Monday, July 15, 2019
Friday, July 12, 2019
I Found My American Dream at the Public Library
Daniela Petrova's Love Letter to the Library
July 12, 2019
In his op-ed for Forbes last year, Panos Mourdoukoutas, a professor of economics at LIU Post in New York, suggested that Amazon stores should replace libraries to save taxpayers money. Following the backlash this preposterous suggestion created, Forbes took the article down. But the outpouring of love for libraries in response to the piece was priceless, reconfirming the intrinsic role of libraries in the fabric of American communities.
Libraries were instrumental to my experience as an immigrant and I rejoiced watching social media explode with messages in defense of the local library as a cornerstone of our democracy.
One of the hardest aspects in the life of an immigrant is not fully belonging anywhere. One foot stays firmly rooted in your country of origin no matter how hard you plant the other one in the host country. Even though I’ve lived in the United States for 24 years, the first thing people ask upon meeting me, courtesy of my accent, is “Where are you from?” And when I go back to Bulgaria, everyone calls me The American. But there is one place where I always feel at home—the library. Any library. Anywhere in the world. The familiar smell of books, the shelves packed with old and new tomes, the friendly staff eager to help.
I. Local libraries provide a refuge and a community
I grew up in Bulgaria during the Communist years and when, in the spring of 1995, I arrived in New York at the age of 22, barely speaking any English, the culture shock nearly knocked me off my feet: there were the skyscrapers (the tallest building I’d seen was 24 floors); the cars (my family didn’t own a car and for the first year in New York, I considered it the greatest luxury to take a ride outside the city even if for only 30 minutes); the grocery aisles stuffed with all types of food, ten different brands for each item (in the years before I’d immigrated, we’d had a shortage of basic goods, like milk, and the government had issued a restriction on the number of bottles one could purchase). I didn’t know what a credit card was, nor a check. I didn’t understand the concept of health insurance. I’d never touched a computer. I’d never eaten a burger, a doughnut, a bagel.
Feeling lonely and isolated, I found refuge in the Yorkville branch of the New York Public Library. It was the only familiar place in this foreign land.
I didn’t know a soul except for my husband. He was the superintendent of a luxury building on the Upper East Side where we had a tiny apartment on the ground floor. Our neighbors rode in limousines and if they ever encountered me in the lobby, they averted their gazes without so much as a nod in greeting. My job as a cleaning lady didn’t exactly help in meeting people either. This was long before cell phones and social media. While many people in America had computers and some had AOL emails, I didn’t even know what an email was. The letters I wrote to my friends and family in Bulgaria took two weeks to travel in each direction.
Feeling lonely and isolated, I found refuge in the Yorkville branch of the New York Public Library. It was the only familiar place in this foreign land. Here, among the shelves of books, even if I didn’t speak to people, I felt comfortable. Like I belonged. We were a community of readers, regardless of our maiden tongues, our religion, our age or the color of our skin. The Yorkville library was not that different from the one where I’d checked out my first books as a kid in Sofia. All you needed was a library card, and you could read as many books as you wanted.
II. Libraries are free
Because libraries are free no one is excluded from their services. Children, people with disabilities, the elderly, the poor, the rich, everyone can join. In those early years in America, when I bought my clothes in thrift stores and furnished my apartment with the chairs and carpets my wealthy neighbors discarded, my local library was the only place where I didn’t feel poor, foreign, lesser. As librarian Amanda Oliver pointed out in her Twitter response to the Forbes op-ed, the library is “one of few places in our society where the underserved can be treated with dignity and respect.”
Public libraries erase privilege, providing access to information to those who cannot afford to purchase their own books, computers, WiFi. I learned a lot of my English by checking out novels I had previously read in Bulgarian—War and Peace, Crime and Punishment, Martin Eden—poring over the familiar stories, figuring out the meaning of the words as I went along.
III. Libraries can empower the disenfranchised
Libraries provide free access to information and that includes not only books and magazines, but also computers, WiFi, films, research databases, and invaluable human guidance. I learned how to write a resume by consulting different guides before sitting down at the automatic typewriter I had at home and typing it up using just two fingers. Following that experience, I checked out a book on how to type and started practicing.
While access to information is very important it is not enough. You need to know what to search for and where to search for it.
I’d dropped out of the architecture and civil engineering university I was attending in Sofia in my third year to come to New York, naively thinking that I would continue my education in America. It didn’t take me long to realize how out of reach my goal was. I had difficulties finding a job as a cleaning lady; saving enough money for college was out of the question. My break came when I told one of my clients about my background in architecture. He’d recently made a donation to the Thomas J. Watson Library at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and asked the head of the Periodicals Department if they could use someone with a background in architecture who spoke Bulgarian and Russian. A couple of weeks later, I was accepted as a volunteer; and soon thereafter, I was offered a part-time job.
The Watson Library became my home, the staff my family. I learned to use a computer there, taking staff education classes in MS Word and Excel. I learned to make small talk. I made friends. My vocabulary expanded. I was using words like “acquisitions” and “deaccession” on an everyday basis. A couple of years later, the head of the cataloguing department, where I was assisting at the time and who knew I was eager to go back to school, sat me down at a computer with Internet access. She pulled up Columbia University’s website and explained that if I worked for the university, I’d be eligible to take two classes per semester for free. She also showed me where to search for employment opportunities. Thanks to her, I applied and got a full-time job at the Butler Library. Soon after, I was accepted into the General Studies program of the university from where I graduated with honors, summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa.
I would have never known about any of these opportunities without the help of so many people who steered me in the right direction. Local librarians know the needs of their patrons and can guide them to the information that might be most helpful in their specific situation and where to look for it.
The libraries in New York provided me with community—both as a patron and an employee—engendering a sense of belonging at a time at when I knew close to no one in the country and felt foreign nearly 24 hours a day. Libraries are the cornerstones of democracy, where all people—regardless of income, race and religion—are welcome. To me, they’re also the one place where I truly feel at home.
Her Mother’s Daughter, by Daniela Petrova, is available from G.P. Putnam.
Thursday, July 11, 2019
'It is important for upcoming activists to study American history, as well as political and philosophical thought. It is unlikely that what you hope to accomplish is new. Current activism is almost always linked to the history of revolution worldwide, and Americans have a special connection to this legacy because our nation was born out of the struggle against tyranny.'
― John Lewis
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
From an interview with Toni Morrison in Granta, a British literary quarterly:
Listening to you reading your stories underscores the orality and musicality of your storytelling. Do you intend your writing to be read out loud?
I intend the reader to hear it. I come from a house in which they did that all the time. I remember the story about my grandfather, about whom it was always said – with pride – that he had read the Bible from cover to cover. Five times. I knew at some point that it was illegal for black people to read. And it was illegal for white people to teach them to read. You could go to jail or be fined.
My grandfather didn’t go to school. He went one day, and that was to tell the teacher he wouldn’t be back. He would rely on his sister to teach him to read. They called him Big Papa. And I was thinking, much later: What else could he read? There were no books, no libraries. There was just the Bible. But at the same time, it was an act of taking power back.
Monday, July 8, 2019
With my hurt left shoulder in need of surgery, I've had to adjust. I've had to peel an orange with my right hand. The biggest concern I've had is what about the sign? Will I be able to hold it? It wants to be seen. I went twice last week with it and held it with one hand, sometimes resting it against my legs. It rained today but I'll go out with it till I have to have my surgery next week. Like I say, it wants to be seen.
Saturday, July 6, 2019
‘Everyone’s talking about the death and disappearance of the book as a format and an object. I don’t think that will happen. I think whatever happens, we have to figure out a way to protect our imaginations. Stories and poetry do that. You need a language in this world. People want words, they want to hear their situation in language, and find a way to talk about it. It allows you to find a language to talk about your own pain.--Jeanette Winterson
If you give kids a language, they can use it. I think that’s what these educators fear. If you really educate these kids, they aren’t going to punch you in the face, they are going to challenge you with your own language.’
Wednesday, July 3, 2019
For years, I declined to fill in the form for my Senate press credential that asked me to state my 'race,' unless I was permitted to put 'human.' The form had to be completed under penalty of perjury, so I could not in conscience put 'white,' which is not even a color let alone a 'race,' and I sternly declined to put 'Caucasian,' which is an exploded term from a discredited ethnology. Surely the essential and unarguable core of King's campaign was the insistence that pigmentation was a false measure: a false measure of mankind (yes, mankind) and an inheritance from a time of great ignorance and stupidity and cruelty, when one drop of blood could make you 'black.'
― Christopher Hitchens
Monday, July 1, 2019
'As immigrant artists for whom so much has been sacrificed, so many dreams have been deferred, we already doubt so much. Who do we think we are? We think we are people who risked not existing at all. People who might have had a mother and father killed, either by a government or nature, even before we were born. Some of us think we are accidents of literacy. I do.'
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Monday, June 24, 2019
The reason I obsess over the New York Public Library's paltry hours, like late morning starts, slim evening hours, and no Sunday hours, is that it shows a lack of determination on everyone's part. Something's not being done to get the library's hours up to where they should be. Even if money's the reason. And, of course, that will be the reason given. Same thing about kids and reading in the city's schools. Something's not being done.
Sunday, June 23, 2019
Friday, June 21, 2019
It was raining a little outside my window early this morning like the phone showed it would be. But I went downtown with my sign anyway because maybe it would stop even though the phone had blue rain coming out of little clouds all morning. There was an older Asian woman selling umbrellas out of a cart just outside where I came up from the subway. She can't speak English, but her grandchild may go to Penn or Dartmouth. I wasn't outside for five minutes, I hadn't even taken my sign out of the big plastic bag, when I gave in and headed back downstairs to the subway and home. The Asian woman held an umbrella over her head as she stood next to her cart.
Thursday, June 20, 2019
I was gone almost two weeks. Wyoming to see my daughter and three granddaughters. Then the death of a friend in Cleveland and there for the funeral. I was back on Chambers Street with the sign this morning. You wonder as you stand there why society doesn't do everything it can for kids. Everything at whatever expense. We say that kids are the future and all that. Then there shouldn't be a need for charter schools. We don't do everything. We don't go to the mat for kids.
Wednesday, June 19, 2019
from Ralph Ellison's Juneteenth:
'We shall demonstrate once again that in this great, inventive land man’s idlest dreams are but the blueprints and mockups of emerging realities, technologies and poems. Here in the fashion of our pioneer forefathers, who confronted the mysteries of wilderness, mountain and prairie with crude tools and a self-generating imagination, we are committed to facing with courage the enormous task of imposing an ever more humane order upon this bewilderingly diversified and constantly changing society. Committed we are to maintaining its creative momentum.'
Monday, June 17, 2019
'My inspiration for writing music is like Don McLean did when he did "American Pie" or "Vincent". Lorraine Hansberry with "A Raisin in the Sun". Like Shakespeare when he does his thing, like deep stories, raw human needs.
I'm trying to think of a good analogy. It's like, you've got the Vietnam War, and because you had reporters showing us pictures of the war at home, that's what made the war end, or that shit would have lasted longer. If no one knew what was going on we would have thought they were just dying valiantly in some beautiful way. But because we saw the horror, that's what made us stop the war.
So I thought, that's what I'm going to do as an artist, as a rapper. I'm gonna show the most graphic details of what I see in my community and hopefully they'll stop it quick.
I've seen all of that-- the crack babies, what we had to go through, losing everything, being poor, and getting beat down. All of that. Being the person I am, I said no no no no. I'm changing this.'
Sunday, June 16, 2019
Thursday, June 13, 2019
Wednesday, June 12, 2019
NYC's Libraries Battle Against $11M Budget Cut
Libraries say the reduced funding could lead to cutbacks on weekends. "You can just get so much blood from a stone," one official said.
New York City's public library systems face the opposite problem: The upcoming municipal budget could leave them with a lack of cash that may result in cuts to programs like the story time Johnson held.
Mayor Bill de Blasio's executive budget for the 2020 fiscal year includes about $387.1 million for the New York Public Library, the Queens Public Library, the Brooklyn Public Library and city research libraries. That's about $11.7 million less than the library funding that ended up in the current year's budget, records show.
The reduction would deliver a blow to libraries following an expansion of their services and physical footprints in recent years, forcing them to cut hours and programs that patrons depend on, library officials say.
"Our communities have come to rely on what we're doing today. We'd like to continue at that level," Linda E. Johnson, the Brooklyn Public Library's president and CEO, said at a rally last month.
Bolstering library funding is a top priority for the City Council as it negotiates the budget with the de Blasio administration. The Democratic mayor and the council must agree on a budget before the new fiscal year begins July 1.
Lawmakers have joined the libraries in calling for City Hall to add $27 million in library funding and baseline another $8 million that the council threw into the current budget. Continuing to support libraries should also be a priority for de Blasio, who is campaigning for president as a progressive leader, council members argue.
"Libraries are one of the most egalitarian things, not just about New York City but about society," Johnson, a Democrat, said June 6. "And libraries are a gateway to new immigrants, libraries are laboratories for learning, libraries are places for children and for seniors. They're free, and it's really about greater personal education and evolution."
City funding accounts for the majority of the budgets of all three major library systems. All of them have built new and larger facilities, with the de Blasio administration's approval, that require extra books and staff, said Iris Weinshall, the New York Public Library's chief operating officer.
The libraries also offer many services including some that de Blasio has championed, such as immigration counseling and work with the city's Thrive NYC mental health initiative, according to Weinshall.
The cuts could particularly affect libraries' weekend service. Seven of the New York Public Library's 88 branches in Manhattan, The Bronx and Staten Island are currently open on Sundays, but that number would likely drop to zero if the budget forced cuts, Weinshall said. The library may also have to reduce Saturday hours, she added.
Those reductions could affect kids — libraries saw more than 1.1 million visits to story times and other free early literacy programs in the 2018 fiscal year, about 10 percent of which came on weekends, the NYPL says.
"You can just get so much blood from a stone," Weinshall said. "You just have so much staff and so many hours in the day, and if we don't have the staff to be able to cover these branches, we will have to cut back on hours."
Weinshall and Johnson conceded that de Blasio has been good to the libraries during his tenure. His administration has increased city funding for libraries by nearly 30 percent and made a significant investment in their infrastructure, according to City Hall.
"We've made a record level of investments in the City's libraries," de Blasio spokesman Raul Contreras said in a statement. "This includes funding for six-day service in every borough, and investing more than $1 billion over the next ten years for facility improvements across the three systems. We're in regular contact with the libraries about their needs, and look forward to continuing our conversation with the City Council."
But that hasn't stopped library officials from pushing hard for more.
The NYPL says New Yorkers have signed more than 70,000 letters demanding increases in library funding. Their campaign has gotten support from celebrities including "Sex and the City" star Sarah Jessica Parker, a faithful patron of Greenwich Village's Jefferson Market Library.
"People feel very passionate and very close to their local library," Weinshall said. "It becomes a part of their lives.
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Ta-Nehisi, for those who may not have read the article five years ago, what, exactly, is the case that you make for reparations—which is a word that’s been around for a long, long time?
The case I make for reparations is, virtually every institution with some degree of history in America, be it public, be it private, has a history of extracting wealth and resources out of the African-American community. I think what has often been missing—this is what I was trying to make the point of in 2014—that behind all of that oppression was actually theft. In other words, this is not just mean. This is not just maltreatment. This is the theft of resources out of that community. That theft of resources continued well into the period of, I would make the argument, around the time of the Fair Housing Act.
So what year is that?
That’s 1968. There are a lot of people who—
But you’re not saying that, between 1968 and 2019, everything is hunky-dory.
I’m not saying everything was hunky-dory at all! But if you were speaking to the most intellectually honest dubious person—because, you have to remember, what I’m battling is this idea that it ended in 1865.
With emancipation and the end of the war?
With the emancipation, yes, yes, yes. And the case I’m trying to make is, within the lifetime of a large number of Americans in this country, there was theft.
A lot of your article was about Chicago housing policy. It was a very technical analysis of housing policy. When people talked to me about the article—and I could tell they hadn’t read it—“So, Ta-Nehisi’s making a case for”—no, no, no, I said. First and foremost, it’s a dissection of a particular policy that’s emblematic of so many other policies.
Right, right. So, out of all of those policies of theft, I had to pick one. And that was really my goal. And the one I picked was housing, was our housing policy. Again, we have this notion that housing as it exists today sort of sprung up from black people coming north, maybe not finding the jobs that they wanted, and thus forming, you know, some sort of pathological culture, and white people, just being concerned citizens, fled to the suburbs. But beneath that was policy! The reason why black people were confined to those neighborhoods in the first place, and white people had access to neighborhoods further away, was because of political decisions. The government underwrote that, through F.H.A. loans, through the G.I. Bill. And that, in turn, caused the devaluing of black neighborhoods, and an inability to access credit, to even improve neighborhoods.
Now, your article starts with someone who lived through these racist policies, a man named Clyde Ross. Tell us the story of Clyde Ross. How did he react to the article?
So, Mr. Ross was living on the West Side of Chicago.
He started out in Mississippi.
Started out in Mississippi, in the nineteen-twenties, born in Mississippi under Jim Crow. His family lost their land, had their land basically stolen from them, had his horse stolen from him. He goes off, fights in World War II, comes back, like a lot of people, says, “I can’t live in Clarksdale[, Mississippi]—I just can’t be here. I’m gonna kill somebody or I’m gonna get killed.” Comes up to Chicago. In Chicago, all of the social conventions of Jim Crow are gone. You don’t have to move off the street because somebody white is walking by, doesn’t have to take his hat off or look down or anything like that, you know. Gets a job at Campbell’s Soup Company, and he wants the, you know, the last emblem of the American Dream—he wants homeownership. Couldn’t go to the bank and get a loan like everybody else.
And he was making a decent wage.
There’s such a moving moment in the piece where he’s sitting with you and he admits, “We were ashamed. We did not want anyone to know that we were that ignorant,” and felt that his ignorance had extended to his understanding of life in America, in Chicago, which had seemed, to use the phrase of the Great Migration, the Promised Land.
Right, right. And he felt like a sucker. And he felt stupid, just as anybody would. And I don’t think he knew, on the level, the extent to which the con actually went. And then living in a community of people—and this was somebody getting a piece—but living in a community of people who were being ripped off. And they couldn’t talk about it to each other because they wanted to maintain this sort of façade, or this front, that they owned their homes, not that somebody else actually held the deed. And so for a long time there was a great period of silence about it.
Did Mr. Ross react to your piece?
Yeah, he did.
What did he say?
He said reparations will never happen.
So, in the aftermath of the piece—piece comes out, fifteen thousand words in The Atlantic, tremendous interest in it. You said this about the piece, I think it was in the Washington Post. You said, “When I wrote ‘The Case for Reparations,’ my notion wasn’t that you could actually get reparations passed, even in my lifetime. My notion was that you could get people to stop laughing.” What did you mean?
Well, I mean, it was a Dave Chappelle joke, you know? And what the joke was was, if black people got reparations, all the silly, dumb things that they would actually do.
You know, buy cars, buy rims, fancy clothes, as though other people don’t do those things. And once I started researching not just the fact of plunder but actually the history of the reparations fight, which literally goes back to the American Revolution—George Washington, when he dies, in his will, he leaves things to those who were enslaved. It wasn’t a foreign notion that if you had stripped people of something you might actually owe them something. It really only became foreign after the Civil War and emancipation. And so this was quite a dignified idea, and actually an idea there was quite a bit of literature on. And the notion that it was somehow funnier, I thought, really, really diminished what was a serious, trenchant, and deeply, deeply perceptive idea.
If you visited Israel between the fifties and a certain time, you would see Mercedes-Benz taxis all over the country, and you’d wonder. This is not a particularly rich country, at least not yet. This was reparations—this was part of the reparations payment from Germany to Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Holocaust, Second World War. What do reparations look like now?
Right, because they gave them vouchers to buy German goods, right.
What’s being asked for? The rewriting of textbooks, the public discussion—what? In terms of policy, how do you look at it?
So first you need the actual crime documented. You need the official imprimatur of the state: they say this actually happened. I just think that’s a crucial, crucial first step. And the second reason you have a commission is to figure out how we pay it back. I think it’s crucial to tie reparations to specific acts—again, why you need a study. This is not ‘I checked black on my census, therefore’—I’ll give you an example of this. For instance, we have what I would almost call a pilot, less significant reparations program right now, actually running in Chicago. Jon Burge, who ran this terrible unit of police officers that tortured black people and sent a lot of innocent black people to jail over the course of I think twenty or so years. And then, once he was found out, in Chicago there was a reparations plan put together with victims, [who] were actually given reparations. But, in addition to that, crucial to that, they changed how they taught history. You had to actually teach Jon Burge. You had to actually teach people about what happened. So it wasn’t just the money. There was some sort of—I hesitate to say educational, but I guess that’s the word we’d use—the educational element to it. And I just think you can’t win this argument by trying to hide the ball. Not in the long term. And so I think both of those things are crucial.
As of this moment, in 2019, there are more than twenty Democratic Presidential candidates running. Eight of them have said they’ll support a bill to at least create a commission to study reparations. What do you make of that? Is it symbolic, or is it lip service, or is it just a way to secure the black vote? Or is it something much more serious than all that?
Uh, it’s probably in some measure all four of those things. It certainly is symbolic. Supporting a commission is not reparations in and of itself. It’s certainly lip service, from at least some of the candidates. I’m actually less sure about [this], in terms of the black vote—it may ultimately be true that this is something that folks rally around, but that’s never been my sense.
Are there candidates that you take more seriously than others when they talk about reparations?
Yeah, I think Elizabeth Warren is probably serious.
In what way?
I think she means it. I mean—I guess it will break a little news—after “The Case for Reparations” came out, she just asked me to come and talk one on one with her about it.
This is five years ago, when your piece came out in The Atlantic?
Yeah, maybe it was a little later than that, but it was about the time. It was well before she declared anything about running for President.
And what was your conversation with Elizabeth Warren like?
She had read it. She was deeply serious, and she had questions. And it wasn’t, like, Will you do X, Y, and Z for me? It wasn’t, like, I’m trying to demonstrate I’m serious. I have not heard from her since, either, by the way.
Have you talked to any candidates about it?
You published your article five years ago. Barack Obama was President. We are now in a different time and place. How would you place the reparations discussion in this moment?
Yeah, I think people have stopped laughing, and that is really, really important. Does it mean reparations tomorrow? No, it doesn’t. Does it mean end of the fight? No, it doesn’t. But it’s a step, and I think that’s significant.
Now, what would you like to see the outcome of a conversation, or the American equivalent of a South African study into American history, be?
A policy for repair. I think what you need to do is you need to figure out what the exact axes of white supremacy are, and have been, and find out a policy to repair each of those. In other words, this is not just a mass payment. So take the area that I researched. The time I wrote the article—less every day—the time I wrote the article, there were living victims, and are living victims, who had been denied—
Who were on the South Side and the West Side of Chicago.
Yeah! All over this country. People who had been deprived, who had been discriminated against. Set up a claims office. Look at the census tracts. Are those people actually still living there? You know, maybe you can design some sort of investment through resources. Maybe you can have something at the individual level, maybe you can have something at the neighborhood level, and then you would go down the line. You would look at education. You would look at our criminal-justice policy. You would go down the line and address these specifically and directly.
Is your job to just break the glass on a subject, the way you did with reparations, or is it your job to then follow through the way a scholar would for years thereafter?
That’s a great question.
Do you feel your work here is done, and now I’m moving on to the next thing, as you have with any number of subjects? Or do you have to sustain it? Is that on you?
I don’t know. I really don’t know. I would like to be able to move on. But I recognize that’s not entirely up to me.
Monday, June 10, 2019
'This is what you shall do; Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men, go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families, read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul, and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body.
― Walt Whitman
Sunday, June 9, 2019
Saturday, June 8, 2019
fourth successive year; sales of ebooks are falling; and, perhaps most encouraging of all, despite two recent high-profile store closures, the number of independent bookshops is growing again after decades of decline. Books – and readers who want to experience bookshops, rather than buy from Amazon – are not dead. The physical world lives on.ooks and bookshops are on the up. Sales of printed books have risen for the
But what about booksellers? I’ve spent the past few weeks talking to a number of them: some responded to a callout on the Guardian’s website; others I approached directly. Most of the independents who responded are positive, although some are having to diversify to stay afloat. One has opened a tea room, while another I spoke to has closed her shop but plans to start selling children’s books from a boat. A would-be bookseller in Olney, Buckinghamshire, has bought a bus and hopes to sell children’s books from that. Shops are expensive to run, so bibliophiles are using their ingenuity.
The chain booksellers I spoke to were far less positive about their working lives. Waterstones has been doing well in recent years under the stewardship of James Daunt, bucking the predictions of those who said Amazon would kill it off. But recent arguments over pay and conditions have cast a long shadow, with a petition from staff to management calling for the introduction of a living wage and an open letter from 1,300 authors backing them. Daunt, in response to the petition, said of his booksellers: “We reward them as well as we can with pay, but we mainly reward them with a stimulating job.”
Still against all odds – book prices that have barely gone up in 20 years; the war waged by Amazon; price-cutting by the supermarkets; the lure of mobile devices – books and bookshops are fighting back. As the high street crumbles and life becomes ever more depersonalised, we should surely celebrate their resilience.
Rachael Rogan, 41, owner of Rogan’s Books in Bedford
Before she opened her bookshop in 2015, Rachael Rogan had never worked in books. She was a marketing executive specialising in preparing corporate bids for contracts. The turning point in her life came in her mid-30s when she was diagnosed with stage four cancer. “I managed to beat it,” she says, “but it does leave you with an ‘I’m going to do something I really care about’ attitude to life.”
She had two small children and decided the thing she really cared about was children’s books. She launched a children’s book festival and then, with the encouragement of members of the local community who pointed her to an empty shop space and pre-bought book vouchers to cash in once her shop was open, she took the plunge. “It’s been wonderful to see everybody come together and support it,” she says.
The rent is £15,000 and that doesn’t leave much for anything else. Rogan barely takes any salary – “I have a very understanding husband,” she says – and volunteers help her in the shop. This is bookshop as community service. “Books aren’t an industry where you’ve got a great profit margin,” she says. You work 15-hour days and you don’t get paid. It has to be a love.
Rogan chooses books with her community in mind. “I want every child to be able to walk in the shop and see themselves on the shelf – a child who is going through a family breakup, a child who has multiple sclerosis, a child who is autistic, a child who is going through some kind of gender identity issue – because it will make them feel included and it will make them feel like they’re important. I would always do that over selling a million copies of the latest commercial hit.”
She says that locals send her emails with a link to Amazon asking her to order a book. When she tells them they could buy it cheaper if they ordered it themselves, she says they tell her: “Amazon doesn’t play with my kids; Amazon doesn’t bring authors to Bedford; Amazon doesn’t recommend books when my child is going through hell and needs something to lift them up.”
Julie Danskin, 30, manager of Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh
Julie Danskin has been running Golden Hare Books for the past three years and says the store is “one of the most rewarding, challenging and downright joyful experiences of my life. Together with a small team of booksellers and a dedicated owner we have grown our bookshop from a struggling business to a thriving one.” When she took over the shop, she says, “it was always very beautiful, but it felt like you weren’t supposed to touch things and it didn’t do that many events. We decided we needed to be a pillar of the community.”
The shop moved from a more touristy area to Stockbridge in the north of the city, which is populated by “lots of young families”. Now, instead of relying on passing trade, it has been able to bed itself into a community. “We do a mixture of events in the bookshop,” says Danskin, “which have a very intimate, informal, sitting-room feel, and external events.”
The joy of bookselling, says Danskin, is making a connection with customers who may often be making a considerable emotional investment in the books they are buying. “You can really get to know people,” she says. “Some people come in and they are in incredibly vulnerable places in their life.”
Danskin worked at Waterstones for a year and rejects the argument that bookshops cannot pay a living wage. “If you’re owned by a hedge fund [as Waterstones is], paying a living wage is likely to be the last of your priorities,” she says. “We pay a living wage and are turning a profit. As far as I’m concerned, if we don’t have a good team that are being remunerated properly, then we are doing something terribly wrong.”
Ben Maddox, 25, bookseller at Waterstones in London
Ben Maddox has worked for Waterstones for 18 months at two different branches – one in central London and one in the suburbs – but also filling in elsewhere as required. He works a 37-and-a-half-hour week, is expected to work weekends and bank holidays with no extra pay, and gets paid £1,180 a month after tax. “It’s a bit grating,” he says, “knowing you can earn more in other retail industries where you don’t need any specialist knowledge, aren’t expected to pull as many overtime hours and where there won’t be huge events that require extra skills that won’t have been part of your training.”
Maddox complains about the “faux friendliness” of Waterstones. When he has been sent to cover in other stores at short notice, he says it was far from clear whether he could charge expenses for the extra travelling. He can – but he had to work that out for himself. “It is very vague,” he says. “It makes you feel as if you are the weird one for asking.”
He is keen to point out that it isn’t all bad. “Day to day, it can be tons of fun,” he says. “More than a lot of other retail roles could be, because you’ve got customers coming in who are interested in the things they are buying.” But he doubts whether he will stay at Waterstones and hopes to make it as a screenwriter. “Everyone has Waterstones has their ‘slash’,” he says, “the other thing they love. You get a lot of writers, actors and artists.”
Joanna Chambers, 70, owner of Broadleaf Books in Abergavenny, Monmouthshire
Secondhand bookshops have had a tough time over the past couple of decades as online suppliers have taken off, but Joanna Chambers’s shop in the small south Wales town of Abergavenny is managing to stay afloat. What’s the secret? “I’m not on the main street and my rent is fairly low,” she explains. “I pick all the books myself and they are not books you’d see in the average shop. They may be secondhand, but they’re not falling apart. I try to make the whole shop look a bit different from anywhere else.”
She sells books online, too, but the shop is her real joy, and she says customers appreciate it. “The shop does better than online. People love the look and smell of it.” And the glorious serendipity, of course; the chance to find books you never knew you wanted. Chambers reckons she has more than 10,000 in stock, and buys most of them locally, often from the estates of people who have died.
Chambers came to bookselling in her 50s. She got the bug when she helped a friend who had a book stall in Abergavenny. She then ran a bookshop as part of an unsuccessful experiment to turn nearby Blaenavon into a books town. That ended in miserable failure. “I had to start again from scratch,” she says. But seven years ago, she set up Broadleaf Books, and this time the formula has worked. “I make enough money to keep the thing going,” she says. “You have to be a bit bonkers to sell secondhand books. You have to have a passion.” Chambers has no intention of giving up. “I’ll probably die in the chair,” she says with a laugh.
Khadija Osman, 24, manager of Round Table Books in Brixton, south London
Round Table Books in Brixton Market has been open for less than a week when I visit. You can smell the newness. The bookshop is the sister company of publisher Knights Of, which produces titles with a focus on diversity and seeks to “open windows into as many worlds as possible”.
Last year, Knights Of ran a pop-up bookshop in Brixton, and it proved so popular it hasturned it into a permanent store, supported by a crowdfunding campaign that raised £30,000 and a grant of £15,000 from Penguin Random House. The manager, Khadija Osman, graduated from university – she studied creative writing at Essex – last year. She has spent the previous six months working at Forbidden Planet – she is a fan of comic books and describes herself as a “big kid” who loves material aimed at children – and says she has always wanted to run a bookshop.
Osman, who grew up in a Somalian Muslim community in east London, says the shop will seek to champion writers from BAME backgrounds and stock a diverse range of books. It also plans to run storytelling events and writing workshops for local children. “We have to keep pushing the fact that it’s a fun thing, not a box-ticking exercise,” she says. “This is a children’s bookshop, first and foremost.”
Arlene Greene, 52, merchandiser for a branch of Tesco in Northern Ireland
Arlene Greene has worked for Tesco in Northern Ireland for 14 years. She originally worked for an outside company that supplied books, CDs and DVDs to supermarkets, but that company has been sold several times – “We are a commodity apparently,” she says – and now she is employed directly by Tesco. She sees herself as the store’s “book lady” and says she is one of an “army of minimum-wage workers, mostly middle-aged women” who check stock and look after the book displays.
Greene makes the point that Northern Ireland has very few independent bookshops; she says the emphasis has tended to be on secondhand books. That presents an opportunity to supermarkets, and she believes they are providing a worthwhile service. “Supermarkets are affordable to the masses,” she says. “They can be ruthless, but the fact that supermarkets sell books at least means the ordinary person on low pay can afford to buy a book when they want to. They’re just the top sellers, but at least we are still getting kids’ books out there at a reasonable price. That’s the important part of the story.”
What the book ladies aren’t allowed to do any longer is choose which books are sold. When the company was an independent supplier, they were given an input, but what to stock is now entirely a head-office decision, with the emphasis strictly on what will sell in large quantities. Greene finds this frustrating. “When Milkman by Anna Burns came out, it would have been nice to have showcased a prize-winner that came from Belfast,” she says. “We never received one copy. It wasn’t seen as a big enough seller for our market.” What she did get was endless copies of EL James. “They’re rubbish,” she says, “absolute rubbish, but I had to put it on every stand to get rid of it.”
Lesley Sheringham, 70, owns the independent bookshop Arthur Probsthain in central London
The Arthur Probsthain bookshop was established by Lesley Sheringham’s great-uncle in 1903. Based opposite the British Museum in central London and with a smaller outlet nearby at Soas University of London, it specialises in books on Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It is famous, much loved and in danger of going under – or perhaps morphing into something else – in the face of online competition.
Sheringham has worked in the shop, which is still family owned, for 50 years. “Most of the bookshops in this part of London have closed,” she says, “but we’re still hanging on. We had a very large stock of secondhand books built up over the years, but they are mostly sold on the internet now.” They have reduced the stock held in the shop and opened a tea room instead. “The tea room is really supporting the bookshop now,” she says.
What Arthur Probsthain, who was a distinguished orientalist, would have made of it is a moot point. “Bookshops have to try different things, but it’s been very tough,” says Sheringham. “It’s changed so much in the past 10 years. We don’t get the shop trade any more. Old customers come in and say: ‘What’s happened to all your books?’ But they haven’t been here for 10 years.” The museum is the building opposite is her point; this has to function as a shop.
Trudy Elliott, 26, bookseller at Waterstones in north-west England
Trudy Elliott has been at Waterstones for a year. It was her first job after graduating; she studied graphic design but realised she preferred books. “Everyone who works there loves books,” she says. “We’re all very passionate about the industry and about sharing books we love.” That’s the upside, but there is a sizeable (or, rather, not very sizeable) downside – the pay.
“It’s very low paid,” she says. “I’ve just been promoted to senior bookseller and I get £8.70 an hour. If I get promoted again [to lead bookseller], I’ll be on £9.39. That’s what you’re looking at as a bookseller. After that you have to go into management. There’s a mythical ‘expert bookseller’ level, but nobody seems to know what it is or what it’s pegged at.”
She rounds on the argument of Waterstones’ managing director Daunt that working for the company is inherently “stimulating”, as if that justifies the pay levels. “He was right when he called it stimulating,” she says, “but, unfortunately, a stimulating job doesn’t pay the rent.”
Elliott has other gripes, too. “It is exceptionally difficult to get a full-time position at Waterstones,” she says; her contract is for 30 hours a week. “There are also problems with rota scheduling, taking annual leave and communication from head office to the shops. Waterstones expects full flexibility from staff, even those on 12-hour contracts who need to work other jobs to afford rent and bills.
“Staff morale at Waterstones is very low.” she says. “There is a feeling that we are disposable to the company; it doesn’t appreciate or invest in its staff. We are still fighting our cause, though, and are looking at unionising and getting a stronger collective voice.”
Nia Owen, 57, owner of Caban in Cardiff
Nia Owen started her predominantly Welsh-language bookshop Caban in the trendy Portcanna area of Cardiff in 2002. She opened it primarily for her two sons, both of whom have autism. “My elder son [now 25] is quite able,” she says. “He’s very fond of books and because of his autism he’s very organised. His headmistress, in a passing comment, said to me: ‘He should work in a library or a bookshop.’” So Owen decided to provide him with that opportunity, giving up her job as a neuro-physiotherapist.
She says it cost her £10,000 to get started and that she got the shop off the ground in six weeks. “We didn’t have many books,” she says. “We didn’t have much of anything. But we had goodwill. We sort of played shop, and I think that has worked. People come in, they’re very loyal, they’re very regular and if they haven’t got any money I tell them to take something and pay next time they’re coming past.”
Owen, who grew up in a Welsh-speaking family in North Wales, sells Welsh-language books and English-language books with a Welsh connection. She has some paid helpers and other volunteers. “It’s a bit like a co-operative,” she says, “because everybody wants it to succeed. People come in sometimes just to talk. They tell us everything. I think we’ve replaced vicars and doctors.”
Gareth Thomas, 40, secondhand bookseller who has a stall beneath Waterloo Bridge in London
Gareth Thomas has been selling secondhand books as part of the Southbank Centre Book Market for 15 years. He started helping out on a stall when he was still at university, where he studied music technology, then took over one of the pitches – there are nine stallholders in all – when a licence became available.
He is quietly sitting next to his stall – long trestle tables covered in books and comics – when I arrive, while a couple of prospective buyers idly flick through his offerings. It is a blustery Tuesday and only the hardiest three of the nine stallholders have arrived to set up. Some of the others only appear at weekends – the busiest days – or on weekdays in the summer, when the riverside pavements are thronged.
Thomas pays the Southbank Centre £3,500 for his licence and targets a turnover of £40,000. His bestsellers are Penguin first editions – all neatly wrapped in plastic wrappers – and ancient hardback novels that he says appeal to tourists. He also has a sideline in US comics and yellowing copies of the Beano. “I try to get stuff you’re not likely to find in charity shops,” he says. “If you just have lots of copies of Dan Brown or chic-lit, people say: ‘I can buy that for a pound in a charity shop. Why should I pay £3 down here?’”
I ask if he always intended to devote his time to selling secondhand books while gazing at the Thames. “No,” he admits. “I had my sights set on being a famous music producer when I left university and this was just a stopgap.” But he says it suits him. While it can be “a bit hand to mouth, except in the summer”, he’s his own boss; he can turn up when he feels like – he recently became a father and has enjoyed having time to spend with his son - and his overheads are low. .
Robert Kane, 30, runs a ‘book bar’ at a fringe theatre in Belfast
Robert Kane is an actor and musician who works for Accidental Theatre in Belfast. As with most in fringe theatre, he has to multitask: not just performing but fixing lights, props, toilets, everything. But there is one extracurricular part of the job that, as a keen reader, he loves: helping to run the theatre’s book bar.
The book bar was born of a passion for booze rather than literature. In its original premises, Accidental didn’t have a licence to sell alcohol, so customers had to buy a book to get a complimentary drink. It does now have a licence for some of its shows, but the tradition continues. To get an alcoholic drink you have to become an instant book lover.
Kane admits the system initially baffles some theatregoers, but most quickly grasp it and even start to enjoy it. “It’s magical,” he says. “The book buying has taken on a life of its own. People end up spending more time looking for a book than talking to the people they’ve come to the theatre with.” He reckons about 80% of customers keep the books they have chosen; the other 20%, more interested in the booze than the bard, leave them to be recycled. “It’s very seldom that people are only interested in the drink and take the first thing that comes to hand,” he says. “Most look for something they really want.”
Some get so immersed in choosing a book that they don’t leave time to collect the drink. “Sometimes, the five-minute bell sounds and they’re still looking,” he says. They are allowed to pick a provisional book, get their drink and come back later to continue their search. Kane thinks the slightly bizarre convention is perfect for a fringe theatre. “It’s a lot of fun,” he says. “It’s playful and sets us apart from other venues, addressing the fact that we are fringe and slightly absurdist.”
The theatre’s patrons donate books and a couple of local bookshops also give it books they no longer want. “What is on our shelves is a game of roulette,” says Kane, “as our selection is entirely based on what is donated.” The bar has about 800 books, which are constantly refreshed, rather like the audience.
Pseudonyms have been used for the Waterstones booksellers and Tesco merchandiser.