Books on racism, social justice spur sales, booksellers report

By LEE J. KAHRS

BRANDON/MIDDLEBURY — There is nothing new under the sun, the saying goes. It’s all been done before.

In the case of racial inequality in the U.S., the death of a black man in police custody has happened so many times that people became apathetic — until George Floyd.

Books by black authors and books on race have since been flying out of bookstores since Floyd’s death rocked the nation. With the support of the American Booksellers Association, as well as the New England Independent Booksellers Association, local bookstore owners are sharing and publicizing lists of titles by black authors and promoting buy books from black booksellers nationwide.

Floyd died in Minneapolis Police custody on May 25 in the midst of an unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, and many Americans decided enough was enough. Protests broke out immediately and have been ongoing for the last three weeks. In that time, orders for books on race and social justice and books by black authors both timeless and new have buoyed the local bookselling business during hard times.

The Bookstore

“Honestly, it’s been so organic,” said Barbara Ebling, co-owner of The Bookstore in Brandon. “Lots of bookstores were posting photos of stacks of books on (social media), and orders started coming in. Goodness know we’re all suffering economically right now and independent bookstores are universally suffering a hardship through the pandemic, so throwing support behind an independent bookstore is a great idea, especially now that a crisis has come into the national awareness that’s been so needed for so long.”

Vermont has the highest percentage of non-Hispanic white Americans in the country

at 95.4 %, yet is considered one of the most liberal states in the U.S. That’s helping booksellers who were forced to close their doors when the pandemic hit. They are seeing an uptick in sales as people are ordering books about race, social justice and book by black authors in droves.

“We had a pretty decent stock going in,” Ebling said. “The way we do business, it’s an interest of mine. I want diverse authors on the shelves and I want customers to read outside of their comfort zones.”

Ebling said she had the books people started asking for, just not multiple copies. In general, the publishing industry didn’t have enough copies to meet demand either, and have started printing more of the books people are asking for. The top three local bestsellers right now? “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, “So you want to talk about race,” by Ijeoma Oluo, and “How to Be An Anti-Racist” by Ibram X. Kendi. The first two are also the bestselling nonfiction paperback books nationwide right now, according to the New York Times Bestseller List.

“Publishers are printing these books like crazy,” Ebling said. “I have lots of books on order. This also gives us all an opportunity to carry larger lists of non only those books, but other books that have been around for years and a years and are getting renewed attention.”

Ebling said she is ordering James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Ta-Nahisi Coates and others, including children’s books with racial themes and characters of color.

“There are so many but to put it in a list is exciting, to see how much there is to read and learn about,” Ebling said. “That’s our job as booksellers and librarians, to connect people with resources so they can learn.”

Vermont Book Shop

Becky Dayton has owned the Vermont Book Shop at 38 Main Street in Middlebury since 2005, through the deaths of many other black Americans who died after being arrested or chased by police.

“There were definitely sort of duller spikes in sales before, maybe,” she said. “Around when Eric Garner and Freddie Gray died, but not like this. This country was ripe for an uprising.”

Dayton said she has received many, multiple orders from people who would find lists of books on race online and order several at a time.

“We’re certainly seeing a huge demand for titles,” she said. “Our role is to provide people with lots of points of view. The demand way exceeded what we were prepared for.”

Dayton said she is also seeing a huge demand for children’s books about race and diversity.

“About time, huh?” she said.

The Vermont Book Shop has been closed to browsing since the pandemic began in March. Between that and the new bridge being installed in downtown Middlebury outside her door, Dayton said there are no plans to open the shop to customers any time soon. That said, business has definitely improved since the social justice protests began.

“It’s not how I would’ve chosen to stay in business,” Dayton said, “but it certainly helped the bottom line.”

Back in Brandon, Ebling has opened the doors again to her shop at 8 Conant Square in the Briggs Carriage building since business restrictions were lifted last month. She’s grateful for all of the orders, but like Dayton, sick about the reason.

“We’ve had it and it’s time,” Ebling said. “It’s way overdue. I’m not saying this is the newest fad. Our eyed are trained on something that they should have been trained on a long time ago. It’s not a passing fancy and it shouldn’t be. I’m hopeful it’s a pivotal shift. I hope white people are making the shift to be part of the change that needs to happen.”