Independent bookstores are often a pillar in their local communities, serving as a home base for book lovers to discover and discuss new and fresh ideas. So it’s pretty weird that a book store in Colorado appears to be in crisis about whether to support a very basic idea that isn’t new at all: how publicly to support the Black Lives Matter movement. This internal debate is, unfortunately for Tattered Cover Book Store, playing out very publicly online–as writers voice criticism of the store’s policy with one, The Vanishing Half author Brit Bennet, canceling her virtual appearance with the store on the same day it was scheduled.
After being relatively silent on protests surrounding the murder of George Floyd, the store’s co-owners. Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, two white people, released a statement explaining their silence, one of the many situations where“saying less” might have been the better option.
“Black Lives Matter,” it began. “We agree with, embrace, and believe that black lives matter. We reject the statement “All Lives Matter.” It manages to get worse from there:
More significant, though, is our nearly 50-year policy of not engaging in public debate. For Tattered Cover to shout this from the rooftops, to drape our spaces with banners proclaiming these simple and unalterable truths, would be anathema to a different principle that we also hold dear, and one that is central, we believe, to the role of an independent bookstore.
Our value to the community is to provide a place where access to ideas, and the free exchange of ideas, can happen in an uninhibited way. It’s not for us to determine which ideas in the pages on our shelves are valid and which are not. We leave that to you, our readers.
The statement goes on to detail all the many ways that Tattered Books’ leaders went out of their way to be silent on basic issues of human and civil rights, even when their voices would have made a difference in their local community. Inexplicably, they trot out this example about gun violence:
Ted Nugent, a controversial and outspoken advocate of gun rights, was scheduled to appear at Tattered Cover not long after the Columbine High School shooting — the first school shooting in what would be a horrifically sad trend of school shootings in the two decades to follow. Mr. Nugent’s comments about Columbine were both insensitive and abhorrent. Yet, despite staff opposition and the threat of violence, Tattered Cover went forward with the event.
The co-owners end the statement with a promise to do better and “promote a wider diversity of books” as well as “schedule a wider diversity of author events.” The problem with a promise like “wider diversity” is that it can mean absolutely anything; “wider” is a slippery word, while “diversity” does not serve as a direct response to supporting Black Lives Matter. It’s a vague suggestion made even vaguer by the inclusion of featuring more people from “all under-represented communities.” This entire argument is very, “Republicans buy sneakers too,” the response given by Michael Jordan when he was asked why he didn’t take a public stance in a local election that greatly impacted the black community. Racists, of course, write and buy books too.
One such author who is refusing to do any extra work for a store that champions silence is Brit Bennett who was scheduled to talk about her book The Vanishing Half on a live stream Monday night. Bennett wrote on Twitter, “Black lives matter and that isn’t up for debate.” Other writers like Roxane Gay, Hanif Abdurraqib, and children’s book author Kate Messner, have criticized the store’s stance “If someone thinks making a statement against racism is a “slippery slope” then they’re maybe not equipped to speak to the moment and should consider sitting it out,” wrote Abdurraqib.
This self-delusion that a bookstore can be entirely politically neutral is obviously nonsensical unless Tattered Cover carries every single book that was ever published in the history of the written word, giving them all equally prominent shelf space and marketing time. Meanwhile, some long time customers are now looking for a new place to shop. Enjoy spending your dollars at a black-owned bookstore in the future.