April 11, 2016

Oh, Poor North Carolina

by Alan Beatts

A fine local bookstore in North Carolina is suffering from the national reaction to a recent discriminatory law passed by the state legislature.  Though I understand the underlying  reasons, I think that there's some unfortunate ally-harming going on.  In a recent open letter, Linda-Marie Barrett, general manager of Malaprop's Bookstore, explained that authors canceling appearances could be very harmful and is perhaps not really justified.  http://www.shelf-awareness.com/issue.html?issue=2728#m32075

Speaking from personal experience, Malaprop's is a lovely shop that embodies everything that is good about independent bookstores.  It's located in Asheville, N.C., which is a hot-bed of liberal attitudes in a mostly conservative state.  Honestly, they might as well have a sign at the entrance to town saying, "San Franciscans Welcome".  But, due to the recent passage of HB2, many businesses, organizations and individuals have chosen to protest by refusing to do business in the state.  (For details about HB2 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Public_Facilities_Privacy_%26_Security_Act).  Probably the highest profile protest thus far was Bruce Springsteen's cancelation of his Greensboro concert  -- with only two days notice.

HB2 is a loathsome law.  The headlines about it have focused on bathroom access for transgender people but some of the other parts are much more serious.  Notably, it requires that a person's legal gender is fixed at birth and cannot be changed.  And it sharply restricts legal enforcement of the state's existing anti-discrimination statutes in the state courts.

I agree with the prevailing attitude that the best way to hit almost any government or organization is in the pocketbook and that refusing to conduct business in states that promote discrimination is an outstanding way to foster change.  But, just like anytime you start hitting someone or something, it's important to avoid collateral damage.

Bookstores have been a bastion of free expression and the free exchange of ideas from their very beginning.  Certainly, in the last century, bookstores have consistently stood up to attempts to censure thought, most notably in their resistance to banning books.  In addition, bookstores have opposed other attempts to restrict civil rights -- in the early part of this century many stores erased customer purchase records and stopped collecting that information due to concerns about over-reaching search warrants derived from the original Patriot Act.

Recently, Sherman Alexie canceled an event that he had scheduled with Malaprop's, for exactly the reasons you would expect.  While I applaud his convictions, both generally and in this specific case, I think that his situation is very different from Bruce Springsteen's.  We all know that bookselling has been suffering financial challenges for decades and we also know that independent bookstores are strong supporters of freedom of speech and other civil rights (with the exception of one type of specialty bookshop - I think you can guess what kind).  Author events are a hugely important source of income for bookstores.  They are also a critical part of a bookstore's mission to spread ideas and inspire readers and future writers.

I hope that other authors who might be considering canceling or refusing to do events in North Carolina would consider alternatives that would allow them to help overturn HB2 while still supporting the bookstores that are fellow-travelers in the fight for civil rights.  It seems to me that donating the royalty from each book sold to organizations opposed to HB2 would be a possibility; as would using the opportunity of a public event to speak out against HB2 and rally opposition.

It is ultimately the duty of each individual to decide what course their ethics demand and I support anyone who makes that sort of principled and ethical decision.  But I hope that my fellow professionals in the "business of words" will consider all the possibilities before making the decision to boycott North Carolina (or, for that matter, Mississippi).

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