I 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 of 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. I 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.