From The Millions:
“Do you have the book Hillbilly Elegy?”
“Yeah, we should have a copy on the front table; let me grab one for you.”
“Is it any good?”
“…It’s sold really well.”
“I hear it’s so powerful and important, especially now, since, well, you know…”
Working at an independent bookstore in the Greater Boston area, I find myself having some variation of this conversation a few times a week. To be fair, bookselling, like any retail or service job, comes with its fair share of repetitions. For example, the sales pitch for our loyalty program is so ingrained in me that it comes pouring out in a breathless flurry of words. Such things are largely innocuous, a necessary (if not occasionally tedious) part of the job. But when it comes to the above conversation concerning J.D. Vance’s bestselling memoir, there is something a bit more personal at stake, viz. my moral objection to the book that has become, for conservatives and liberals alike, a means of understanding the rise of “Trumpism.” And while it’s easy enough to take this moral high ground, it comes into direct conflict with that old chestnut about the customer always being right, to which even the most fiercely independent of bookstores largely adhere.
I don’t intend to review Elegy here. More capable pieces have already been written about the book’s “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” message, its condemnation of a supposed culture of poverty, its dismissal of the working class’s material reality as a determining factor in their lives, and its callous claim that the welfare state only reinforces a cycle of dependency.
. . . .
Despite the immeasurable good work independent bookstores and their staff do—from promoting children’s literacy to hosting readings and book clubs to being a vital part of local economies, and more—I’d hazard that the primary goal is always going to be customer satisfaction. So what can you do when a customer wants a book that you not only find objectionable but also believe actually dangerous in the lessons it portends amidst such a politically precarious time? If it helps, swap Elegy for any book that you find particularly insidious, whether it’s Atlas Shrugged, The Communist Manifesto, or The Bible. The question remains: without stooping to the level of crazed book-burning, does the bookseller’s role ever evolve past the capitalist exchange of money for paper and pulp? And are there meaningful ways to resist the continued sales of disastrous books?
Link to the rest at The Millions and thanks to Joni for the tip.
PG wonders what percentage of bookstore staff focus their working energies on judging their customers.
PG also wonders if any of the judgmental bookstore staff realize that quite a few of their customers sense they are being judged by some twerp who is supposed to be helping them have an enjoyable discovery and purchasing experience.
And decide they prefer a judgment-free zone like Amazon over meatspace retail with a side of attitude.