The Quagmire Quandary

At least once a year, Jack and I discuss whether we should have a LGBT section in the bookstore. We also debate the pros and cons of an African Interest shelf.

See, once you open this can, the worms just explode in all directions. Why do we need an African section? Alice Walker and Toni Morrision are just fine in Classics, thanks. But what about the annual publication from a contest of short stories by African American writers? The biography of Sojourner Truth? The ethnographic classic “Why are All The Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?” That obscure text that often gets misrepresented, “White Men on Race?” If they were shelved together, people could find them easily, instead of having to know they existed and search the appropriate category.

But, if we put “black” books together, where does the color line stop? Where would we put that horrible nasty book about how Afri-centrism is wrong and should be expelled from Academia? Does Maya Angelou have to leave Classics? Would romance novels featuring people with black skins on their covers relocate from the Luv Shack?

What about same-sex partner books? We can differentiate between Rita Mae Brown’s mysteries and her social commentary, no bother, but what do we do about Lisa Alther’s Five Minutes in Heaven? Dina McGreevey’s memoir Silent Partner? And is anyone going to bring up the word “ghettoization” or get mad because we even HAVE a LG-et al. section?

We don’t know what to do. Our default is to do nothing. There are lots of wonderful books in the shop that particular people—not just people with black skin or same sex partner preferences, but people who like to cook vegetarian, people who love dogs, etc.—would like if they knew they were here. Categorization is a sticky wicket at the best of times, and we’re not even good at simpler divisions, like separating Southern from General Fiction. (We keep arguing the toss on Florida.)

Divvying up intense categories based on concepts over which people have literally been killed throughout history? Heh. We want to do the right thing. And we haven’t got a blooming clue what that is.

Thank you, Mr. S

The sweetest note arrived at our bookstore late last week. I opened the hand-addressed envelope and a ten-dollar bill fell out.

Good start.

The accompanying letter was from Mike S of Rhode Island, who said he’d come across my book in a used bookstore in Connecticut (Book Barn) and picked it up for a fiver. (Which settles one of the questions that Jack, my agent Pamela, and I have been debating: how long would it take for Little Bookstore of Big Stone Gap, a book about a used bookstore, to hit the used books market? 32 days.)

But those of you who have read it know that Chapter 24 (or so) deals with how artists do or don’t get paid for their work, pointing out that resale rarely benefits the creator, etc. etc. Mike said he enjoyed the book so much, he felt he had to send me something as the creator of it, hence the ten-spot. Now isn’t that sweet, kind, genteel?

But Mike also pointed out something that’s been on my mind since my NYC discussion with Nichole (my editor at St. Martin’s Press) last month, when she emphasized that only 5% of all booksales in America are through independent bricks-and-mortar shops. Mike (clearly a man of discerning tastes) likened the rise of little bookshops everywhere to the craft beer industry. A market that used to have just three or four big and basic tastes now has microbreweries everywhere–and those little guys have put the social back into drinking. They’ve returned fun to a business that was sinking under its own weight.

Smallness can revolutionize homogeneous bigness. Etsy is doing so for crafters in other materials besides hops; I have friends selling their gorgeous homemade pottery and knitwear–stuff Walmart will never see and that will outlast anything you buy there–for reasonable prices on that small-creators site. And of course, Jack and I run the classic example of a little bookstore: independent, used, and ours. No corporate manuals, no CEO other than Val-Kyttie (whose every whim is catered to, natch).

So, Mr. Mike, as I said in my return thank you note–a thank you note for a thank you note? Anyway–you have done me three good turns: added an example to the thought path I’m headed down, this juxtaposition of little bigness in the American marketplace; gave Jack, Andrew, and me a laugh when that $10 fell to the floor; and funded kitten kibble for the home team. Staff kitten Owen Meany says, “Thank you, Mr. S.”

So say we all.