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Notebook: (1) Heartland Vistas
by Ann Kjellberg, editor
The Detroit River and Windsor, Ontario, as seen from the Detroit Renaissance Center, Heartland Fall Forum, October 2023
I love going to the Heartland Fall Forum. Other attenders have reminded me that my part of the country has its own regional booksellers conference. Yes, I know. But there is something special for me about travelling into the middle of the nation, where booksellers far from the overhyped coasts are seeking out readers, finding them where they are, navigating in the world that distance between the solitude of the writer’s desk and the great shifting unknown of the reading public. I love hearing about where these booksellers take root: the lakeside villages surrounded by forests where families return summer after summer, the old cities continually remaking themselves in abandoned warehouses and hidden coffee bars, the far-flung college towns with their arguments and fresh passions, the prairie outposts where you have to drive an hour in every direction to find another bookstore. So much landscape, so many personalities and dreams. Heartland’s returning MC, my Brooklyn neighbor Isaac Fitzgerald, all fizz and enthusiasm, quoted at the convocation Alan Bennet’s The History Boys: “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—which you had thought special and particular to you … it is as if a hand has come out and taken yours.” Everyone in the big anodyne Detroit conference room where we found ourselves knew the feeling of that hand against theirs, in their different ways. I met the white-bearded bookseller who said he had come up with the name “Heartland Fall Forum” and I said, score, it worked on me. Travelling into the great breadbasket of the nation at the moment of harvest, as work and nature come to fruition all around us, thrills the heart.
I was especially excited because the Forum this year was taking place in Detroit, where I’d never been, place of legend and the home city of my current partner bookseller Source, and was honoring its founder, my new hero Janet Webster Jones (read her acceptance remarks here). As soon as I got off the plane, behaving like a New Yorker I took the bus to her bookstore, which I found even more delicious and welcoming than I had imagined—soothing music, wonderful smells arising from a little shelf of essential oils, bright hand-printed posters, big comfortable chairs. The book selection was full of surprises, clearly each thing chosen by Janet herself as an answer to a thoughtfully envisioned question. Source’s focus is on nonfiction, and yet the store feels rich in imagination and creativity. Janet’s dedication to learning the facts is the rich soil from which this garden grows.
And there was Janet herself, in her Source t-shirt, running the show, putting the lie to those currently arguing that folks of eighty-plus years need to step back. In the few minutes I spent nosing around she finessed two archetypal bookstore encounters: the woman rushing in for the first time, needing a present for someone and not knowing exactly what (“this place is fabulous! I’m coming back here all the time!”) and the regular expecting Janet to have something and finding her cheerfully willing to spend twenty minutes hunting it down at another shop (“we all work together here”). It was so fun later to trail Janet around the conference and absorb the sparkle and can-do spirit her admiring fellow booksellers, some a quarter of her age, prompted in her. There was food, drink, earnest talk, workshops on everything from book bans to zines, and, centrally, encounters with authors and their books, all—even the most seasoned ones—a little shy and amazed to have published a book and to be meeting the people who would put it in readers’ hands.
The pressure of a rising tide of politics organizing itself around resistance to books, alongside a boom in newly minted booksellers, many of them younger and committed to bringing books to new audiences, created a natural theme that emerged in conversations around two recent books by booksellers: How to Protect Bookstores and Why by (former Book Post partner) The Raven’s Danny Caine and The Art of Libromancy by Porter Square Books’s Josh Cook. The books’ very publishers were a part of their message: The Art of Libromancy was published by the independent bookseller/publisher Biblioasis, located across the river and a frontier removed from US conglomerates in Windsor, Ontario (see above), and How to Protect Bookstores and Why was published by the Columbus, Ohio, independent publisher/distributor Microcosm (we wrote about them here). The benefits of independent ownership and also the protections to small businesses and bookselling available abroad are a theme and also a condition of the books’ publication.
I really encourage you to read these books (or if you’re in a hurry Danny’s more concise zine 50 Ways to Protect Bookstores). There are a lot of boisterous behind-the-scenes details of bookstore life, if that’s your bag, but also they depict a kind of microcosm, so to speak, of some the ills I consider here at Book Post: the perverse incentives that throw up obstacles all around those who want to devote their lives to the health of reading, art, and ideas. I hope readers (and Danny and Josh and Biblioasis and Microcosm) will forgive me if I linger a bit on a conundrum that arises for me in these books, because I think the path opened by it is interesting and important.
Danny and Josh are both painfully aware that books and publishing have been dominated by elites and have historically, and still do, exclude many readers. The economics of a business, furthermore, that requires people to spend their hard-earned money on books tilts it in the direction of the moneyed and all-too-easily subordinates the interests of poor and working people, including booksellers themselves. Josh’s book is built more around his own bookselling experience, and Danny’s surveys twelve representative bookstores; Josh makes a case about how to think about running bookstores and Danny’s makes a case about how as a customer to sustain them. They argue that in order to be vital transmitters of ideas in a more equal society they need to resist serving only elite interests, they need to become vehicles of broader access and more deliberate promotion.
Since Danny’s book is sort of choral it includes several perspectives and doesn’t quite go to a point that Josh, knowing he is articulating something controversial, goes. Josh argues that a bookstore should not stock books by authors who deny the human worth of some of its customers and staff. “I have almost never seen booksellers grapple directly with the economic, social, and moral consequences of selling books by white supremacists, fascists, misogynists, and other believers in objectively dangerous ideologies,” he writes. To sell such books insults customers and staff and also gives financial support to values they reject. “I apologize for waiting this long to take this small step within my industry,” Josh writes.
Danny’s book does not comment on what books bookstores should stock, but his choice of profiles does strongly represent booksellers with a sense of political mission, and he shows examples of different bookstores that act as hubs of social change. His book makes a neat and convincing case that booksellers who embrace workers’ rights and employee ownership and participation by marginalized people, that challenge corporate monopoly, that advocate for government policies supporting small businesses and buffering low-wage earners—such politically informed practices and missions benefit bookselling, the spread of reading, and the commercial vitality of Main Street.
Before moving to a question about this approach, one can say with clarity that it certainly accomplishes an objective long articulated by people in the book business (and most other media businesses): to bring in a younger and more diverse audience. As Josh writes,
I think about younger BIPOC booksellers, younger queer and nonbinary booksellers, younger booksellers in general, the people we often say are the future of bookselling … [who] bring their concerns about specific books, specific authors, specific issues to store owners and managers only to be told, ‘We don’t consider that relevant to our decision-making’ … It’s one thing to pay poorly. Lots of industries do that … but it’s another thing to pay poorly, talk a big game, and then explicitly reject the contributions that all that big talk was supposed to be about. Unless, of course, they want the energy but not the perspectives. Unless, of course, they think a diverse staff photograph counts as a diverse industry.
Danny talks a lot about community, that bookselling nourishes and draws its character from community and the impulses and needs of the community provide direction to a bookseller’s advocacy. In a panel at the Forum with many of the booksellers in his book Danny said, “Who is the community? Anyone who dares to come near us and anyone we dare to go out and bring in off the street,” which is a wonderful formulation, expanding on a remark Janet makes in his book: “Who is the community? Anyone who has the courage to walk in the door, or invites us to go somewhere.” But there is an inverse sense in which this curatorial decision-making does determine to an extent who comes in the door. Josh is direct about this. There are customers he does not want; he thinks booksellers should be willing to lose a few sales to stand with their values. He’s not much worried about the people he loses. He makes an interesting and detailed case, considering a lot of potential objections …
Read Part Two of this post here
Ann Kjellberg is the founding editor of Book Post. A few weeks ago she appeared on the Short Fuse podcast with Elizabeth Howard to talk about her editorial origins and her work with Book Post. Have a listen!
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Detroit’s Source Booksellers is Book Post’s Autumn 2023 partner bookstore! We partner with independent bookstores to link to their books, support their work, and bring you news of local book life across the land. We’ll send a free three-month subscription to any reader who spends more than $100 with our partner bookstore during our partnership. Send your receipt to email@example.com. Read more about Source’s story in here in Book Post. Read found Janet Webster Jones’s acceptance of the 2023 Voice of the Heartland Award here.
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