Bookstore Owners Struggle With Surge In Anti-Racist Book Sales
Kalima DeSuze, the owner of Cafe con Libros feminist bookstore in Brooklyn, has seen book sales skyrocket in the last two weeks as mostly white customers rush to order literature on dismantling racism.
A year ago, she would have sold 200 books in a good week. Since May 31st, she has been selling at least that many in a day.
“June 1st, was literally 400 books in one day,” said DeSuze, who is black and the daughter of Panamanian immigrants.
The titles mirror those on the New York Times’ Best Seller list that are also about race and racism, like Ibram X. Kendi’s “How to Be an Anti-racist,” and “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo. A new workbook from Layla F Saad, “Me and White Supremacy,” is also popular.
DeSuze, a busy wife and mother of a toddler who also works full-time as an administrator at a school of social work, said she’d like to embrace the financial windfall from the spike in sales as a long overdue reward for years of hard work, including working as an activist to stop racism. Instead, she is wrestling with a disturbing irony of her success: authors, publishers, bookstore owners, and even Amazon, are getting rich “because George Floyd died.”
“We’re thriving because of black bodies,” said DeSuze, pained by the idea that his family will have to view the video of a white police officer’s knee in Floyd’s neck, over and over. “I would prefer that he still be alive and I still be struggling.”
Since the death of Floyd on May 25th, lists of black-owned bookstores, restaurants, and other businesses have gone viral. There is interest in black film, and organizations are re-examining their own racial problems internally. DeSuze said she wishes the interest in anti-racism reading materials — as well as the sudden interest in supporting small black-owned businesses — were more sustained, and didn’t just spike after a high-profile death of a black man in police custody.
She says that the work that everyone is rushing to do now should have been done in grade school. Other book store owners agree. “People should have been reading these books months ago, years ago, decades ago,” said Ezra Goldstein, who is white and the owner of the Community Bookstore in Park Slope Brooklyn.
He said most of the customers buying what he calls “self-help” books to learn how to combat racism, are white. He noticed a slight bump in sales after Ahmaud Arbery was shot to death while jogging in a neighborhood in Georgia, but a significant jump in sales after the video of Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeling on the neck of George Floyd for 8 minutes and 46 seconds outraged the nation.
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While many of the best sellers are recent releases, Goldstein said there are rich lessons in books like “The Fire Next Time,” by James Baldwin, and “Invisible Man” by Ralph Ellison. He said he’s glad people are reading about racism, from any era.
“It’s not a panacea,” he said. “It’s not going to miraculously change the world.”
Earl Lewis, a professor of African-American History at the University of Michigan, said books about black people and race have had other moments interest in the past, including after tragedy. “A whole generation of black writers in the 1960s and at the end of the ’60s came after both the assassination of (Martin Luther) King, Jr. and the riots and urban rebellions of 1967 and ‘68,” he said.
Lewis added that bookstore owner Kalima DeSuze shouldn’t feel a burden of guilt, but focus on making sure customers don’t stop at reading. He said changing the world can happen if those readers find other people and talk about what they read, and take action to fight racism.
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