11 Ways Bookstores Can Fight Censorship
Independent book retailers can take simple steps to push back against book bans.
With book bans on the rise, some independent book retailers have decided to join the fight against censorship.
In November of 2021, the Spotsylvania County School Board approved the ban of fourteen titles that contain LGBTQIA+ themes, claiming that these books are “sexually explicit” and, therefore, inappropriate for young readers. In response to the ban, Paul Cymrot, the owner of Riverby Books in Fredericksburg, Virginia, has been using his store’s social media accounts to publicize the book ban. Cymrot strongly believes that these “books are being carelessly and ignorantly banned.”
He explains, “We’ve been using the reach of the bookstore’s social media accounts to publicize the book banning, which has been happening with very little media coverage, very little public disclosure, and a large dose of administrative bluster and nonsense. This issue is so transparently a power-grab and a fringe-political attack on the schools that it has only been able to succeed while it occurs in the dark.” Since the ban, another (approximately) fifty tiles have been removed for consideration.
If you are an independent book retailer, there are ten ways that you, too, can bring light to censorship activities in your community:
1. Become Informed and Stay Up to Date
Which books are being challenged at the library? Have any of these books been banned? Learn the book reevaluation procedures and policies for the affected school district and determine if the school district is abiding by its own regulatory processes. Keep yourself informed on how this problem is impacting your local school districts and monitor ongoing developments. If you stay informed, you’ll be better prepared to handle any naysayers that come your way who might support censorship.
2. Attend a School Board Meeting
School librarians and student readers are in need of community support. When you attend a meeting, you’ll have a front-row seat to the censorship controversy. If you attend a meeting, you’ll have an opportunity to hear about the most recent challenges and bans, and you’ll be able to share your concerns during the public comments portion. You do not need to be a parent to attend a school board meeting; you can still attend these meetings as a concerned citizen in your community.
3. Contact Media Outlets
Share your thoughts with a favorite newspaper or magazine. An opinion editorial (op-ed) is a narrative essay written by an author interested in informing the reader about a topic or persuading the reader about an issue of concern. An op-ed gives you an opportunity to share your perspectives on censorship with a wide range of readers. Contact your local radio station, or reach out to other news outlets to share your opinions on this issue. Jan Bolga and Bob Roarty, owners of Atlanta Vintage Books, shared their thoughts on censorship efforts during an interview with NPR in 2022.
4. Sign or Create a Petition to Protect a Student’s Right to Read
A petition is a formal written request, signed by many individuals, requesting some kind of action be taken by an authority. Many petitions allow supporters to send in an additional note or comment with their signature. It is here that you can mention your unique position in this fight as an independent book retailer.
5. Launch a Postcard Protest
Postcard protests are similar to a petition in that they invite the participation of many supporters in order to be the most effective. Supporters will share their reasons for supporting the protest and include a signature on the card. The cards can then be mailed by protestors, or they can be mailed by the person or organization hosting the protest. Riverby Books (i.e., Cymrot’s store) has maintained an ongoing postcard protest in response to the school board’s book ban.
Sign the petition to fight book bans!
6. Give Banned Books to Those Who Have Lost Access to Them
Take a page from Cymrot’s book and begin offering “banned book bundles” at your store. Riverby Books offers copies of books banned by the school board to students and teachers for free; anyone else can purchase them at cost. The store makes no profit from the sale of these titles whilst these books remain in controversy.
7. Use Social Media as a Tool
It’s easy to create posts and send them into the ether of the internet for all to read or share content from other accounts and pages that we follow. Use your business social media accounts to highlight book banning activities in your community. (You can visit Riverby’s social media to gather inspiration on how to publicize bans in your community).
8. Create a Permanent “Banned Book” Retail Space
Malaprop Bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina, has created a designated retail space to make banned books available for sale to customers. This is a popular option that is sometimes also used by local libraries.
9. Offer Students a “Student Activist Guide” Resource
Empower your student readers by giving them the tools they need to stay informed about this ongoing issue. You can provide them with a list of anti-censorship resources (like this article) and information about any book bans in their communities. It is especially important that students know if their school board is adhering to preexisting review policies or if these policies are being ignored.
Send an email to your Representatives to show your support for libraries!
10. Host Free Events
Do you have an underused space in your shop or a sitting area that might accommodate a few friends? Get creative! Invite book clubs, keynote speakers, and local authors to use your shop as a meeting space for events. Ask that these guests consider using “literary advocacy” as a theme for their event.
11. Contact Your Local Representatives
Do a little research and gather together the contact emails of your local representatives. You can prepare your own email expressing your concerns about censorship or use this contact form created by EveryLibrary.
Do not feel limited by this list; you might have some ideas of your own worth exploring!
Cymrot, along with the American Civil Liberties Union, The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg’s local newspaper), and other groups, continue to publicize ongoing book banning efforts in Spotsylvania County in an effort to bring public awareness to the issue. He believes these efforts have paid off and explains, “We’ve seen the School Board retreat from their original stance that the books should be BURNED, to an awkward and incorrect reference to some State Laws, to a stony silence under which the Superintendent can act without oversight.”
For now, Cymrot and others are waiting for “either a School Board intervention to overturn the decision to ban the books, or a landslide in the upcoming elections & a chance to replace the book banners on the school board with public servants who trust the teachers and principals in their county.”
Words of Advice
Cymrot shares advice with other independent bookstore retailers: “Get involved. Speak up. Keep doing what you’ve been doing all along, but do it louder and prouder — make sure that anyone who makes a case for banning a book has actually read the book — and encourage others to read it too. Look into the book reevaluation procedures in your local school system and public library system and make sure there are checks and balances that ensure that a lone individual cannot scuttle the whole system with a barrage of challenges.”
Visit www.everylibrary.org to learn more about our work on behalf of libraries.
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