A year has passed since George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement shook the world and dramatically transformed public understanding of and conversations about systemic racism. In its wake, numerous businesses throughout the nation released public statements to express solidarity with the movement; some have even posted Black Lives Matter signs on their storefronts.
Many, however, have not gone beyond this surface-level activism to use their power and resources to promote the kinds of meaningful change they claim to endorse.
Unlike other businesses, bookstores are uniquely positioned to go beyond performative allyship by amplifying the voices and perspectives of Black, Indigenous, and People of Color in the form of books they sell. This has proven to be the case for Corvallis’ local, independent bookstores, The Book Bin and Grass Roots Books & Music, which over the past year have diversified their shelves with more books written by BIPOC authors on subjects like racism, colonization, white supremacy, intersectional feminism, justice and healing, and more.
The Book Bin
According to Obadiah Baird, co-owner of The Book Bin, the process for including more diverse books is driven by a number of factors, including the books’ popularity, a feeling of responsibility among staff, and demand from the local community.
“We’re seeing a huge amount of demand in our community for books on these subjects,” said Baird. “But we do feel like we have a responsibility to go beyond just that. We would not feel okay profiting off of the works of marginalized people without also trying to do our part to highlight them and bring them to people who might not seek them out otherwise.”
Baird added that another driving factor is staff, who are often giving book recommendations for the stores to carry.
“In the last year, we’ve had staff who are very passionate about representation and about making sure that there’s diversity to the books that we’re selling,” he said.
Grass Roots Books & Music
Jack Wolcott, co-owner of Grass Roots Books & Music, said that one of the most important things about being an independent bookstore is to represent one’s community honestly and directly, and to be a source of materials and resources for people to find things out for themselves.
“Quite often we end up in a position where we carry books that we don’t particularly endorse or believe in,” Wolcott said. “We’re in a position now where there is such a variety of good books on these broader issues that are coming out and that are easy for us to get behind in a positive way.”
For Wolcott, bookstores that put up Black Lives Matter signs should mean that they are prepared to have materials ready for people who are wanting to learn more about the kinds of things that the movement is calling national and international attention to.
“I don’t think you’ll find any bookstore that just puts up a Black Lives Matter sign out the window and then goes on their way and says, ‘Well, we did our part,’” said Wolcott. “They want to have the books to support it so that people can come in and say, ‘Hey, I saw your sign; what can you tell me?’ He continued, “We want to make sure we have that material. We don’t want to turn someone away.”
While it’s possible for independent bookstores like Grass Roots to commit to carrying more books by BIPOC and other historically excluded authors, Wolcott said, it ultimately depends on the number of requests for such books coming in from the community.
“The hardest part is that we just have so little time — especially this year, with hours cut and staffing short and trying to do so many online orders, we just don’t have the time to do the research and find the books,” said Wolcott. “There’s various industry sources, like reading lists, that we can use and try to popularize, but it still comes down to response from our community. We’re always willing to do more, but we need feedback.”
“The thing about bookstores is that we’re always trying to learn more, so if people feel like they don’t see themselves represented in a bookstore, they should talk to us about it,” said Baird. “I want our stores to feel like a space where we’re at least trying to put in the work to better represent people.”
The Work Ahead
Baird said that the Black Lives Matter movement has led The Book Bin to interrogate and consider what the stores will look like going forward.
“I think in bookstores across our industry there have been conversations about how we go beyond just selling these books and become a conduit for that information,” said Baird. “And that goes beyond books on social justice; we’re also trying to highlight more science-fiction and other genres by people of color.”
Over the course of the pandemic, Wolcott was encouraged by the overwhelming number of special orders that have been placed in support of Grass Roots, and by the amount of books ordered that focus on topics related to racial justice.
“People would be finding these books and ordering them from us,” said Wolcott. “It was a very visible outpouring of support from our community, and so we really felt that even in a pandemic we were able to make a difference. Communities really, really do support their independent bookstores, and so we all work very hard to try to be deserving of that.”
Baird, while also encouraged by the number of people who appear to be making a conscious effort to educate themselves through the books they purchase, believes that no matter how much work bookstores put in to help facilitate social change, there is always more work to be done.
“I think the bookstore’s contribution is an important piece — it’s just one piece, though,” said Baird. “I think that bookstores and libraries have a role to play in giving people the tools to educate and shape who they are, but the tools aren’t the same thing as movements or outcomes or solutions. I hope that we can contribute in some small way, but there’s still a long way to go.”