Borders, a behemoth of bookselling in the 1990s, lost its way in the 00’s and finally succumbed to bankruptcy. Its stores sold off their inventory last week. As a writer, I know the loss of a bookstore shouldn’t be celebrated, but as an African-American writer, Borders felt like a kind of enemy.
In any Borders, you could search through a variety of sections, maybe finally get that self-help book about your procrastination, buy a new cooking book, or find out how to fix cars. Every store also had a fiction section, massive areas where classic literature and the newest fiction sat nestled together on the shelves. But if you went to a Borders fiction section hoping to find Pulitzer Prize winning author Edward P. Jones or MacArthur genius grant fellow Colson Whitehead or New Yorker 20 Under 40 writer ZZ Packer, well you’d be disappointed. All of them, solely by virtue of race, would have been over in the African American Interest section of that Borders. Barnes & Noble has an African American Interest section too. Both claim that black book buyers want their own section, that it even helps to promote the books of those writers. The difference at Barnes & Noble is that those writers are also shelved in fiction. Borders kept its African American writers separate, segregated. If you’re an African writer at Borders, you were shelved in fiction. If you were a white writer writing about black people, like Kathryn Stockett, you were shelved in fiction. Why ghettoize the African-American writers? Those black writers were deprived of non-black readers, those readers who would browse the shelves in Borders looking for a good book to read by a good writer. Writers in Borders were considered black first and writers second. And how precisely do you determine what is of “African American interest” if the only determining factor is the race of the writer. Could Toni Morrison have written about a Swedish woman and been shelved in fiction? No. But it would be in African American Interest.
I’ll mourn the loss of one more place for someone to buy books, to find new ideas, maybe even find themselves. I won’t mourn a strike for equality.