As questions about freedom of speech continue to spark heated debate across the book business, the nation’s regional independent bookselling associations convened a panel on Tuesday to discuss how the issue impacts independent booksellers. The wide-ranging conversation, moderated by PEN America’s Jonathan Friedman, took up and clarified crucial themes in a hotly contested debate about which books should be on the shelves of community bookstores.

Panelist and bookseller Luis Correa of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., rejected the First Amendment premise used by supporters of such controversial titles as former Vice President Mike Pence’s forthcoming memoir as irrelevant to the question of whether individual bookstores should stock such books. Those who use such arguments, Correa said, do so in order to “skirt the consequences of their harmful speech.”

“The First Amendment applies to the government, first and foremost,” Correa said. “It’s important that the government not infringe on our rights to expression. [But] deciding whether or not to stock something is not necessarily something in regards to the First Amendment.”

More important in the discussion of what to stock, Correa said, is the recognition that “when you sell a book, as I view it, you’re not just selling a book. You’re providing funding, you’re providing a pathway, a door. And if we’re booksellers because we think that books can change lives, we also need to acknowledge that they can do real harm to the most vulnerable.”

Josh Cook, a bookseller at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., said that a recognition of that potential impact on readers, good and bad, drives core questions he is consistently asking about his bookselling. “The challenge and the point of potential conflict comes in figuring out…what should we do about expressions that put other people in danger, make them unsafe, or make them afraid to express their true selves?”

But Derrick Young, co-owner of Mahogany Books in Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, said that he has been disturbed to see how society views his effort to meet readers in his community where they are with a wide range of titles. He explained that when Black booksellers open their own stores, the straightforward act of being a community institution is often characterized more broadly as being dangerous and subversive.

“The interesting thing about how Black bookstores are perceived is that even on Wikipedia, it says that Black bookstores are considered to be radical in terms of what we sell, what we are aligned to,” Young said. While trying to provide a diverse collection of titles, he said, society “is already putting us in a corner.”

University of Mississippi professor and author Kiese Laymon repeatedly weighed in to deepen and advance the conversation, challenging booksellers to stop believing that their position within the publishing trade is above criticism. The industry’s problems are too intertwined, Laymon said, for any individual to believe they are not doing work that supports the publication and sale of racist and discriminatory books.

“It’s easy to be innocent compared to…Mike Pence,” he said. “[But] we’re implicated. We ain’t innocent, and more than that, we’re harmful.” Speaking to Young, Laymon said the impact of that harm cannot be overstated. “I think we know what it’s like to open a book and be treated like a n***** by a book,” Laymon said. “We are ourselves part of something that is despicable. We are not virtuous because we love books.”

Kenny Brechner of Devaney, Doak, and Garrett booksellers, who recently resigned from the board of the American Booksellers Association and cited issues related to free speech as contributing to his resignation, said that there are books that he will no longer carry. Brechner used children’s books by Bill O’Reilly as examples, saying that the books were “lying to kids.” Such decisions, however, are subjective, Brechner said. He urged fellow booksellers to be cautious not to let individual decisions become wholesale consensus about choosing not to sell certain titles across the entire independent bookselling community.

“[A] progressive rejection of free speech by the bookselling community would be a grave mistake,” Brechner said. “As we sit here now, there’s an absolute avalanche of conservative-informed book bans and challenges being directed at school boards and libraries around the country. These challenges have been directed at books whose handling of themes of gender, gender identity, sex, and critical race theory are ones many of us treasure. That is the target of this. And to me, there has never been a less opportune time to step back from a support of free expression.”

Panelist Vicky Titcomb, owner of Titcomb’s Bookshop in Sandwich, Mass., brought the conversation back to her customers, recalling a recent visit to the store by a young reader who looked up from a book to say, “Mommy, this is like me.” Titcomb said: “I can’t imagine growing up and finding books not helpful to me as a person, but actually harmful.”

Titcomb expressed gratitude to her fellow panelists for the conversation’s emphasis on a more intentional bookselling, which resonated as a way of helping readers navigate unsettling ideas across books. Titcomb said she is willing to stock certain books that are divisive, but that her fellow booksellers are raising important questions about harm and power that are helping her think through what titles she wants to stock and which not—with an eye on ensuring that her readers feel cared for, supported, and seen.

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