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Bookshops & Politics: What Do Customers Want?

Cue the authoritative TV voiceover: "Previously on . . ."

A few weeks ago, we began a conversation about politics and independent bookstores (for the summer reruns, go here, here and here). It was sparked by a bookseller's reaction to the announcement that Countdown to President Obama Hope Clocks, a sequel of sorts to the George Bush Countdown Clocks, were being sold by Bookshop Santa Cruz.

The response from Diane Van Tassell of Bay Books generated a great discussion, and this week we wrap things up by looking at the last of three questions I originally posed to Diane and Bookshop Santa Cruz's Casey Coonerty Protti:

What do you think your customers expect from you? Do you worry that some will feel excluded?

"I believe that customers expect me to have a wide range of books on various topics without any personal biases of the book buyer," Diane concludes. "Often people will want to read about different points of view and differing philosophies than their own. It would be foolish of the bookstore to select only books that would appeal to only one segment of the population and exclude others.   
"To sum up: A bookstore should be a place that welcomes every person who walks in the door. No one should feel unwelcome because of their beliefs. Whether liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Christian or Muslim, every person should be able to find books that are appealing to them. A particular agenda of the bookstore or book buyer should never be evident to the customers."
According to Casey, "Our customers expect us to raise political issues and to be involved in community issues. We are in a unique position in that my father, Neal Coonerty, now serves as Santa Cruz County Supervisor and my brother, Ryan Coonerty, who worked at the store until this year, is currently serving as Mayor of the City of Santa Cruz. The bookstore is associated with politics and for good reason. This involvement in larger political stands has allowed us to play important roles in local political issues like big box retailing and think local campaigns. It has only strengthened our voice.
"We have heard from some customers that when we take a side, we are not representing them or that it is too much 'in their face'--however, for the entire time we have sold over 64,000 Bush Countdown Clocks, we have only received a handful of negative reactions so we feel as though we have served our community well. As a retailer, creating one item that brings in over $500,000 in sales is smart business as well as smart politics."
In response to this question, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo of McNally Jackson Books, New York, N.Y., cites one of her "bookselling mentors"--Jill Dunbar, founder of Greenwich Village's Three Lives & Co.--who "said something that has always comforted and inspired me. When someone hated a book that she loved or vice versa, she'd respond 'Well, that's why there are so many books in the world: so not everyone has to like the same ones.' That gets a little heavier when political and ethical issues are the content of those books, but from a retail perspective, I think the concept is solid."

Russ Lawrence, owner of Chapter One Book Store, Hamilton Mont., observes that his shop's staff "are well-known as liberals, and in fact one of our conservative customers refers to us as 'the flamers.' But he comes back in, because as a place of business we make him feel welcome. We also bill ourselves, not jokingly at all, as 'Hamilton's non-judgmental bookstore.' We have conservatives buying liberal books, and the converse as well--probably under the 'know your enemies' rubric. We don't comment, we don't judge--people have their own reasons for buying what they buy, and that extends to literary fluff, health books, and other sensitive areas--sometimes including 'humor!' To exclude conservative books is to exclude liberal customers who are curious or otherwise motivated to read such viewpoints, and vice versa."

Jessica sums it all up nicely: "Bookselling at its best is a mind-opening experience. When someone asks for and buys an Ann Coulter book, we can look at them and see that they're as human as we are, and looking for answers to the world's troubles just as we are. My dream is to someday host a 'salon' in my store, with discussion leaders and supporting books from both sides, and make a space for customers to talk about the issues that divide and unite us. Maybe we'll sell some books while we're at it. Now that would be the best kind of political bookstore."


Reading Solzhenitsyn

Every bookseller knows the drill: A famous author dies and the publishing industry scrambles briefly to exercise its (our) tradition of retail mourning. Long neglected backlist titles are, momentarily, hot commodities; shrine-like displays appear on sales floors. It will happen again this week because Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is dead.

It's how we say goodbye.

And I want to do something as well; to pause and devote a column to Solzhenitsyn, which means that the series on bookstores and politics will have to wait until next week. For me, Solzhenitsyn isn't just another old, somewhat neglected writer riding off into history's sunset. I feel an obligation to tell you a little story about my decades-long connection to him; a reader's story, which inevitably makes it a writer's story and a bookseller's story.

Yesterday, I found myself engaged in a mourning ritual, which steadily grew into an awareness of telling details and memories:

I've been thinking about this curious, long-term writer/reader bond for a long time. In 2006, I wrote an essay, "Solzhenitsyn & My Dad," that began: "Since the early 1970s, I have always had ragged, read-and-reread copies of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Cancer Ward, and The First Circle within reach on my desk, wherever that desk has been. How does a reader find an author? Why did a young American reader connect so deeply with a Soviet dissident? I was no student of global politics or Soviet history. I was barely a student of Russian literature then. No, it was personal, as it often is when these connections are made."

A year before that, my review of the H.T. Willetts translation of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (FSG, $13, 9780374529529/0374529523) opened: "Every good reader has a book. You own it as much as the author does. You knew it was yours the first time you read it. Again and again over the years, you've turned to this book when you needed solace, inspiration or perspective. Each time you've read it, each time you have opened at random to a page, you've found something that speaks directly to you. It's your book, after all. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is my book."

I'm not presumptuous enough to think that Solzhenitsyn would have cared about me being his reader. It's quite possible he'd have considered my response a misreading--a typically self-absorbed, Western, Godless, Capitalist co-opting of his intentions. But writers do not choose their readers.

Yesterday, I studied the bookmark in my copy of The First Circle. A folded page from a 35-year-old issue of Time or Newsweek, it features two full-page, color photographs back to back. In one, Solzhenitsyn is in his book-lined Moscow apartment, holding sons Ignat (16 months old) and Yermolai (3) on his lap. In the other, he sits alone on a snow-covered park bench.

I recalled that after he was exiled from the Soviet Union in 1974, Solzhenitsyn eventually landed in Cavendish, Vt., not far from where I live. He remained there for nearly two decades. Since Vermonters understand the need for privacy, we left him alone. The little country store in town pre-empted visitor requests for directions to his place with a sign out front that said, in essence, don't even bother to ask.

I watched my VHS copy of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, a film I first saw in the early 1970s. I am always moved by Tom Courtenay's portrayal of Ivan and Sven Nykvist's stark cinematography.

I wished that I could read now the uncut edition of The First Circle that Harper Perennial will publish next year (Shelf Awareness, July 16, 2008).

I found, in The First Circle, a passage I'd highlighted long ago. As the zek Nerzhin prepares for his imminent removal to a harsher prison camp, he considers a way to preserve his notebooks, then accepts the inevitability his work must be destroyed:

The great library at Alexandria burned. In the monasteries they did not surrender but burned the chronicles. And the soot of the Lubyanka chimneys--soot from burned papers and more and more burned papers--fell upon the zeks led out to stroll in the boxlike area on the prison roof. Perhaps more great thoughts have been burned than have been published. If he managed to survive, he could probably do it all over again from memory anyway.
It was a miracle that Solzhenitsyn and his work survived. Who will read him in a hundred years? A thousand? I don't know. I am, however, still his reader now.

Advocacy vs. Neutrality in the Bookstore

As we've already observed in this series, walking the high wire between political activism and something resembling neutrality can be challenging for indie booksellers in any community. Decisions--about inventory selection, customer interactions, community service and more--have to be made every day.

Last week (Shelf Awareness, July 25, 2008), we showcased responses from Casey Coonerty Protti and Diane Van Tassell to the second of our three questions: Is a community bookstore a neutral corner or an advocacy center?

And, once again, other booksellers have joined the conversation.

"My thoughts on the matter start with Casey's last comment, which is spot-on, though not always followed by smart, opinionated indie booksellers," writes Jessica Stockton Bagnulo, events coordinator for McNally Robinson Books (which will become McNally Jackson Books on August 7), New York, N.Y. "It is vital that booksellers do not judge people for their reading tastes, whether it's Ann Coulter or Dan Brown or Michael Moore. Our job is to match books with readers. Part of that we do by recommending books we love to people who might share our tastes, but part of that is also an exercise in empathy with people who do not share our views and tastes--getting inside their heads to give them the book that is going to satisfy them."

Jessica recalls something she learned from Christine Onorati of Word Books, Brooklyn, N.Y., who "pointed out that since most of us want to be booksellers because it's fun for us, we want to be able to stock the books we like. But we also need to stock books that sell. So the smart thing is to open your store in a neighborhood where people are likely to share your tastes. That way you can stock and recommend your loved books to a customer base that's open to them, even needs them. I suspect for many booksellers, that means running a fairly liberal bookstore in a fairly liberal area. This makes the question easier, as good business sense and our own opinions coincide."

Jennifer Moe, general book buyer for Wheaton College Bookstore, Wheaton, Ill., suggests that the independent nature of our business should naturally lead to retail diversity: "People look to bookstores to fill all kinds of needs. There's a place for a niche, progressive store where the customers know exactly what they're going to find when they enter and know that if they need resources for their particular point of view, there's a store that's likely to have them. There's also a place for bookstores that provide for a wide variety of customers. That's the beauty of independent stores!"

But for Don Muller, co-owner of Old Harbor Books, Sitka, Alaska, advocacy is part of the mission, since "for over 32 years, Old Harbor Books has taken strong stands on political issues. We have publicly opposed industrial logging here, in the region and nationally; we've opposed oil drilling in the Arctic; we've opposed a proposed cruise ship dock here; we've opposed regional mining; we've opposed whichever war the U.S. is in at the time. Our selection of books reflects those positions, although we also carry some books from the right, and will special-order anything. Are we 'labeled' in our community? Absolutely. Do some people refuse to shop here? Absolutely. We may be the only bookstore in the country who has had a person chain himself to the bookstore in opposition to my position against the local pulp mill.  
"I can't imagine not taking positions in our community. I can't imagine how I would feel about myself if we didn't take positions on important issues. I also think in the long run, our bookstore has profited from taking stands. Most people, I think, on both sides respect us for taking stands. And we have gotten thousands and thousands of dollars of free advertising!"

The issue is complicated. Although Kelley Drahushuk, co-owner of Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, N.Y., calls her staff "liberal leaning," she adds that "we don't wear our political heart on our sleeve. We don't hang posters in support of candidates, national or local. We don't take public stands as a store on politically hot topics, except the importance of shopping locally and the need for Amazon to play fair and charge sales tax. As a private citizen and business owner, I have the same right as everyone else to say what I feel."

Next week, we'll tackle the last question: What do you think your customers expect from you? Do you worry that some will feel excluded?

Well, do you?


The Politics of Ordering & Merchandising

We continue our discussion of bookstore retail politics (Shelf Awareness, July 18, 2008) by sharing some insightful responses to the first question: What role do your political views play in ordering and merchandising decisions?

Jennifer Moe, general book buyer for Wheaton College Bookstore, Wheaton, Ill., is "faced with those kinds of decisions all the time. For us, the answer lies somewhere in between Diane's and Casey's responses. For a buyer, personal bias really has to take a back seat to what it seems the community wants. I can't tell you how many books I've ordered that I think are ridiculous but that I know people in our community will be interested in. There are other times when I will read about a book, think it sounds amazing, order it for our store and nobody buys it but me."

"It's a simple business decision for me," wrote Sarah Pishko, owner of Prince Books, Norfolk, Va. "I want to sell books to all of my customers, no matter what their politics are. I want people who are both conservative and liberal to feel equally welcome in my bookstore--and equally willing to spend money! I've stocked and sold some humor books like Bad President, etc., but there are plenty of other trivial/humorous titles that I choose not to carry because they are so in-your-face anti-Bush. I simply don't want to offend Republican browsers. I would not stock the Obama countdown clock. I'll stock serious and legitimate anti-Bush books, and I'm careful to stock some titles by such publishers as Regnery. I don't even put political bumper stickers on my car, but I think most people assume that I'm a Democrat, which I am."
Kelley Drahushuk, co-owner of Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, N.Y., described the bookstore's staff as "liberal-leaning. However, we have let our customers determine the liberal-leanings of our shelves with their pocketbooks. When we first opened, we were determined to evenly represent both sides of the political spectrum. However, when all the Ann Coulter languishes on the shelf and the Al Franken keeps on turning . . . well, who wants to waste shelf space? Have we had customers come in and accuse us of being a 'liberal bookstore?' Yes. We simply explain to them that we stock what sells and would be absolutely thrilled to special order whatever they want. And if they become a regular and we know we can count on them to buy certain authors of the right? We would be thrilled to stock their titles as soon as they come out--we are, after all, in business to sell books and selling books of all kinds is what allows us to remain in business."

Next week, answers to question #2: Is a community bookstore a neutral corner or an advocacy center. Can there be a, well, "third place" between the two when it comes to politics? Here's what our catalysts for this series had to say:

Diane Van Tassell, Bay Books: "A community bookstore should be a place where people buy books that appeal to them. It should not be a political place where one candidate or philosophy should be rammed down the throats of the patrons. People come into bookstores because they love books or they just want to while away a few hours enjoying themselves. A bookstore should be a sanctuary where people can be themselves and talk to staff and other patrons about books. If customers bring up the subject of politics, I let them talk but don't add my own feelings to the mix. Bookstore staffs are often like bartenders--they need to be good listeners because sometimes people need to talk and have someone listen to them without comment. That is what brings customers back--because they feel appreciated. Let's face it, everyone loves to hear themselves talk and so often no one wants to listen. So isn't that the purpose of our bookstores, to give people an enjoyable experience?"  

Casey Coonerty Protti, Bookshop Santa Cruz: "I think a community bookstore is a place where ideas should be debated and shared. At times, Bookshop Santa Cruz has taken positions and other times, we only serve to inform both sides. Sometimes we advocate for titles and sometimes we highlight why we disagree with a particular book's agenda. For instance, in the case of the book The Bell Curve, we carried and sold that bestseller but we also included books in our display that argued the racial and cultural bias of standardized tests. We sought to enhance the debate, not just sell the book. However, most of the time, we just offer books for people's own choice. We also train all of our employees to never pass judgment on someone's reading choices as we are excited when people are reading, period."

Now it's your turn and, as always, you know who you are.


'All Politics is Local' at the Bookstore

In the heat of an election year, you just can't get out of the kitchen. Campaign controversy is ubiquitous, and not just nationally on CNN and its cohorts 24/7, but locally as well, on the sales floors of independent bookstores. Buying, merchandising and handselling decisions often involve taking--or choosing not to take--public political stances.

Earlier this week (Shelf Awareness, July 14, 2008), we ran a piece about Bookshop Santa Cruz's new Countdown to President Obama Hope Clock, which prompted Diane Van Tassel, owner of Bay Books, San Ramon and Concord, Calif., to express her concern: "I would never ever show support for one candidate because what does that say to my customers who do not agree with me?"

Our initial discussion sparked my curiosity. As a bookseller, I've seen dozens of books and sidelines that variously amused, enlightened, bored or disgusted me. Most were creations of the moment and quickly forgotten. The day after the 2004 election, I wrote a piece, "The Case of the Silenced Rant Lit," in which I marveled at the sudden quiet in the bookstore:

"For the past seven or eight months, so many of the books up here had been screaming at one another, shouting each other down, making public nuisances of themselves, ranting across a wide chasm that had opened between two opposing sides. Books weren't being published; they were being hurled ferociously across this divide in a high stakes game of book dodgeball, in which nobody ever seemed to hit anything, despite casualties everywhere you looked. And so it went, again and again. Customers complained about the noise. Sometimes they complained more about the noise coming from one side of the chasm than the other. Sometimes they joined the screaming, singling out the booksellers for not allowing an equal number of screams from both sides."

The silence didn't last long, of course, since the 2008 presidential election seemed to begin immediately after the last vote was cast.

This week I found myself wondering how booksellers across the U.S. handle the delicate mix of politics and retail in their communities. So I asked the two catalysts for this idea, Diane Van Tassel and Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, if they would answer three questions to get a conversation started:

  1. What role do your political views play in ordering and merchandising decisions? Do you take sides? Should you?
  2. Is a community bookstore a neutral corner or an advocacy center? Can there be a, well, "third place" between the two when it comes to politics?
  3. What do you think your customers expect from you? Do you worry that some will feel excluded?
We'll begin this week with their responses to my first question:

Diane: "Political views--mine or my staff's--have no business in the bookstore. When we hire people, we tell them to leave their politics at home. Our customers are probably evenly divided between people who would buy Michael Moore and Al Franken books and those who buy Ann Coulter and Bill O'Reilly books. It would be unreasonable for me to decide that only liberals or only conservative books would be stocked in my store. A one-sided store would quickly lose customers to a store that had a balanced section with a wide range of titles from both the right and the left. Which would you rather frequent--a bookstore with a limited and biased point-of-view or a bookstore that has an unlimited supply of books from multiple angles?
"So it seems that taking sides on any issue would mean that some of your customers would be unhappy with your choices and that would not be good for business--or freedom of speech. We are in the business of selling books; our stock and our displays reflect opposing points of view. Customers are free to follow their own leanings and desires--not ones that we are pushing onto them."
Casey: "The main goal at Bookshop Santa Cruz is to reflect our community and since Santa Cruz is an active political town we definitely take politics into consideration when ordering. That doesn't mean that we don't stock all points of view (as we have carried books by Ann Coulter and Bill O’Reilly as well as conservative magazines), but we feature and order more titles that are progressive than conservative. Progressive titles and items reflect our community and sell better as well. This strategy has been important to us for many reasons: 1) we've created a strong brand around reflecting our community (which has ultimately served us well), 2) it is something that our staff believes in and 3) it has bolstered our publicity and our sales. I respect stores that don't want to take a position, but taking positions has played a huge role in keeping us alive and well so I think it should be a store-by-store decision."
What do you think?