A Bookseller’s Elegy

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“Do you have the book Hillbilly Elegy?”
“Yeah, we should have a copy on the front table; let me grab one for you.”
“Is it any good?”
“…It’s sold really well.”
“I hear it’s so powerful and important, especially now, since, well, you know…”

Working at an independent bookstore in the Greater Boston area, I find myself having some variation of this conversation a few times a week. To be fair, bookselling, like any retail or service job, comes with its fair share of repetitions. For example, the sales pitch for our loyalty program is so ingrained in me that it comes pouring out in a breathless flurry of words. Such things are largely innocuous, a necessary (if not occasionally tedious) part of the job. But when it comes to the above conversation concerning J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, there is something a bit more personal at stake, viz. my moral objection to the book that has become, for conservatives and liberals alike, a means of understanding the rise of “Trumpism.” And while it’s easy enough to take this moral high ground, it comes into direct conflict with that old chestnut about the customer always being right, to which even the most fiercely independent of bookstores largely adhere.

I don’t intend to review Elegy here. More capable pieces have already been written about the book’s “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” message, its condemnation of a supposed culture of poverty, its dismissal of the working class’s material reality as a determining factor in their lives, and its callous claim that the welfare state only reinforces a cycle of dependency. If any of this sounds familiar, it’s because these are the same rightwing talking points that have been leveled at the working class and poor for decades. As if that weren’t enough, the book also boasts glowing blurbs from the likes of Rod Dreher, whose oeuvre consists of transphobic screeds for The American Conservative; literal tech vampire Peter Thiel; and Reihan Salam, executive editor of the National Review (a publication which, under the guidance of William F. Buckley, promoted segregation and derided the Civil Rights Movement, among countless other odious stances, and which now primarily serves as a trust fund for a gaggle of #NeverTrump Republicans who hold the President’s views but gussy them up with a bowtie). And yet the customers where I work—largely liberal, well-educated and well-meaning people—have bought the book in droves.

While I have some theories as to why—mostly, liberalism and conservatism’s shared tendency to privilege individual agency over systemic forces—I’m more concerned here with my response as a bookseller. Despite the immeasurable good work independent bookstores and their staff do—from promoting children’s literacy to hosting readings and book clubs to being a vital part of local economies, and more—I’d hazard that the primary goal is always going to be customer satisfaction. So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?

More often than not, my experiences with selling Elegy play out exactly as above, with me swiping the customer’s card, sticking a bookmark between random pages, and wishing them a good day. These instances of silence tend to eat at me the most. Other times, when we’re sold out of the book, I get to recommend alternatives: Arlie Russell Hochschild’s assiduously researched Strangers in Their Own Land (even if it does miss an opportunity to implicate the neoliberal state), Thomas Frank’s incisive and entertaining Listen, Liberal, Corey Robin’s prescient The Reactionary Mind (a revised second edition that addresses Donald Trump is due in October), et al. Occasionally, a customer will take me up on one of these suggestions, but usually they will just order the book they came in for or walk away empty-handed. Only once, when fatigue got the best of me, did I softly suggest that I had some ideological differences with the book—that was the end of that conversation. All of this is to say that I’ve yet to find a way to tactfully handle the subject. Even now, I fear that I’m slipping into a haughty and unproductive tone—that of an ideologically perfect soul who can’t seem to break through to the rubes. And that’s the last thing a bookseller or writer should be.

But it’s a mistake to overlook the political role that indies have historically assumed. In his excellent essay “Independent Bookstore as Essential Political Act,” Scott Esposito notes how Cody’s Books “played a major role as a refuge and first-aid station during the Berkeley anti-Vietnam protests of the 1970s and …was firebombed for pointedly supporting Salman Rushdie’s right to free expression when a fatwa was leveled against him for his novel The Satanic Verses.”  Or, how Chicago’s Seminary Co-op “is a member-owned cooperative with 50,000 US participants and thousands more around the world.” This role was thrown into relief after the recent election. Whether it’s the books booksellers put on display—Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here and Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism have been popular and timely choices—the writers, artists, and academics that get invited to speak, the social media posts, or the donations made to groups like Planned Parenthood and the ACLU, indies across the country have found various ways to respond to the current political moment. The store where I work has done a combination of these and other things and has started a Sunday book club centered on socio-politically aware books (Hasan Namir’s God in Pink and Rebecca Solnit’s The Mother of All Questions have been recent selections). If so inclined, one can look at these efforts merely as cynical attempts to cash in on a particularly vulnerable political climate, but because I’m enmeshed in the bookstore world, I find these efforts commendable, no matter how small they might be.

Such gestures are not unprecedented or even exclusive to left-leaning businesses. As Chick-Fil-A, Hobby Lobby, and various bakeries that sell straights-only wedding cakes have demonstrated, there are plenty of business that will risk hurting sales for the sake of reactionary politics. And if, despite initial protests and boycotts, the public has shown it is willing to ignore homophobic and anti-choice practices for chicken sandwiches and cheap arts-and-crafts, respectively, then it’s likely it might also be amenable to the people selling them books having honest-to-god political points of view. Because, ultimately, what separates bookstores from fast-food chains and other retailers is the products they sell—bookstores traffic in ideas. Even if bookstores were to quixotically aim for some sanitized idea of bipartisanship (and make no mistake that this is what Amazon is trying and failing to do with its brick-and-mortar stores), every decision—what to stock, what to display, how to lay out the various sections, what events to host, etc.—is inherently a political one, because unlike chicken sandwiches, books have an intellectual use-value that extends beyond their physical components. Moreover, these decisions are made by human beings who have been constructed by layers of ideology. To expect them to also operate with the same blank efficiency as a self-checkout machine feels misguided.

Human beings can also err, even when their intentions are admirable. Back when frosted-tipped, neo-Nazi Milo Yiannopoulos had a memoir coming out through Simon & Schuster (before it was canned on account of his pederast-sympathetic comments), San Francisco indie, The Booksmith, announced on its blog that they were refusing to stock or special-order the book, reducing their orders with S&S by 50 percent, and donating 4o percent of all S&S sales to the ACLU. While the former choice makes sense, and the lattermost is commendable, the middle one gives me pause. While I understand the message being sent—there are repercussions to publishing purveyors of hate speech—it strikes me as too sweeping and unfocused a gesture to really be effective. Like any major publishing house, S&S is home to dozens of imprints and hundreds of thousands of titles. Even if a partial boycott does affect S&S’s bottom line in any meaningful way, it also means carrying fewer Primo Levi titles, reducing the order for Jeremy Scahill and The Intercept’s investigation of drone warfare, The Assassination Complex; stocking less Jesmyn Ward, i.e. catching some of our most vital literary and political voices in the crossfire. This continues to hold true, as the Booksmith has doubled down on their promise even after Milo’s humbling, dissatisfied with S&S’s apology/ass-covering. I doubt the Booksmith has much concern for my contentions with their approach. Nor should they. What matters is that they targeted an issue they found important, consulted their staff and the community, and drafted and enacted a plan. Undoubtedly, they were aware of the customers they might be alienating, if not enraging, yet they chose to wield their economic weight regardless, embracing the potential of their store as a political space. And while it certainly helps their case that their target has built a reputation of hate speech and white nationalism, there is no reason why a softer, more personalized approach couldn’t be wielded against classist, poor-shaming books that have managed to gloss themselves with a veneer of bipartisan respectability—it would just involve some risk.

I am aware of the privilege that accompanies my fairly light moral compromise in purveying Vance’s book, but the question remains: is there any way I can use that privilege to benefit the bookstore, the customer, and myself, all at once? What have I done for the people looking for the answers Hillbilly Elegy claims to hold, and who am I to offer answers of my own? Certainly, I can continue to recommend alternative titles like the ones mentioned above; I can staff-pick books by Appalachian writers who tell their own stories, like Amy D. Clark’s Talking Appalachian: Voice, Identity, and Community or the novels and stories of Jill McCorkle; I can hide the stacks of Hillbilly Elegy in the back (if my boss is reading this, I’m just kidding). But I suspect that the most fundamental thing I can do is also perhaps the most trite: I can try to start conversations. Independent bookstores have continued to thrive in the face of the Amazon-ization of everything precisely because of their human component, and what is more human than honest-to-god conversation? But in order for this to be effective, it would require equal parts listening. Listening to what made the person gravitate towards the book in the first place, listening while withholding judgment, listening as if I don’t know all the answers.