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Why #MarginsBookstores Matter -Aida Lilly

I have been a lifelong booklover, like many of you reading this I’m sure. But growing up, there weren’t people who looked like me or were anything like my family on TV, in movies, in books.

There’s an idea in publishing that books are sometimes mirrors, sometimes windows. For me, they were mostly windows.

I had characters that I loved, but they were my friends—they weren’t me. So media taught me I was different and Other, that all media and entertainment were about “normal” people—normal people who all happened to be very white.

I was taught by the world that Eurocentrism was the way to flourish. At home, we wanted to Americanize—but not too much. And even when we were doing American things, apparently we were still doing them “Strangely.” And in the books I’d escape into the love interest always had skin like milk, like porcelain, like alabaster, so fair, so pale, and always, ALWAYS, so thin, almost frail.

I bring this all up because it is all related to this month in more ways than immediately evident.

Bookstores are beacons in their communities, and they often work with people who are looking for help, knowledge, or escapism and entertainment.

Understanding the best way to provide these things means not only having empathy, but having a real understanding of where that person is coming from. And as the world has taught us, some people really just can’t relate. And reading is a great way to build empathy, but it’s not usually the Margins bookstores or the employees from marginalized communities that are the ones lacking empathy...

Bookstores are safe spaces in many ways—depending on the bookstore. But bookstores can also make people feel unwelcome or alienated. Walking into a bookstore (or even visiting an online storefront), you can tell what is important to that particular store.

There is an idea that bookstores must SMOWS (sell more of what sells), and in an industry that can already be tenuous, it can be difficult for stores to make a profit. Everyone wants to make a livable earning, but there are stores that will order, stock, and display books by horrible people because they know that it will sell. Some people will happily and constantly sellout to white supremacy and claim it as “Free Speech.”

I believe that #MarginsBookstores do take a different approach to this business, probably because for many of the owners, managers, and employees, this feels very personal. I think stores like these are more socially conscious and take their position seriously. They want to be inclusive, and they realize the true power of books. And the power of what they order and display or don’t order and display. They want to survive financially, of course, but the heart is less likely to sell out for the sake of selling books to, by, or for bigots.

Out of more than 10,000 independent bookstores in the US, about 3-4% are owned by folks from traditionally marginalized groups.

Publishing as a whole is extremely hetero, cisgendered, and white. It’s pretty blatant, and it begs the question—WHY? And what needs to happen to fix it? (There are real answers for these questions-- yes, they are nuanced and there is no easy fix, and the work requires more than performative actions by the Big Guys.)

In the book world, there are multiple reasons for these imbalances—and they all involve inequity.

For the most part, bookstores draw in employees who love books and are passionate about literature. For many bookstores, it is hard to pay these employees well. So it can be hard for employees with familial and larger financial responsibilities to come into and stay in these roles.

But that’s the simple part; when we look at these situations holistically, we see a history entrenched in racism. Issues like generational wealth and discriminatory loan practices also keep minorities from being able to even open a business of their own. The barriers to entry are higher than I would have ever thought before I was so entrenched in this industry. Even the ABA has rules and limitations about who can join, and there are fees to do so.

The book world constantly acts like a pay to play business, so it’s no wonder that privilege is inherent in so many of its aspects.

Again, there are a lot of issues in publishing at large that need to be ironed out and addressed—and these issues affect bookstores and booksellers.

People seem shocked when presented with the low number of #MarginsBookstores. But maybe we shouldn’t be so shocked. There are a lot of issues with this industry that we happen to be passionate about. And there are a lot of people from marginalized backgrounds who suffer burnout and a lack of support and leave publishing and the book world altogether.

Bookstores where both customers and employees can feel heard and seen are important.

There seems to be this disgusting myth that publishing is only for white people because “they’re who read and buy books.” As if it were some sort of ladies who lunch kind of thing…

Here’s the thing: Publishing employees decide what books get made. And if there isn’t a “personal connection” the book doesn’t get acquired. So you have employees who feel they can’t relate to a book or be the best champion for it or they don’t know how to market it. And now that book never makes it into production, much less a bookstore.

I want to share a little anecdote that for me, sums up a lot about the industry:

I went to a booksellers conference a few years ago, and I was consistently the darkest person in any room. I asked one of the higher ups at the bookstore I managed why I was surrounded by only white people. She gave me a look that made me feel like I was rocking the boat, but I genuinely wondered why this was what this looked like. (Also, it’s scary to not be able to talk to your bosses about social and racial issues without feeling like you might be judged or deemed a troublemaker—another reason #MarginsBookstores matter!) She said, “We don’t know how to get Them here.” And it felt like a line was drawn in the sand. Especially when this same organization continued to hire and promote white people over and over and over. Even when it was pointed out that this was a recurrent issue.

It might not seem like it, but these sorts of decisions affect booksellers, customers, and authors. Some people may even never become readers because they never found the book that turned them into one. And that’s incredibly sad to me.

Now on to the positive!

Ownership and buyers in bookstores determine what to order for their stores. Owners, managers, and booksellers are important. They determine what will be on display and what books they will recommend, which can greatly affect authors’ lives. And when publishers see that there is a market for “those sort of books” it can affect what they acquire.

It’s part of why we all do what we do. And I want to sincerely thank all the bookstores that are doing things right. It’s been wonderful to get to meet so many awesome bookstore owners and booksellers!

Until the industry can catch up to where we know it should be, we are lucky enough to know and support so many wonderful bookstores from the margins.

We’re all working on carving out our own little corner of the world where diversity isn’t a buzzword, it’s just the way things are.

And maybe one day, we’ll have that at a wider scale. Until then, we’ve got a lot of work to do, and we’ll continue to have programs by, for, and from the margins that fill us up with hope. Thanks for supporting us and for supporting each other.

Learn more about #MarginsBookstores and check out our interactive map to find one near you:

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