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:
- What role do your political views play in ordering and merchandising decisions? Do you take sides? Should you?
- 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?
- What do you think your customers expect from you? Do you worry that some will feel excluded?
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?