Tanzina Vega: You're listening to The Takeaway. I'm Tanzina Vega. Last summer, we saw an explosion in popularity of anti-racist books, following the killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests against police brutality and systemic racism. From Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist to Robin DeAngelo's White Fragility to Ijeoma Oluo So You Want to Talk About Race, books about racism and anti-racism flew off the shelves at libraries and bookstores across the country as many people started grappling with the country's history of systemic racism, some for the first time, and you told us about it.
Wendy: Hi, this is Wendy from Miami. Over the summer I read How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram Kendi. I probably drove my family crazy because I walked around the house and read aloud to them out of the book, but I found it very valuable. I really learned mostly that it's not about what's in your heart, it's not about not harboring hostile feelings toward people of other races. It's really about actively working to disassemble these systems that make people suffer on needlessly. I found it valuable and I encourage other people to read the book. Even if you disagree with it or pieces of it, it's really important to open your eyes I think.
Polly: This is Polly from Connecticut. Two books that I've read in the past year are Waking Up White and White Fragility. Both of them didn't really speak to me as a white Anglo-Saxon American. The part that didn't really connect was that they're both about 20 years, a whole generation older than me. I'm searching for a book that is written by a younger author who can relay experiences that I can understand that better because it's what I've lived or what I've seen in the news and the world around me in my lifetime.
Tanzina Vega: Here to talk all things anti-racist books are Katherine D. Morgan, a freelance writer and a former bookseller at Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. Katherine, thanks for joining us.
Katherine D. Morgan: Thank you for having me.
Tanzina Vega: Also with us as Hannah Oliver Depp, owner of Loyalty Bookstores in Washington, D.C. and Silver Spring, Maryland. Hannah, welcome to the show.
Hannah Oliver Depp: Excited to be here. Thank you,
Tanzina Vega: Katherine, why did we see such an overwhelming demand for these books? I guess that's an obvious question, right?
Katherine D. Morgan: I want to say a little bit, but I think that we saw an overwhelming demand for them. Definitely because of George Floyd's death that happened in the beginning of the pandemic, or like in the May, I believe, so not really beginning. I think that we saw it because a lot of people had more time to read and they were able to witness the actual death that was occurring. I think that people were finally starting to wake up and realize that Black people weren't lying about police brutality, in a weird way.
Tanzina Vega: Hannah, you're literally in a bookstore. First of all, I hope you're staying safe, given all of the inaugural activities happening, but you own Loyalty Bookstores in Washington, D.C., in Silver Spring, Maryland. Did you start to notice a change in who was coming into your bookstore and what they were buying?
Hannah Oliver Depp: Well, we were actually at the beginning of it. We're still closed, we are a non-essential business and this is still fairly early on. We saw an uptick in these kinds of orders, which are the core business that we do at Loyalty anyway. These are the books that are the core backlist and frontlist titles. At first, I honestly thought we were just getting an uptick in orders. This actually started for us around the time of the horrific murder of Ahmaud Arbery. Then that was followed in quick succession by George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.
It became very clear that we were getting orders not just from our immediate community in the DMD, but also getting orders from Colorado and California, and Detroit. In some cases, we were actually pointing people to Black-owned businesses that they didn't know where they are, that they could support, like, "I know you have a Black bookstore in your town," but it was a fairly sudden increase in orders from both people discovering that they had a bookstore in their town that they were excited about.
Then also, a lot of people asking how they could order from us, what was going on, were we open, were we not open. It was definitely an increase, but also really complicated by the fact that we were actually shipping only at that point due to the pandemic.
Tanzina Vega: Katherine, you spoke to bookstore owners like Hannah for your piece and Literary Hub about this. Did you hear similar experiences to what Hannah is describing?
Katherine D. Morgan: I definitely heard similar experiences. A lot of bookstores that I talked to were very grateful for the uptick, just because especially when the pandemic began, a lot of bookstores closed, they weren't open to selling to the public. A lot of bookstores are really grateful for the uptick because you had people who weren't necessarily just buying like one book or buying a novelty item.
They had people who were buying multiple books about the same subject. A lot of bookstores where I feeling like this was keeping them afloat. I quoted one in the article that I wrote where someone said that it kept them afloat all summer. They were very grateful for the uptick.
Tanzina Vega: Let me just interject there for a second. Hannah, was that the case for you? Did you notice that not just what people were buying more books, but that they were-- it was actually making a difference in your bottom line?
Hannah Oliver Depp: Yes. In the short term. One of the complicated things about bookselling is because we don't have really actually a profit margin on our main item, which is books, independent bookstores get a terrible discount from publishers. It's a much bigger story that we can go into, but due to that, it massively increased our, which was a godsend in the summer and rescued us entirely. We were still struggling to wrestle our PPP loan actually. I was able to bring some staff back because I had been working solo since March to try to keep the store afloat. We were able to bring staff back. It was great.
Tanzina Vega: Thank you, Hannah. Katherine, I'm curious where people buying these more in bookstores for a purpose. Did they want to support Black and brown bookstore owners or was it because they weren't able to find them on places like Amazon or what was the bookstore connection?
Katherine D. Morgan: I think a lot of times people were buying from Black-owned bookstores because it made sense to them, which if you're going to buy a book about anti-racism, you should probably buy it from people who have experienced racism. I think that Amazon, of course, is selling a lot of them as well, but I think people are really wanting to give back to the community and give back to people who were affected by the actual issues in the book.
Tanzina Vega: It's been a few months since the uprising over the summer for racial justice. Are you still seeing interest in these books?
Hannah Oliver Depp: Absolutely. Yes. I think a lot of folks who discovered this over the summer has stayed with us and they've gone from reading one of the books they vaguely heard about on Instagram to actually seeking out deeper reading on the matter. The volume has died down, but the folks who have committed are certainly actually committed. There's a dramatic drop that happened around August, September but we certainly, and I've spoken to other bookstores, we certainly retained a good amount of interest, frankly, more than I was expecting. I had very low expectations of how many people were going to keep pursuing this.
Tanzina Vega: I'm wondering, Hannah, also, if people go as the entry point using an anti-racist book as maybe the entry point both into your business and into the idea of anti-racism, and then perhaps come across other books by Black authors that have nothing to do with that, that are fiction, that are science fiction, that are nonfiction, and realize there's a whole other world of authors that they haven't even explored. Are you noticing that as well?
Hannah Oliver Depp: That's what we're trying. That's literally the point of the bookstore. Yes. We try to expose them to Black fantasy, Black joy, Black children's picture books. There is a whole world of Blackness that literally has been existing and whiteness has completely ignored. It's really, really wonderful to be able to show people, "Oh, you love romance, you love fantasy, you love detective fiction. There are Black stories there too."
Tanzina Vega: Katherine, what about you? You were a bookseller at the time. What was it like when you were interacting with customers? Did you feel like people were there because they needed to be there, they felt pressured to be there, they had good intentions but were somewhat confused? Tell me about that.
Katherine D. Morgan: When this all happened, I had actually been laid off from Powell's for a few months because of the pandemic. I was actually working for a company called bookshop.org. All of my customer interactions were online. It was all email-based. I had a very different experience daily with customers. Just because I felt like a lot of them were-- I mean, a lot of customers were super understanding just because books were back-ordered for a really long time, just because of the push that was happening with the anti-racism books.
When I was working at Powell's, we were selling quite a few of these anti-racism books. Like White Fragility was really popular there. The author came to speak at Powell's and it was a crowd about 200 people. For me, it was when I was dealing with the anti-racism books and what inspired the article that I wrote for Lithub was the fact that a lot of the customers were really kind, but I did have some customers who were very much distraught about the fact that they couldn't find the books anywhere.
Then, when I tried to offer them other resources or offer them other titles or things like that, they didn't want to see them or take them just because they didn't-- they were like, "Well, I need this exact book for my book club. What am I going to do?" That kind of attitude. I was like, "Well, I don't know." I was like, "Well, no one has the book." I was like, "Maybe you could ask a friend who has a book." It was just a confusing time because I was like, "Well, these books have been out for a year or two and you can buy digital books."
Tanzina Vega: The book club is in high demand.
Katherine D. Morgan: Yes.
Tanzina Vega: Hannah what assuming here that the majority of the people who are buying these books are not people of color, are not Black people who are buying books about how to be anti-racist. I know, with the understanding that a lot of this work was being done online, but I imagine that there are other groups of people of color who may also be wanting to know more about the struggle for Black liberation in the United States?
Hannah Oliver Depp: Absolutely. Now we saw a dramatic increase in white folks paying attention to this, but there was also deeper reading happening of people who either were already on their journey or perhaps hadn't really explored what Black liberation might mean for them on a micro level within their community, so that was definitely happening. The fact that we were doing this online, a lot of the time complicated things, it made customer interactions much harder. People tend to fly off the handle a lot faster when they're talking to somebody over email or over a digital chat as opposed to face-to-face.
Tanzina Vega: Were they also upset that they didn't have the books in time for the book club or were there other issues you were dealing with?
Hannah Oliver Depp: Yes. I actually had one woman tell me she can't fix racism if I don't get her this book so I should work harder.
Tanzina Vega: That's a big undertaking.
Hannah Oliver Depp: Yes, she was single-handedly going to fix it by reading White Fragility, which is not actually what White Fragility is about. She definitely needed a copy, but there was definitely a disconnect in the desire to support Black businesses and understanding what that actually looks like in real life. We had a pandemic, literally books are still constantly back-ordered due to the pandemic, and due to printing in the US and internationally. It's very, very hard to switch people over who are used to thinking that there's just a blob of customer service that's going to help them versus interacting with real people.
Tanzina Vega: Well, let's talk a little bit about that, Katherine, because I'm wondering if some of this is people saying, well-intentioned people saying, "I've got to do something. I've got to learn something about this," reaching out, getting the books for the book club in time, but it feels like that may not be enough. Doesn't it have to be part of a broader commitment or is just doing the reading, as we say online, enough?
Katherine D. Morgan: I think that it has to be part of a broader conversation, just because I felt like a lot of times people would buy the books, and not necessarily read them, or they would buy the books and read them, but they wouldn't put anything into practice. For me, it was hard because I was like, "Okay, you started doing the work at least and then you just stopped there." Then people would post like the black square on Instagram for blackout day and they were like, "You know, I did something." We were like, "Well, you didn't really do anything. We need you to do more work."
I even had people who were coming to me, they were just like, "Well, I did these two things." I'm like, "Great. You have to continue doing the work. Are you donating to charities? Are you getting involved with communities? Are you supporting Black-owned businesses." There's just so many steps that are involved with it, but I think it can be really overwhelming to people. I think that for a lot of people, Black, white, whoever, a lot of people will just-- they'll start the work and they'll feel good about it and then once they realize that there's more work to be done, I don't think everyone fully is ready to commit to actually what the undertaking of how to be anti-racist is.
Tanzina Vega: Goes beyond the pages. Hannah Oliver Depp is the owner of Loyalty Bookstores in Washington D.C. and Silver Spring, Maryland. Katherine D. Morgan is a freelance writer and former bookseller at Powell's books in Portland, Oregon. Katherine and Hannah. Thank you for joining me.
Katherine D. Morgan: Thank you.
Hannah Oliver Depp: Thank you.
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