though my kids had to behave just a bit better than their peers to offset the negative assumptions of whites. On the other hand, sometimes it was black adults who expected me to share their concept of good parenting even if I disagreed. It was complicated! I’m relieved to have all of the children grown, but I do worry about the kind of hateful, racist comments that are so prevalent in social media and the attitude of some police officers.

    As far as the store where you work — I know that anytime I’ve helped organize programs, I’ve made sure to invite a diverse group. So maybe the manager could invite black authors or local black residents to a read-and-chat night. Flyers could include photos of these readers, and when POC see that an event is featuring blacks, they often attend.

    The store sounds like a lovely place! Good luck!

    1. Rosanne Parry Post author

      Thanks for stopping by Sheila. Great suggestion about including and promoting black authors and illustrators at the store. We tend to strongly favor local book creators, but we could do a much better job of finding a more diverse group of authors for our store events. I went through our kids section today to see what a black child would find that reflected their lives and experiences and was surprised to find much more for black children at the picture book level and ever fewer choices as they grew older. Something to keep an eye on!

  4. Shirley Wuebben

    If everyone would just use manners and kindness that will leave a positive impression and make someone feel welcome. I few kind words and sometimes just a smile and a hello work wonders for a soul. The results may not be seen but the warmth will remain for a life time. I had black friends and we treated each other the same just like any kids we some times fought, but we always made up. We can’t be perfect. We can smile.
    My Grandfather used to say, “There are only two kind of people Good and Bad. Stick with the Good and leave the Bad to themselves.” “Sometimes you can help a Bad and sometimes you can’t it is not your fault it is just the way it is.” I was raised that color, national origin, religion, physical infirmity or any other difference just makes a person more interesting to know and share with. God’s Blessings and Thank You for your books “Heart of a Shepherd was a beautiful experience. I am encouraging my 5 grand children to read it. They will learn and be enriched too!

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