Bookstores have always been a locus of ideas, but in the months since the hateful rhetoric and racial violence surrounding the 2016 election, they have become a place of refuge and knowledge-seeking around the country. To celebrate today’s University Press Week blog tour theme of “Selling the Facts,” we talked to booksellers here in Austin, Texas, about selling books as a form of activism in the misinformation age.
We are quite fortunate to have many independent bookstores in this city, where readers are convening to sort through the ‘fake news’ epidemic and fight intolerance. BookWoman is literally one woman, the incredible Susan Post, who co-founded a collective called Common Woman Bookstore over forty years ago. She is quite busy doing what she loves. However, she enthusiastically shared her forthcoming event on Wednesday, November 8, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. with author Annette McGivney discussing domestic violence and her new book Pure Land. All of Annette McGivney’s profits from the books sold will be donated to Austin’s SAFE Alliance Family Shelter.
What has it been like working in bookselling since the election?
South Congress Books, in the heart of the South Congress shopping district
Definitely a bigger interest in certain books like 1984. We get a lot of comments about how 1984 was quite prophetic. We’ve always had a lot of people interested in history, but a few more are trying to see how the past led us to where we are right now in 2017.
So we sell small press and independently published books and our focus is literary arts so a lot of it is politically informed and socially engaged. For our community, you know, the air went out of the room when the election happened and since then it’s pretty much been business as normal. We just keep choosing the books that we like. Nothing in that regard has really changed.
Our mission hasn’t changed at all, but these days it’s all about exploring how we can engage our communities in new ways. Some people, yes, they come in for a diversion from current events. They want comfort. But there are also people coming in looking for more information or a motivation to take action. A lot of university presses publish books that people are looking for on policy topics like immigration. Impeachment: A Citizen’s Guide was very popular.
So prior to the election, most of the people who came in here, I don’t want to say had an “ideology” but had formed opinions about the election. But many more people who don’t have formed opinions have been in the store recently.
How have your conversations with your customers changed?
Erika, South Congress Books
It’s a bit more political. Of course, it’s something we try to keep on the soft pedal just because we have all kinds of people here. So when I’m up front talking to everyone who comes in, I just don’t bring it up. But if someone brings it up like they did this morning, commenting on the protagonist in 1984 and how he was tasked with rewriting the news to reflect more positively on the government . . . this person was talking to me, he was an older fellow, I’d say he was probably eighty, commenting on how prophetic he had found it. And I just kinda go, “Yeah, you’ve got that right.” And I just have to leave it at that because I’m at work, whereas if we were drinking a beer together…
Customers have had conversations with us. I mean, like I said we try to be a safe space, an open, inclusive space for everyone. We feel like we’re a space for those conversations to happen and we encourage them. We’ve had a couple of events that were like “resistance” events, to call attention to the fact that not everyone agrees with the people who are in power right now and the decisions that are being made. Our voices aren’t nothing, especially in a bookstore. We have a really big community, we actually have several author communities that use this space as a place to have their community events, so we just kinda sat back and watched all of that happen. And you know, from the old-school Austin poets to groups of disabled folks, these people are all affected in a different way by fears. The customers? Yeah, we’ve just been talking politics.
Yeah, certainly. It’s always been rewarding to share in these ways with customers, to steer someone and possibly expand their worldview. You know the groups that had convened here before have seen increased membership from people who are coming to work through issues like race and prejudice. We have a diversity book club that has really increased its membership. They’ve stepped up their focus on tough conversations. We’re lucky enough to be able to turn on a dime as events unfold: you know, put up a display like our “Alternative Facts” one or our Black Lives Matter one. Our literature in translation group this past year has really put their focus on diversity. Our colleague Megan coordinated a staff training with the Anti-Defamation League to talk to our entire staff about how to overcome stereotypes. We also made a special push for Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West. We heard a lot of buzz about the book and thought it was the perfect read to address the refugee crisis. We decided to commit a portion of the proceeds from the first 500 hardcovers sold to donate to Caritas of Austin, an organization that works with refugees and vulnerable immigrant communities in Austin. Our hope is to promote empathy, and we hope to keep it going with different books and organizations in the future.
Some of them do want to have that conversation with a bookseller. Most people don’t come in to debate, but most people who come in are trying to figure out their own ideas.
Do you feel a greater sense of purpose in your job?
Erika, South Congress Books
Absolutely. I love that question. That’s something we’ve even discussed as a team. About how important it is to be a gateway to ideas. We sell ideas here. And I have a great story. It still cracks me up. We had a signed book by Bill Clinton in the front window and this fellow, his friend wanted to come in but he . . . people will jokingly make it clear sometimes that they don’t have anything to do with books. And so this guy came in and was kinda talking to himself and to me and he said, “Oh, Bill Clinton, huh? That’s some pretty expensive toilet paper you got there.” And I just kept my mouth shut, you know, mhmm! And he said just as he was walking out the door, “Books scare me!” It was all okay, you know. Just one of those things. But I wanted to shout out after him, “I bet they do! Because they’re full of ideas!” So some people really feel the need to let you know their position. You see when people only come in because their friends drag them in, and they’re like, “Oh, you know, I never read.” So my little line when they say that is, “Oh, well that’s okay! We have books with pictures.” And that usually makes people laugh. It softens it. I see sometimes people are a little intimidated because they know they’re not well-read and so I very much want them not to be intimidated. It doesn’t matter if you don’t read. Bookstores are for everybody.
No, we’ve always felt that sense of purpose here. That’s been our message and our purpose as a store, you know, to bring books to the world. But as individual staff members, our staff has always had that purpose. We’ve seen a huge swing, you know. We have a lot of open mikes. It’s a community space and this is a place where people do feel comfortable to just come in and speak whatever is in their heart, whatever is bothering them. So we have seen a ton of that, especially at the open mikes. It’s sobering to see how everyone is affected by it. You think that some little thing is no big deal and then someone writes a ten-minute piece about it.
Not really a greater purpose, but a greater opportunity. Basically, Trump and Trump-like figures are an inevitable result of the kind of world we live in. The purpose is the same; the urgency might be more.
What is your biggest challenge getting books that matter to readers?
It’s just getting readers in the door for us. Whether people are coming in looking for that sort of thing and event, or aren’t really looking for something politically-inspired, you know, it’s something we feel really passionate about. When we’re making a list of recommendations for a customer, we’ll try to have that list be as diverse as possible, always. I mean, for the benefit of the reader but also for the benefit of the writer. Yeah, we just need people in the store. So our biggest sales day ever was on Inauguration Day when we donated 100% of our sales to Planned Parenthood. That was our biggest sale day ever. We promote stuff like that on social media and local radio stations; you know, it was probably in the [Austin] Chronicle. There was a network of stores that day. People would just go on down to Bouldin Creek Cafe for brunch after shopping, you know, saying “I’ll keep donating all my money!” That was the biggest single sales day since our opening; it was insane. If you were wondering if people even knew we were here, they totally did! Because they all showed up to support Planned Parenthood on inauguration day. It was really great. And we try to do few a fundraisers a year.
Money. Definitely money. There’s plenty of books out there and we try to help people get those books. For a lot of people, it’s just easier to get the electronic version or go through Amazon. There’s a lot of stuff closing in this neighborhood. The skate shop across the street just shut down.
Do you as a staff brainstorm opportunities or do the communities come to you?
Honestly, it’s often the owner or someone on staff who has those ideas. But you know, with all the hate that is happening in the world right now, it’s not like we’re at a loss for causes to donate to. And people are energized. Recently we donated to a “keep guns off the street” organization in response to the Las Vegas shooting and before that we were doing the
Southern Poverty Law Center. We try and do what we can. We’ve got a phenomenal owner who doesn’t mind taking the hit on a big sales day to donate to a worthy cause.
Keep going on the blog tour! Today’s theme ‘Selling the Facts’ has contributions from our fellow university presses:
- University of Minnesota Press blogs about Bookstores/Booksellers and/or sales folks (reps and in-house) in the Age of Trump or Selling Books as a Form of ActivismUniversity of Hawai’i Press offers guerilla-style interviews with local booksellers on their experiences serving readers since the election.
- Johns Hopkins University Press Baltimore Indy The Ivy Bookshop writes about selling in the Age of Trump and working with JHUP in general.
- Duke University Press Sales Manager Jennifer Schaper reports on how Frankfurt Book Fair attendees were engaging with Trump and Brexit
- Columbia University Press Conor Broughan, Northeast Sales Representative for the Columbia University Press Sales Consortium, discusses the roles of University Presses and their sales representatives in politically complicated times.
- University Press of Kentucky Societal benefits (payoff) in university presses continuing to publish and readers continuing to have access to well-researched, low-controversy, long-form published content in an age of distraction, manufactured outrage, and hyper partisanship.
- University of Toronto Press The experiences of a Canadian higher education sales rep, selling books on US campuses.