Whether it’s competing with large wholesalers who are able to offer books at much lower prices or dealing with skyrocketing rents and lower footfall, indie bookshops have faced financial challenges that have caused many to close their doors. However, the challenges experienced by bookshops in recent years aren’t only economic. In the face of a rising far-right sentiment across the world, there have been an increasing number of incidents of bookshops facing bigotry—racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism, and every other arm of the octopus that encompasses patriarchy (to borrow a metaphor from the awesome feminist and writer, Mona Eltahawy).
In the current climate of anti-intellectualism and widespread disinformation, bookshops can’t help but take a political stance. Some bookshops, such as Gay’s the Word in London, have been dealing with bigoted attacks for as long as they’ve existed, while other shops’ experiences have been more recent. I’ve been in contact with several bookshops who’ve faced attacks, vandalism, and other action from racist, homophobic, and transphobic groups in recent months, and have found that, no matter how disturbing the attack, booksellers have responded with bravery, dignity, and even good humour.
Attacks on Bookshops
Women & Children First is a Chicago-based bookstore with a firmly feminist stance. It first opened its doors in 1979, and ever since has been offering a carefully curated collection of books intended to amplify underrepresented voices, particularly books by women authors, diverse children’s literature, and LGBTQIA+ books. The store’s mission statement emphasises the belief that “books are tools for liberation”, and the company aims to create a space for dialogue and learning.
Sadly, not everyone was interested in this dialogue. In autumn 2019, the store was subject to an anti-trans harassment campaign, with transphobic stickers being placed on the storefront. In an email discussion of the events, co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck told me that the stickering initially seemed to be a one-off incident, but that the campaign soon escalated, with more and more stickers appearing daily.
Women & Children First isn’t the only feminist bookstore that’s been targeted by transphobic groups operating under the guise of “defending women”. The Second Shelf, a bookshop based in London dealing exclusively in texts by women authors (including rare and first editions), came under fire from anti-trans activists when they made it clear that they included trans women in the “women authors” category. Despite the fact that the shop promotes women’s writing and has made huge strides in ensuring that little-read women authors are given the prominence and acclaim that they deserve, The Second Shelf was deemed anti-feminist for its decision to include all women, rather than solely cis women, on its shelves. The abuse faced by The Second Shelf mostly took place online, with transphobes writing negative reviews despite having never visited the store, or bombarding the shop’s Twitter account with hundreds of hateful messages.
While the homophobic and transphobic harassment experienced by some bookshops came out of nowhere, other instances have been more coordinated. Book Bar in Denver was targeted by a white supremacist group who vandalised the store with Nazi imagery. Following this, complaints began to roll in about the store’s regular Drag Queen Storytime. In an email conversation with owner Nicole Sullivan, I learned that these complaints came from people who weren’t part of Book Bar’s community or customer base, but who had heard about the vandalism, realised that the store ran this quarterly event, and responded with negativity.
Book Bar was not the only bookshop to be targeted by a white supremacist group. In April 2019, Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C., hit the news when a group linked with neo-Nazi extremists Identity Evropa stormed an event where author Jonathan Metzl was reading from his book, Dying of Whiteness. Reports state that, although the incident was thankfully non-violent, it caused a great deal of fear and alarm in the audience, occurring as it did in a context of several recent mass shootings (the Poway synagogue shooting happened on the same day as the disruption of Metzl’s reading).
Booksellers Fight Back
Frightening, upsetting, and wearying as these bigoted attacks were, they ultimately failed—the bookstores didn’t back down. Following the stickering, Women & Children First organised a Community Activation event where they gave short talks and filled their neighbourhood with positive, trans-affirming messages. Customers and locals chalked these messages on pavements, creating beautiful and artistic displays. The event was hugely successful, attended by over 100 people including politicians and community leaders, and the chalked messages lasted several weeks – far longer than the transphobic stickers. The bookstore followed this event with a workshop on allyship and bystander intervention, led by the Chicago Therapy Collective. In our email discussion, Hollenbeck told me that the bookstore plans to go forward by continuing to provided a trans-inclusive feminist space, countering prevailing narratives that trans identities are “trend” and popular misconceptions that trans rights and feminism are at odds.
The Second Shelf has also carried on in the face of bigotry, keeping true to its mission statement of promoting and representing women’s writing (as a customer, I can confirm that they give excellent recommendations!) They have launched a literary magazine that fosters discussion around writing by women, and run a full and fascinating events programme (sadly interrupted by COVID). They’ve also emphasised their trans-inclusive stance by adding the statement ‘trans rights are human rights’ to every page of their website, and raising money for Mermaids, a charity of trans and gender diverse youth, after being blocked by a certain prominent author.
Book Bar’s response to the vandalism and the spurious complaints about Drag Queen Storytime took a satirical stance, poking fun at the absurdity of the complaints in a hilarious Q and A–style blog post. With snarky responses to common homophobic and other bigoted arguments, peppered with excellent book recommendations, Book Bar stood up to the haters and gave the rest of us a laugh (and some new additions to our TBR lists).
Hope for the Future
While the political climate is still a frightening one, the creative, dignified and joyful responses of these and other booksellers to intimidation and harassment give me hope for the future. So, too, does the fact that, for every example of bookshops facing bigotry, there are many more responses to bookstores’ work which have been kind, thoughtful and progressive. While researching for this article, I spoke to Lali from The Portal Bookshop, a York-based bookshop specialising in SFF and LGBTQIA literature, who told me that since the store’s opening in 2019, they have had an overwhelmingly positive reaction from the local community: “we’ve had so many people who’ve come in and been delighted or overwhelmed (one or two tears) at seeing *their* flag up on the wall…we’ve provided a space for people who are just figuring themselves out to come and research things and ask advice”. The world may be going through dark times, but it’s comforting to know that the booksellers are there, keeping on the light.
For recommendations of bookstores to visit (when it’s safe to do so), check out our list of 50 Queer Bookstores or 50 Black-owned Independent Bookstores. If you want ideas about how to stand against bigotry, look at these posts on YA Nonfiction Books for the Budding Social Activist and Building a Resistance Kit.