Friday, April 2, 2010

obama @ prairie lights; and saying yes or no to political books

When President Obama dropped in on Prairie Lights Bookstore in Iowa City last week, he was amused to find the memoirs of Karl Rove and Mitt Romney on the shelves. Co-owner Jan Weismiller, quite properly, told him “we believe in freedom of expression so we have to carry" the books.

That inclusive sentiment about inventory is nearly universal and almost second nature in the bookselling community. It’s a foundational argument for why we need independent bookselling. But assuming the obligation to stock every book, which is to say not censoring for political or other text-based reasons, is a strategy loaded with paradoxical pitfalls.

At one extreme, a bookstore could take the position that it will stock everything, though of course in practice this is impossible. An online retailer can claim to “have” every book in print, but in truth only a tiny fraction of these titles are ever actually in their possession before someone orders them.

At the other extreme, a bookstore may be adamant about bringing in only what it wants to stock and believes in, hoping that there will be enough customers who share its brilliant interests to keep it in business.

But let’s say a bookstore with somehow unlimited shelf space commits to an absolutist position, and swears off denying books a place on its shelves for reasons of ideological incorrectness. Every book welcome here!

This strikes me as not much different than the argument the giant social networking sites are using to deny any responsibility for what’s posted under their name. Wouldn’t the bookseller with infinite space and a total “open access” philosophy also be walking away from responsibility and discrimination (in the good sense of the word)?

Bookselling is an odd form of retailing. When you buy almost any other commodity, the retailer stands behind it in toto. The bookseller stands behind the physical integrity of the product (if it’s misbound, or pages are missing, it’s returnable) but doesn’t vouch for the editorial contents. And it couldn’t be any other way.

A bookseller is actually exercising his or her right to freedom of expression by deciding what books to stock- including, implicitly, what not to stock. A bookstore is not a library supported by public funds. Because attempts to get bookstores to stop carrying this or that title are so common, it’s easy to forget that a decision to not sell a book is not censorship. This is especially true today, when every book is easily available. One outlet deciding a title is not for them doesn’t make it unavailable to an entire community.

Some booksellers handle the dilemma by making a distinction between displaying a book and stocking it. Or they’ll order it only when asked, though that strikes me as a little defensive.

When I meet with bookbuyers and we peruse the new lists, the most important consideration is “do I have the customer for this book?” But I hear dozens of reasons to say no to books. The price is too high, I can’t sell hardcovers over $30, I don’t like the jacket, the last one didn’t work so well, not enough illustrations, I don’t get the argument, that author photo is horrible, and on and on.

But buyers, who are extremely busy people and are skilled at making decisions on gut instinct, are also known to skip books for skimpy reasons, or no reason at all. “I just don’t think so” is a frequent comment, and I usually don’t argue. When I was a buyer I said that constantly.

All of these reasons and many more are perfectly valid. But, curiously, the one reason general booksellers often feel uncomfortable passing on a book is if their objections are political. Something about saying “I just don’t want his (or her) book in my store” seems wrong.

I guess the question is “what kind of bookseller am I?” Nobody would really expect to find some hateful misogynist screed on the shelves of a feminist bookstore (unless put there for “know your enemy” reasons, which opens another whole can of worms: who can really know the uses to which a book will be put?)

But a general bookstore really does have to constantly calibrate, paying close attention to the diverse needs of its community. And these are sometimes in conflict with the ethics of the store owner or staff. The choice is to interpret “free expression” as an obligation to stock books you don’t believe in but some of your customers might want, or to see it as a right that belongs to you.

When it comes to some polarizing titles, it can mean trying to placate one group that’s pissed because you’re stocking a book and another that’s angry because you are not.

This nest of complications is far from clear cut, and I suspect most of us handle it by trying to hold to a consistent overall philosophy, while calling the messy shots on a case by case basis.

David Schwartz, who taught me a lot about bookselling, was the most radical general bookseller I’ve ever met. His idea of the most important book in the store was E.P. Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class, and his personal critique of some of the books he sold could be scathing.

But he absolutely relished stocking the most odious, right-wing polemics. He thought of them as insurance for the recurring dust-ups over whether he was running a “communist bookstore.”

So in the end, despite my ambiguous feelings, I would probably do exactly as Prairie Lights did with the Romneys and Roves. People expect booksellers to be gatekeepers, but they also expect a bookstore to be one place where the book, just by virtue of its being a book, is honored. And where no book is taboo.

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