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Sexism on the Shelves?

Rita Meade

Staff Writer

Rita Meade is a public library manager (and children's librarian at heart) who lives and works in Brooklyn, New York. Here at Book Riot, she hosts the Dear Book Nerd podcast, a bi-weekly bookish advice show. She reads as much as she possibly can (and it's still never enough), reviews children's books for "School Library Journal," and is the author of a forthcoming picture book called Edward Gets Messy (Simon & Schuster Young Readers, 2016). She also occasionally writes about funny library stuff over on her blog, and even less occasionally sings in a librarian band. Blog: Screwy Decimal Twitter: @screwydecimal

YA Author Rae Carson (whose Fire & Thorns trilogy is awesome, by the way, go read it) recently tweeted a photo she took of some potentially sexist bookshelves she saw while on vacation.

Rae gave me permission to re-post the photo here and she also told me a little bit about her experience (the bookstore shall remain nameless to protect the potentially sexist).

Photo by Rae Carson

Photo by Rae Carson

Rae said (over email):

“It was a used bookstore, with a small selection of new books. As used bookstores go, I would call it average-sized–smaller than a Half-Price Bookstore, larger than a specialty store. The owner said they have been doing ‘a lot of organizing’ and that separating ‘the males and the females’ made it ‘easier for customers to find their favorite authors.’ They did this ‘only for popular books’ though. Sci-fi & fantasy and YA and other unpopular (?) genres were still fraternizing.”

Rae goes on:

“It was very frustrating from a discovery standpoint, because I went looking for a few vacation reads, and I wanted to BROWSE, DANGIT. But I had to browse two separate sections. I don’t understand how separating them makes it easier to find books–John Grisham still starts with a G-R-I no matter what section he’s in… ”

And here’s the kicker:

“The owner was a woman.”

Hmmm. My own knee-jerk reaction is that this is, in fact, good ol’ fashioned “separate but equal” literary sexism (and, sadly, it’s really nothing new). I don’t personally seek out authors by gender – I enjoy just browsing the shelves and stumbling on new titles and authors. By separating the males from the females, these booksellers are decreasing the potential for discoverability. But maybe they don’t necessarily care about that? Maybe they know that their regular customers will make a bee-line for their favorite authors anyway? It’s hard to say. (It’s also problemactic that sci-fi/fantasy/YA fiction is considered unpopular in this store, but that’s an issue for another post.)

So tell me: what do YOU think of all of this? Is this a “Shelfgate” situation, or is it just a matter of a bookshop trying something “different” in the interest of good customer service? Tell me your thoughts in the comments.


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