Monday, August 27, 2007

The bookstore ain't a library

When I worked for large chain bookstores - having spent time with both Borders and B & N - I was often struck by how much people treated the stores like libraries. They wanted to sit quietly and read the books off the shelves, without interruption. And they wanted me, when I was at the information desk, to help them in ways that went, at times, beyond the usual "Do you have the new novel from Colson Whitehead?"

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!


Anonymous said...

I don't konw about this. Does free speech actually demand that corporations profit on hateful books? Why is it the responsibility of the bookstore to sell "both sides" of an issue? Isn't their real responsibility to support an ethical culture? Do publishers have a responsibility to publish racist/sexist/homophobic crap? Of course not. Do newspapers have to publish racist/sexist/homophobic articles? Of course not. So why do bookstores have to sell racist/sexist/homophobic books? It seems to me that the only way this argument works is if you believe that bookstores are required to balance their buying to reflect all sides of every issue -- in other words, to account for some bizarre version of free speech where everyone not only has a right to express themselves but also has the right to demand a receptive audience -- which goes way beyond the first amendment. Free speech might say every idiot has a right to stand up and yell about his idiocy, but it does not demand that every business provide a microphone. This is not an issue of democracy; demanding that bookstores carry Laura Schlessinger is profoundly anti-democratic... it's actually kinda fascist.

Reader said...

This goes back to my larger point in this blog, that I should have included, concerning publishers. If we have a system wherein publishers establish an identity, then booksellers can learn publishers and get to know them, and know whom to trust, even if they don't agree 100% with the politics of the author. If a publisher you know produces smart books that you don't always like but whose legitimacy you don't challenge, you can carry those books, knowing they're fair even if wrong according to your opinion.

I don't see the harm in selling conservative books, even if I don't agree with them (and let me say, I don't actually own or even, at this point, work in a bookstore), as long as they are within reason, and the same should go for the other side. If bookstores try to ignore a whole side of a political debate, they probably won't survive as people will know they're not getting the whole story, just like a newspaper wouldn't survive if it showed its impartiality too strongly.

A bookstore should be full of lively debates from both sides, and we fall into a dangerous trap if we decide to censor voices because we fear them.

Carleen Brice said...

I used to work at an indie bookstore and we sold everything (including Dr. Laura's stuff) even when it made us cringe because we didn't want to be the ones to decide what anyone else should be reading.

And talk about treating the store like a library! Customers used to say things like, "But I only need these 2 pages. Can't you make me a copy?"

Anonymous said...

This piqued my interest to find out why you thought Dr. Schlessinger was so hateful and what her problem was. The weird thing is that when I went to the library and later, the bookstore, to read her material, I found nothing about the hate you speak of. Instead I found books on how to help nuture the relationships in one's life and to help oneself overcome a troublesome childhood. Why would you say this about someone when it's not true?

Reader said...

Dr. Laura is quite proudly conservative and has had moments of almost impressive homophobia, not to mention her general moralizing and finger-pointing. The issue that day in the bookstore was specifically with her quite public homophobic views, including her support of "reparative therapy" to make people not gay. (She wrote a foreword at one point to a book supporting the ex-gay movement and this kind of therapy, seeing gayness as a "biological error.")

Anonymous said...

Once again, I've researched this point and did find a quote from here in the year 2000 when she quoted from the GLAAD website and got blasted for it. I got this information from a magazine called The Week that reports only the fact, non-biased. So again, I ask the question, why so much anamosity for someone you have seemed to make up your mind about without really researching the person?