This week’s headlines in the book business is Simon & Schuster’s cancellation of Milo Yiannopoulos book. Some cheer, others uphold the First Amendment. It’s messy.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

Publishing decisions have consequences, but the collective conversation is vital for reaffirming constitutional rights.

While our First Amendment protects free speech, publishers are faced with way more submissions than they could ever publish, so choices are always being made about what manuscripts make the cut. Often times, celebrity wins out because of the expected return on investment. In many cases, like this one, it’s simply about business.

When Simon & Schuster decided to offer a $250,000 advance, the executives likely did their due diligence to understand that Yiannopoloulos was edgy and would offend many. As the editor of Breitbart News, he’d been in the spotlight for some time. So was his bad behavior on social media. Obviously, Simon & Schuster did not realize that he would be so controversial that author Roxanne Gay, offended by Simon & Schuster’s decision to publish Yiannopoloulos, would withdraw her forthcoming book and that some booksellers would boycott the publisher, cutting frontlist orders.

Decisions have consequences.

Do publishers have the right to publish whatever they want, even language of hate and hurt? In the United States, absolutely.

Do authors, booksellers, and readers have the right to protest? Absolutely.

The book industry is a business, but many of us who have dedicated our lives to the world of ideas and the written word have limits. When so many worthy manuscripts never pass the editors desks, it’s hard to understand why resources would be used to publish words that contribute to the dark side of humanity.

With the U.S. presidential election now decided, many of us have witnessed the protests across the country, learned that schools have called in counselors to help students cope with the results, and ourselves felt heightened emotions of sadness and concern for the future of our country.

As booksellers, we have always carried books that help us understand our world and heal our inner lives. We stock books to help parents help their children through grief and fear, books that foster self-confidence and prompt critical thinking.

Post-election bookstore message board.

Post-election bookstore message board.

Today, those books are needed more than ever. Hope for healing our lives, communities, country, and world will help us crawl out of bed and feel there is something we can do to contribute to a greater good.

A few weeks ago, I went to a TEDx event and ended the day feeling hope and optimism. All of these smart, loving people had done remarkable things in their seemingly ordinary lives and stood on stage to tell their stories. And, it was astounding that these remarkable human beings are my neighbors. It was a reminder that good people are doing good work every day.

TED talks and events remind us we are still learning … and we can keep learning from one another. At our TEDx event in Jacksonville, Florida, regular breaks were structured so we would interact with others and talk about the presentations.

Through dialogue, we connect and learn from one another. Everyone emerges enlightened. We learn to listen with openness, respond with civility and respect, and acknowledge one another in a human way when we are face to face. And, being together reminds us we are not alone on this journey.

The events we host in bookstores can respond to this need, providing more time and space for interaction, questions, and discussion.

We can be inspired to rethink our events to expand opportunities for two-way conversation. Book discussion groups, a featured local speaker with theme discussions, conversations after author talks, panel discussions … any program that opens the floor for interaction and exchange will allow us not only to feel engaged and connected, but will expand our world with other views and ideas.

We can bring people together to foster dialogue and connection with a higher purpose.

Our work has become even more clear during this presidential campaign. We need to step up our advocacy for the values and qualities that make us decent human beings who contribute to the greater good of the world.

Yesterday, as I was preparing dinner, I listened and watched Michelle Obama’s comments during a campaign presentation. She was right, this was not the time for a typical speech. These are not normal times.

Our work grows more important.

Our work grows more important.

Over the summer, I’ve been reading the publications from the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that is “dedicated to fighting hate and bigotry and seeking justice for the most vulnerable of our society.” For years they’ve produced a publication entitled Teaching Tolerance. The letters from teachers, Q&A responses about challenging situations emanating from this campaign season, and the heightened concerns teachers have for children has been chilling. Stories of playground behavior and language illustrate that children see, hear, and are affected.

On TV and radio, children have heard the spewing of hateful, disrespectful language and incitement of violence. And, we as adults have needed to discuss this because it is simply unbelievably surprising and sad.

We are better than this.

The effort needed to counter-balance these destructive words seems to grow in importance with each new day of the campaign.

Booksellers have a perfect audience with every story time and an opportunity with each little customer. I grew up with Captain Kangaroo and remember learning to say “please” and “thank you” and saw how a captain in a big mustache would be kind and civil with a little bunny rabbit. My storybooks taught me those same lessons.

The work to right this ship is immediate and probably ongoing. The media will need to continue to report the news, but we can work to be models and safe havens of civility and respect.

It’s been a busy week in a very good way. We’ve gotten inquiries from people in sizable cities that have only had second tier chain bookstores after the departure of Borders and Barnes & Noble. And, we heard this new store update from Jay Jackson, co-owner of Absolutely Fiction Books! with his wife Becky:

“People were waiting for us to open the doors, several people told me they almost cried when the first building deal fell through, they are emotionally invested in the Bookstore and make up our core fans. For them it’s not just a place to buy books it is a dream come true, Their dream.”

A Texas community celebrates the opening of Absolutely Fiction Books!

A Texas community celebrates the opening of Absolutely Fiction Books!

Perhaps it is true that we only recognize the value of what we had when it is lost. The residents of Lufkin, Texas once upon a time had a Waldenbooks. Becky worked there and was devastated when it closed. For years, she mourned the loss of the bookstore. Others did too.

When we can buy anything online, why do we miss any retail store?

Bookstores are special places. Yes, it’s the books and the staff and the smell of coffee and the comfy chairs. And, it’s so much more than that.

In the U.S., we have experienced a mind-bending political campaign that has brought about a series of shockingly new lows. Insults, bullying, the deliberate spread of misinformation, the lack of apologies and basic courtesy. The dark side of humanity has shown itself without shame in a country we thought stood for high ideals and personal responsibility, especially from those who wish to become our national leaders.

For months now, this dark side is the center of every media story. As a result, the campaign makes its way into casual conversations. People are upset for a lot of reasons.

That’s why when Becky Jackson puts fresh flowers out in the bookstore on Fridays and mentions it on social media, customers come in just for a look, a dose of something beautiful and refreshing. Then, there are books on the tables and shelves that are symbols of civility.

Bookstores ground us. They connect those who value facts, seek knowledge and common ground, want to engage in meaningful discussion and make the world a better place. It’s a place where people honor one another, even when they disagree, with courtesy and respect.

It’s no surprise customers of Absolutely Fiction Books! became emotional when they learned an indie bookstores would be opening in their community. Yes, it’s retail, yet a symbol of civility. May the flurry of new bookstore openings continue. We need bookstores for ourselves, our communities, our country, and our world.

When it comes to retail business, few companies find themselves involved in social and political issues like bookstores. The latest issue has been a response to North Carolina’s HB2 known as the NC “bathroom bill”. North Carolina has not protected workers who are LGBT and has language in HB2 that clarifies that the state does not intend to create a new class of protections based on sexual identity … and will not allow its cities and counties to create such a protected class.

We Are Not ThisAuthors have cancelled book tour stops in North Carolina and booksellers around the state have banned together to proclaim “we believe it is essential to be non-discriminatory, inclusive and tolerant, to promote freedom of speech and equality, and to guard against censorship and unfair treatment.”

Many of the beloved picture books we carry encourage respecting differences, actually embracing them. Our world becomes bigger and more compassionate when we don’t judge, bully, and isolate others.

The North Carolina booksellers are standing strong in their statement to their elected officials. They have a lot to lose in terms of their financial sustainability and ability to continue to provide safe spaces where people can gather and discuss issues, grow into their higher selves, and contribute to the evolution of humanity.

Bookstores are symbols of civility, education, lifelong learning, connection, and conversation. We celebrate the freedom to read, diversity and inclusivity.

Today, we in the book industry are shocked and saddened to see our colleagues in North Carolina battling for human rights in 2016 … in the United States of America. We can learn from the civil rights movement and all of those children’s books too. We stand with the North Carolina booksellers and believe we are better than this.

As we hear and see the horrific stories of oppression in Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, and the growing number of countries being dominated by ISIS, it’s not only the physical brutality that is disturbing, but the limitation of education and free speech that dampens hope for the future. China limits internet access. After World War II,   we hoped we’d seen the end of government suppression of ideas. Not so.

Today, in the U.S. in the year 2015, two recent polls conducted by the Newseum Institute and the Harris Poll report that the number of people who think there are books that should be banned completely has grown from 18 percent of those surveyed to 28 percent. The polls also indicated that one third of Americans do not know what the First Amendment is.

Here is the language:

First Amendment – Religion and Expression. Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

It would be interesting to compare the results of these polls to those who measure how many Americans know about the Second Amendment, the right to keep and bear arms.

The American Library Association reported that there were at least 311 books either challenged or removed in schools and libraries in 2014. Some of those books include The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner and others.

The list of challenged books gives us real reason to be concerned about the efforts to control the free flow of ideas.

The list of challenged books gives us real reason to be concerned about the efforts to control the free flow of ideas.

Every day, booksellers in the U.S. stand for our freedom to read. Banning books is a dangerous act that opens up a very slippery slope.

We’ll be celebrating Banned Books Week from September 27 through October 3. Read the list of frequently challenged books and the reasons why they have been challenged. Learn about the American Booksellers for Free Expression.

If we want to remain a free and open society, let the people decide for themselves what ideas and stories are worthy. Allow parents to be the ones to screen what their children read. While some unsavory, even hateful ideas will make its way into print, the greatness of the American way of life that government not limit the free flow of ideas. It’s the foundation of who we are and this freedom is worth preserving.

Spread the word. Read a banned book.

Today I’ve been watching all of the regional bookseller associations report their weekly bestseller lists. Go Set a Watchman remains at #1 for Fiction, even the skeptics from my book group agreed to add a lunch discussion so we could get in a conversation while the book has been grabbing attention everywhere.

There’s a saying in the book business that all publicity is good publicity.

The latest controversy is over Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman. May it keep on selling and prompting valuable dialogue.

The latest controversy is over Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman. May it keep on selling and prompting valuable dialogue.

Even though Harper Lee’s book has been widely criticized and some people have complained they’ve been duped that the book is new, the country is curious. To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic and sadly, the story of equality and racism is still unfolding.

In bookstores across the U.S., the conversation is happening … about racism, great novels, sequels and prequels, what makes a classic, humanity, hope, and why we need literature.

Controversy is fine. It signals that we’re thinking critically about a lot of things. Authors and books offer us these opportunities to keep searching, learning, evolving. Books bring us out of our lonely corners and connect us with what is meaningful.

But first, we have to buy the book and be part of the conversation.

May books continue to make us uncomfortable about our unfinished work, and prompt us to change and grow for the better.

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Books and bookstores can help set the foundation of positive change.

As the South Carolina legislature voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds in response to conversations that were revisited after the tragic shootings at the AME Church in Charleston, the book world eager awaits  the release of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman.

Bookstores and libraries across the United States are sponsoring read-a-thons of Harper Lee’s Pulitzer-Prize winning classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, a beloved story of honor and injustice in the deep South … and the heroism of one man in the face of blind and violent hatred.

Let our reflection and conversation about hate, racism, and progress continue.

When people who have worked for decades in other industries think about opening a bookstore, it can be difficult to explain just how important a bookstore can be by stocking and recommending books, choosing books for displays and writing shelf-talkers to help readers understand the value of a book, and sponsoring events to stimulate dialogue and encourage people to think and interact in ways that go beyond their daily lives. Bookstores, like Left Bank Books after the riots in Ferguson, can offer a safe place to question, learn, and heal.

It’s been said that our positions have become polarized in part because we don’t connect with people very different from us. Suburban sprawl brings together people of the same economic standing. Children grow up going to schools that are homogenous and socialize with children who look and begin to value the same things.

Books get us outside our own limited worlds, regardless of where we live, work, worship and play. Bookstores help us connect in real-time, face-to-face. What a foundation where we grow as individuals and affect positive change in society.

When terrible things happen, people seek answers and search for what can bring them comfort. In our country’s recent history, we’ve felt the shock of 9/11, the horror of Hurricane Katrina, and now, the discomfort and discontent of many social problems that have surfaced in Ferguson, Missouri. After now a series of killings of black people by police officers, our President and the people of  have acknowledged we have work to do. This work involves our collective attention.

When a crisis strikes, we search for understanding. Some look for comfort. While some people head to a church or a park, people also head to their neighborhood bookstore. While not many bookstore owners imagine the bookstore as a sanctuary when they decide to get into the business, when a crisis hits, it becomes clear that a bookstore is also a special kind of healing place.

It may be the peaceful quiet of browsing books, a symbol of knowledge and wisdom, that is the draw. Someone can leave the store with an escape novel, but the trip into the store helped in some way.

Others want interaction and dialogue. Left Bank Books, a St. Louis indie bookstore, not only stayed open after the Ferguson jury announced its verdict, but has scheduled a series of book discussions for a new group entitled #FergusonReads. Their website reads:

“The events in Ferguson have been upsetting for nearly everyone in our community. This reading group is an attempt to add some civility and context to the mix by exploring race, not only in St. Louis, but America as a whole.”

Bookstores can help the healing and spark conversation that improves our world

Bookstores can help the healing and spark conversation that improves our world

I’ve sent this link to my neighborhood book group. February is Black History Month and we’ve yet to select our books for 2015. I hope members of my book group will share the link with others too, exponentially expanding its reach.

One of the greatest competitive advantages of an indie bookstore is being part of the community. Helping the country face and work through its issues …. to help it reach its potential … is how we make a difference in our communities and beyond.