Monday, February 27, 2006

Bring Your Nose Plugs: Opinions On Opinions.

Lady T sent me the link to this op-ed from the LA Times, and asked me what I thought. Though she’s already written a thoughtful piece on her own blog, and I’ve discussed the “joys” of trying to stay apolitical before, I think this brings up a subject that deserves to be revisited: as a bookstore/bookseller what is my first duty to my customers?

To provide the product that they wish to buy, of course. Easy, right? Even my visitor from the Mother Ship realized that good customer service wasn’t limited to the interaction between the bookseller and the customer because eighty percent of a customer’s interaction is with the books alone. You’ve practically won the battle if you have the book the customer is looking for.

But what if you don’t have the book the customer is looking for?

What if you refuse to carry it?

This is the case with the City Lights bookstore in California, and it is this attitude that makes me angry. My anger has nothing to do with the content of the book asked for, but how the bookstore and the booksellers were handling the customer’s request. This is the same anger I felt when I heard a story from a customer about Powell’s stocking Ann Coulter’s books in a section labeled “Kooks” and refusing to help her search for the copy she was inquiring after. It’s the same disappointment I felt when I realized that the Santa Cruz bookshop didn’t stock romance novels (this was a couple of years ago though and it might have changed).

And why am I angry? What does Powell’s labeling Coulter a Kook, Santa Cruz turning its nose up at Romance, and the City Lights refusing to carry Fallaci’s The Force of Reason have in common? A sense of entitlement, a right of the bookstore to force its opinions on the buying public regardless of whether or not that opinion is representative of its entire consumer pool. It suggests that the bookstore is no longer the den of free speech, but the soapbox for the opinions of the employees. In other words, it adds fuel to the fire that where once the bookstore was a bastion of the first amendment, it is now under the sway of whoever does the buying.

Instead of simply offering to order a copy in for the customer, the bookseller of City Lights apparently said, “We don’t carry books by fascists.”

Instead of just finding the Coulter book, and therefore cutting the need for the inflaming search, the Powell’s bookseller laughed at the customer’s ire.

Instead of just telling me that the Santa Cruz Bookshop had a more literary focus, the bookseller asked, “You actually read that crap?”

Yes, yes I do. It doesn’t lower my IQ, and it is my choice to read “that crap” just like it is the customers’ choice to read Coulter or Fallaci, but if you—as a bookstore—are going to claim that you believe in freedom of expression, then you don’t have a choice.

You have to carry everything.

You have to value everyone’s opinion even if you think it might be wrong because you have to value that person’s right to read.

It’s a lesson we all deserve to learn and be reminded of frequently.

Fascism is defined by Merriam-Webster online as: a political philosophy, movement, or regime (as that of the Fascisti) that exalts nation and often race above the individual and that stands for a centralized autocratic government headed by a dictatorial leader, severe economic and social regimentation, and forcible suppression of opposition. A fascist is defined by as:
  1. An advocate or adherent of fascism.

  2. A reactionary or dictatorial person.

I make no claim that the customer is always right, but does a bookseller not take on certain fascist characteristics when refusing to carry a title due to content? Does that not make us just as bad as the people who speak out against the very rights we purport to defend?

I’ve worked in retail long enough to know that there are two sides to every bad customer service interaction, and that we—being humans—have a tendency to twist stories to better represent our side. I’m sure the bookseller who works for City Lights has a completely different recounting of that incident, just as I’m sure that the customers that gave me a hard time of not having Unfit for Command so long ago also have their own version of events. A person can only account for his/her own opinion of a confrontation, and it is up to that person whether or not s/he tries to see beyond to the bigger picture.

I don’t claim to be perfect. In fact, I know I’m just the opposite: often stubborn, oblivious, or just plain too perky. But everyday when I go to work, I try to leave my opinions at home (or at least locked away until someone requests them). My purpose at the store is to provide customers with the books they want, even if I have to order it in or send them to another store. It’s not that I believe in the phrase “the customer is always right,” but that I know that I don’t have the right to pass judgment or deny them their reading material of choice.

Bookstores should be a place of debate—learning—where the books on fascism can sit side by side with Marxist socialism and invite discussion. Where Right and Left can come to find the words written by not only those they agree with but those who differ in their opinions (if only to arm themselves against what “the enemy” is saying). If I claim to be for Free Speech then I have to be for all speech, even if I don’t agree because as I bookseller I’m not selling books to myself, but to the customer.

In my family you’ll often hear the phrase, “Opinions are like assholes, everyone has them and they all stink.” It serves as a reminder that not one of us is better another, and neither are our opinions (even if we do believe that ours smell like daisies). I know that there will be disagreement with what I’m saying, and I welcome it. There should be disagreement.

There should be discussion.

Because a bookseller I should be open to helping you air your views, no matter how stinky I might find them.


Anonymous said...

Great post, BSC.

Reminds me of a Clint Eastwood quote; I don't remember it exactly, but it goes something like: "Go far enough to the right, and you'll meet the same kind of idiots coming around from the left."

For me, the litmus test has become: if the "other" side is doing this, would I find it objectionable? If a bookstore with a conservative slant refused to carry books by Hillary Clinton, or shelves Al Franken under "Kooks", I'd find that narrow-minded and childish. So...ditto to stores with a liberal slant.

I'm interested to know why bookstores would refuse to carry books of the "wrong" political stripe. Is it because they don't want to support those politics in any way? Fine, but then it's no longer a general bookstore. I don't expect the feminist bookstore in town to carry Rush Limbaugh's stuff (in point of fact I don't know whether they do or not), nor the cookbook/gardening book store. But a general bookstore -- yes, I would.

At the same time, though, I wonder: How DO bookstores decide which books to carry? Those they think will sell, obviously; but beyond that, where are the lines drawn? What about erotica? What about a book promoting neo-Nazism or race supremacy? Do the personal values of the seller/owner EVER enter into the equation?

Anonymous said...

I dunno, I think that a bookseller would have the same right not to sell a book that is repugnant to them that a customer has to read it. The customer can just get it somewhere else, no? The seller takes the "punishment" of not making a sale.

I could even argue that it is a principled stand not to make a profit off of books that are repugnant to the purveyor.

If a clerk ridiculed my taste, my revenge is to no longer patronize that bookstore. (And perhaps mention it to the manager, if the clerk was that rude--certainly it would suffice to say, "We don't stock or order that title, I'm sorry.)

It's always been annoying that so many high-falutin' bookstores turn their noses up at romance, but it never struck me as an issue of my freedom or freedom of speech. If the books were censored, that would be one thing (and that danger does exist for romance, I believe) but what you are discussing seems to be an open matter of taste and opinion. That has to be free, for both buyer and seller, it seems to me, or we are all forced to march to the same drummer.

Libraries supported by the public are another matter.

Bookseller Chick said...

Christine, exactly. Don't call yourself a general bookstore if you aren't going to carry books for the general population. As for what a bookstore carries or sells depends on who's doing the buying and what area they are buying for. The line of where to stop buying is up to the buyer. Personally I don't think you need to have every kind of book in stock, but you do have a duty to order that book for a customer if they want it (and it's within your power to get it). The way I think about it is, if I start imposing my opinion you, how can I then defend myself if you respond like-wise. Not to mention there is always a chance you may be reading neo-nazism books not because you are a nazi, but because you're trying to understand neo-nazism, or whatever. I can read the anarchist's cookbook without being an anarchist or wanting to blow something up. I personally think that everyone should read a few things that they don't agree with and then ask themselves why, the answer might surprise you.

Laura, I would go with that argument if I hadn't seen bookstores turn around and play the "poor me" card when someone gets on their case. You can't claim that some book is attacking the very foundations of free speech, without acknowledging that by not selling that book you are too. You can't call yourself a bookstore that supports banned books, and then not support all banned books (as was the point of the article from the LA Times). I don't think its hypocritical to sell something you don't believe in because we individually are rarely representative of anyone other than ourselves (and that sentence made a lot more sense in my head). There are a lot of books that I dislike but still sell because I realize that I am not the same as the person standing across the counter and I'm not going to change their mind about something by denying their requests. It's only going to make them dig in more. A better plan of attack would be to sell them the book and then suggest an alternative that is a little closer to your tastes (but won't scare them off), lulling them into slowing seeing both sides, or even pointing out a radically opposite book in case they want to read both sides of the argument.

What starts as a matter of taste and opinion can domino into censorship and hating what we don't understand. Many people can say they hate and disagree with X, Y, and Z, but far less can form coherent, fact-based arguments to support their opinion.

Again, it's not a matter of stocking every book out there in a store (it's just not possible), but simply being willing to order it in if the customer makes a reasonable request (reasonable meaning that it is even possible to get the book, not reasonable due to content). If that's still something that the bookstore doesn't wish to do then they should still be polite about it as opposed to giving attitude.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post. I am fine if a bookstore chooses not to carry a book for any reason, political, don't think it will sell, not their genre etc. Unless it's mine of course- that is a different story. : )

However, I think ridiculing a customer for what they choose to read is wrong. A simple we don't carry this item would suffice.

The Gambino Crime Family said...

Yeah, while there's no good reason to be rude, everyone draws the line somewhere. A bookstore isn't a library and if you're willing to make the commercial sacrifice of not carrying Coulter, I don't think it's any big deal.

I mean, you're not trying to have her banned or thrown in prison, right? Ok, ok. I know a good card-carrying liberal should be able to rise above pettiness but really... Why do we always have to be so happy-clappy? "Sure, Ann, I might not agree with you saying that us lefties should be publicly flogged and beaten but I WILL help you earn a little more cash for the bank account."

I don't know. In this particular case, I think the republic will survive...

lady t said...

Your post was excellant,BSC-thanks for taking the time to read my rant and for taking a stand here. I would be shocked at the Powells "Kooks" section story but it's like that line from Casablanca about being shocked to find gambling going on:)

Gambino CF-it's not so much as helping Ann Coulter make money,it's more like being a defense attorney for a client you may not respect but it is your duty to give them the best representation that you can. If you have a general bookstore and don't wish to carry Ann Coulter or Al Franken in stock,that's fine but if a customer asks you about it or wants to order it from you,you should give them the respect and proper customer service you'ld give to any other Joe Average looking for a book.

I will confess that I was a bit of a romance snob but I never gave anyone looking for the new Nora Roberts a hard time about it and by working with readers of all tastes and different reading needs,it helped to appreciate other genres better.

Jean L. Cooper said...

I'm glad that people such as yourselves recognize the dangers of banning books from libraries -- unfortunately, not everyone does:

ALA's Challenged and Banned Books site

The Gambino Crime Family said...

Lady T, you're a better person than I am. I do think Coulter should be carried in libraries, but if I owned a bookstore and a customer wanted me to order something I really hated ("Italians: A Plague Upon Humanity!"), my computer would probably freeze up...

Anonymous said...

I happened to hear David Irving (historian who has just been jailed for holocaust denial in Austria) being interviewed on the radio this morning. I'd only taken a peripheral interest in the case before, and would have thought those who defended his right to Free speech had a point, but having had to listen to him, I'm afraid I'm in a burn-his-books mood.

Isn't there a difference between theory and practice? Yes, in theory Free Speech is What We Want, but if in practice someone wants to say something evil, why would we let ourselves be a conduit for that, just because of an idea?
Hugely problematic in practical terms: it's probably impossible to reach a consensus as to whether Danish cartoonists are fun-loving chaps or evil heretics - but still I'm not sure you can claim being a bookseller compels you to professional amorality.
You could even go further and play with the idea that we usually hold people to some extent responsible for the products they sell. If you sell a book that claims the Holocaust didn't happen, and your customer buys it and uncritically accepts that version, are you in no sense to blame?