Indie bookseller panel looks at freedom of expression

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As freedom of expression issues continue to spark a heated debate in the book industry, the country’s regional independent book trade associations convened a panel Tuesday to discuss how the issue affects independent booksellers. The wide-ranging discussion, moderated by Jonathan Friedman of PEN America, took up key issues in a hotly contested debate about which books should go on the shelves of community bookstores.

Panelist and bookseller Luis Correa of ​​Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, dismissed the premise of the First Amendment, used by supporters of such controversial titles as former Vice President Mike Pence’s upcoming memoir, as irrelevant to the question of whether individual bookstores do Books should have in stock. Those who use such arguments, Correa says, do so to “avoid the consequences of their harmful speech”.

“The first amendment applies primarily to the government,” Correa said. “It is important that the government does not violate our freedom of expression. [But] The decision whether or not something is in stock does not necessarily have to do with the First Amendment. “

More important in the discussion of what to store, Correa said, is the realization that “when you sell a book the way I see it, you are not just selling a book. You provide funding, you provide a path, a door. And if we are booksellers because we believe that books can change lives, we also have to acknowledge that they can really harm the weakest. “

Josh Cook, bookseller at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass. “The challenge, and the point of potential conflict, is to find out … what should we do with statements that put other people in danger, make them insecure, or scare them into expressing their true selves?”

But Derrick Young, co-owner of Mahogany Books in Washington, DC and Baltimore, said he was concerned about how society views his efforts to reach readers in his community with a wide range of titles. He explained that when black booksellers open their own stores, the simple act of being a community institution is often more generally referred to as dangerous and subversive.

“The interesting thing about how black bookstores are perceived is that even Wikipedia says that black bookstores are viewed as radical about what we sell and what we are focused on,” said Young. In attempting to provide a diverse collection of titles, he said society “is already sticking us in”.

Kiese Laymon, professor and writer from the University of Mississippi, has repeatedly tried to deepen and move the conversation forward, urging booksellers to stop believing that their position in publishing is above criticism. The problems facing the industry are too intertwined, Laymon said, for anyone to believe they are not doing any job promoting the publication and sale of racist and discriminatory books.

“Compared to … Mike Pence, it’s easy to be innocent,” he said. “[But] we are involved. We are not innocent, and more than that, we are harmful. ”Speaking to Young, Laymon said that the effects of this damage cannot be overestimated. “I think we know what it’s like to open a book and be treated like a ***** by a book,” Laymon said. “We ourselves are part of something that is despicable. We are not virtuous because we love books. “

Kenny Brechner of booksellers Devaney, Doak and Garrett, who recently stepped down from the board of the American Booksellers Association and cites freedom of speech issues as a contribution to his resignation, said there are books he will no longer keep. Using Bill O’Reilly’s children’s books as examples, Brechner said the books “lie to children”. However, such decisions are subjective, said Brechner. He urged fellow booksellers to be careful not to allow individual decisions to become a large consensus on the decision not to sell certain titles throughout the independent bookselling community.

“[A] a progressive rejection of freedom of expression by the bookselling community would be a grave mistake, ”said Brechner. “The way we sit here now, there is an absolute avalanche of conservatively informed book bans and challenges facing school boards and libraries across the country. These challenges were directed against books whose dealings with the topics of gender, gender identity, sex and critical race theory many of us appreciate. That is the goal of it. And there has never been a better time for me to step back from supporting free speech. “

Panelist Vicky Titcomb, owner of Titcomb’s Bookshop in Sandwich, Massachusetts, brought the conversation back to her customers, remembering a recent visit by a young reader to the store who looked up from a book and said, “Mom, this is like me. “Titcomb said,” I cannot imagine growing up and finding books that are not helpful to me as a person, but are actually harmful. ”

Titcomb thanked their panelists for emphasizing the conversation on more conscious book sales, which helped readers navigate troubling ideas between books. Titcomb said she was willing to stock certain books that were divisive, but that her fellow booksellers raise important questions about harm and power that help her ponder which titles to stock and which not – with the Aim to make sure your readers feel cared for, supported, and seen.


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