At the same time, certain functions overlap with the library and the giant bookstore. This issue arose in a recent column in Randy Cohen's "The Ethicist" column in the New York Times Magazine, as noted by Shelf Awareness:
I work for a large bookstore and often process mail orders from prison inmates. Most are in for assault or burglary — I sometimes research them online — and reading might in some way better them. But I fight the feeling that sex offenders, particularly those who harm children, should rot in a cell with nothing but the walls to occupy them. May I decline to handle their orders, or must I treat all my prisoners the same? — L.T., Ohio
Your let-’em-rot theory of penology notwithstanding, these people are not your prisoners; they are your customers. And yes, you should treat all your customers the same — that is, fill their orders.
Every merchant — pharmacist, greengrocer or milliner — should do likewise, but a bookstore clerk, dealing in the exchange of ideas, has an even greater obligation. You are not a librarian, bound by a librarian’s code of ethics, but you should be guided by it. Your duty is to provide books to anyone who walks (or writes) in to the store, not to determine a person’s worthiness to read (or have a prescription filled or buy lettuce or wear a fetching hat).
What’s more, if buying a book required people to “better” themselves, hardly anybody would read anything. Were your criterion universally adopted, the
real losers would be John Grisham, Stephen King, Danielle Steel — bettering to no one, beloved by millions, bewildering to me.
Your sympathy for the incarcerated does you credit, even if it is strained by those who’ve committed particularly heinous acts. There is small virtue in giving people only what they deserve. As Hamlet has it: “Use every man after his desert, and who shall scape whipping? Use them after your own honor and dignity. The less they deserve, the more merit is in your bounty.”
I found this intriguing. Generally, I agree with the ethicist, and I like his specification that a bookseller is not bound by the librarians' code of ethics, but should be guided by it.
I didn't always want to help a customer find Dr. Laura Schlessinger's moronic new book, but it wasn't up to me. And I debated in my head whether I was just feeding into "The Man," in this case the corporate powers of B & N or Borders, by helping them sell product indiscriminately, even product that I felt was doing damage in the world, but as a staunch supporter of the ACLU and freedom of speech generally - as anyone in publishing should be - I had to overcome my objection and locate the asinine book in question.
I should note briefly that I did once encounter a customer who disagreed. He proudly handed a cashier a book by this idiotic woman, Schlessinger, and said we should not have such offensive garbage on our shelves. The cashier was a dimwitted but brazen young woman who started defiantly, even belligerently paraphrasing the first amendment. It was one of those moments that I could recreate as a heroic instance, evidence of bookstore employees battling for free speech on the frontlines, but the reality here, as it so often is, was just awkward and felt anti-climactic.
My overall point, patient reader, is that bookstores must enforce free speech, must be guided by the librarian's code of ethics as Cohen suggests, if they are to stay valued in society. Many booksellers are of a progressive bent, and I'm mostly likely even further to the left, but conservative voices can be offered with the understanding or even hope that once people educate themselves and become aware of their privilege, they'll realize the emptiness of the words the Coulters and the O'Reillys of the world are offering.
How do I square this with my distaste for the OJ Simpson book? Hmm... Well that's not really a book, is it? It's an article. I guess, if I owned a bookstore, I would pull a B&N and have it available to order but not carry it. But then you see what's happened - it's easily in the top 50 at B & N's website. D'oh!