Friday, March 14, 2014

Book Stores & Readers & Diversity, Oh My!

Tuesday night I was on a high as I sat and listened to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie read excerpts from Americanah.
I was excited to see so many different races and ethnicities represented.  All around me I heard Nigerian accents, a smattering of Ghanian accents, conversations between a group of friends that looked like a mini-United Nations.  And while the crowd was extremely heavy on women, there were a number of men there as well.

The crowd was large and the room was small (and hot) and I kept wondering why they'd held the reading in such a tiny space.  This was my first time at this particular library, so I don't know if this was the biggest room they offered in their system, but I couldn't help but to wonder why they didn't partner with the city library, which has an enormous auditorium and would have been much better suited to hold the group.

At any rate, hot and sweaty we sat, happy to be there.  People asked great questions, Adichie gave great answers and then we moved on to the book signing line.  When we first arrived, group numbers were given out.  While we were initially told that they would call groups when it was our turn to get in line, that never happened.  I think they were overwhelmed by the sheer number of people there and gave up on that system, so it ended up with everyone standing in line all at once.

At some point I ended up in front of the bookseller's table.  I noticed that he no longer had any books left and asked if they were just packed up for the night or if they were sold out.  He remarked that they were sold out and that he'd never seen anything like it.  He compared the rate that they sold with another bestselling author's recent event and seemed surprised that they'd done so well.  Before I could ask why he wouldn't think Adichie would do as well, I was interrupted by a loud, obnoxious woman behind me that raved about all of the African writers she'd "discovered" this year and how she'd be happy to recommend some to the bookseller, as he'd never read her before. Okay then, Columbus.

And this is the problem I have with book stores, in general, but especially with this indie book store that partners with the libraries here regularly and sponsors in-house readings as well.  They don't know about authors that don't fit into their world and make no effort to find out.  They're not necessarily welcoming places for readers that don't look like them. I've been followed to the basement where the used book section is so many times I can't remember.  Who in the hell is stealing books?  And in all of the years that I've frequented both of their locations, I've yet to see someone that isn't white working as a bookseller. 

Their author recommendations are almost always unabashedly white, unless it's a New York Times bestseller, then they manage to find a space on the shelf.  When I walk into the store, I know exactly what I'm looking for, but if I didn't, could they really assist me?  Could they recommend the new Kiese Laymon or Tayari Jones? Hell, do they even know who they are?  I'm sure they could show me the Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou section, but I expect more from an indie book store that claims not to follow the same guidelines as a big box store like Barnes & Noble.

There's a whole group of readers stores like this are missing out on because it never even dawns on them to reach out to them.  I know one thing, they'll do their homework next time, and perhaps the library will too, and move the next "black" author to a venue worthy of their stature and crowd size...I hope.

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