Demand For Antiracist Literature Is Skyrocketing At Local Bookstores And Libraries One black-owned shop in Petworth and Silver Spring has fielded as many as 400 orders a day since antiracism protests began in May.
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NPR logo Demand For Antiracist Literature Is Skyrocketing At Local Bookstores And Libraries

Demand For Antiracist Literature Is Skyrocketing At Local Bookstores And Libraries

Books about antiracism have been flying off the virtual shelves in the last two weeks. Jessica Ruscello/Unsplash hide caption

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Jessica Ruscello/Unsplash

Before the pandemic, Loyalty Bookstore had seen about 50 online orders a week since its new website launched in October. When physical stores shut down in mid-March due to the pandemic, that number jumped to 300 to 400 per week.

In the last two weeks, thanks to a surge of interest in antiracism reading material, the store has been taking in that many online orders each day.

"Probably last Monday or Tuesday, the dam sort of broke," says Hannah Oliver Depp, who took over as owner of the Petworth shop in January 2019 and has since opened a second location in Silver Spring.

Nationwide protests that erupted following the May 25 killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police have prompted a wave of activism on a number of fronts. One aim is to convince skeptical or complacent white people to educate themselves about the history of systemic racism in America. Lists of books to read, as well as black-owned local businesses nationwide to support with dollars, have ricocheted across online publications and social media.

In overwhelming numbers, people have heeded the call, snapping up titles like Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, Ibram X. Kendi's How to Be an Antiracist, Layla F. Saad's Me and White Supremacy, Robin DiAngelo's White Fragility, and Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Global retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble, as well as sites like Bookshop.org, are out of stock on many of the most requested titles, and publishers are scrambling to print new editions to keep up with demand.

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Loyalty isn't the only local bookseller that's feeling the demand. Kramerbooks in Dupont Circle has also seen an uptick in sales around the protests, a store spokesperson said. Politics and Prose, D.C.'s largest independent bookseller, turned off its phones Monday to catch up on fulfilling orders. Its website says some orders may take two to three weeks to arrive.

Demand has also increased at D.C. libraries. From May 1 to 26, no more than seven people on a single day placed a hold on the White Fragility e-book, according to D.C. Public Library data. From May 27 to May 31, exactly 400 people placed a hold on the same title. Between June 1 and June 8, the same e-book was requested more than 2,900 times.

Hold requests on other antiracist titles in both e-book and audiobook form also spiked at the end of the month. Statistics for June aren't yet available.

The library system has since offered unlimited free copies of select antiracist e-books, including White Fragility. Libraries typically can't afford to purchase unlimited e-books from publishers because they're priced four or five times higher for libraries than they would be for the average consumer, says Richard Reyes-Gavilan, DCPL's executive director. In this case, the library system negotiated a new agreement with publishers.

Reyes-Gavilan says the current demand mirrors an uptick of interest in books about global politics after 9/11 and about the 1918 Spanish flu earlier this year. White Fragility has been a hot title since its release in 2018, but the current volume of checkouts is "indescribable," he says.

Many readers looking to purchase the books, meanwhile, have specifically sought to do so at black-owned bookstores. D.C. boasts several, including Loyalty; Charnice Milton Community Bookstore at Busboys and Poets in Anacostia; Mahogany Books in Anacostia; and Sankofa Video, Books & Cafe in Pleasant Plains.

Mahogany Books, which specializes in books by or about people of the African diaspora, posted on Instagram last week that the team is working "tirelessly" to fill orders.

"We've seen a tremendous increase, and I think it really is stemming from white people," Ramunda Lark Young, who co-owns the store with her husband Derrick, told Time magazine. "In light of recent events, a lot of people are now feeling a very visceral response in how they show up in this world, and how they see it from our lens."

The store has been suggesting lesser-known titles on its social media accounts, including titles for children and young adults. It's hosting a virtual event with How to Be an Antiracist author Kendi, who's discussing his new work Antiracist Baby.

Depp, of Loyalty Bookstore, has been thrilled that, during a period of focused attention on systemic racism, "a tiny part of adjusting to that is to think about what black small business means to the country," says Depp. "If I think about it too long, I start to cry."

An unexpected influx of cash couldn't come at a better time for Loyalty. Depp spent two months while stay-at-home orders were in effect working "around the clock" to ship books from her apartment. The store wasn't making enough money for her to pay her staff to help.

Depp says she struggled for six weeks making phone calls and sending emails to correct a clerical error that was preventing the federal Small Business Administration from delivering an approved loan she badly needed to pay her employees and keep her store afloat. The money finally showed up last Friday, she says.

Loyalty was among the many small businesses, including several in the D.C. area, that have struggled to access Paycheck Protection Program funds. The federal initiative was marred by administrative glitches and a funding structure that relies on private banks, which prioritize relationships with existing clients. Black-owned businesses suffered the brunt of these challenges.

Until the protests began, Depp wasn't convinced Loyalty would survive the summer. Now she's more optimistic, and expects the pace of sales to continue for months as activism persists. Some customers who eventually get their orders might prompt other people they know to make purchases as well.

On top of the exhaustion from working constantly, Depp has shouldered the "emotional labor" of guiding customers who call and email her asking for help finding antiracist literature.

"I appreciate their desire, but I also think, as with most customer services, you should Google that," she says.

She's burned out from working so much, but grateful for the enthusiasm. She's thrilled to see the protests forcing people who aren't black to confront painful truths black Americans like her face every day. She hopes people read the books they buy and recognize how much they can help black-owned businesses like hers, with even a small purchase.

"There's always the emotional weight of being black in America but especially right now that is exhausting," Depp says. "But also it's incredible that I'm not having to hand-sell books on antiracism. People are asking me for them."

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