Jen Gerson: Et tu, bookstore?
The nearly monopolistic Canadian bookseller is not pretending that it serves the same institutional role that it did two decades ago. And we no longer care.
I expect most people will have forgotten this useless bit of trivia; frankly, I cannot say why it has remained lodged in my own brain. But let it be remembered, for the record, that in 2001, Chapters/Indigo CEO Heather Reisman banned the sale of Mein Kampf from her stores.
As the book is, quite literally, Hitler's manifesto, published in 1925 just prior to the rise of the Nazi Party in Germany, pulling it from Chapters' online and physical stores was and is an easy argument to make. What was interesting — and what remains such a noted shift in the cultural conversation two decades hence — is how the decision was treated. Herein lies a deep change in how we regard the importance of access to even the most vile and horrific viewpoints, and what Reisman’s choice said about the institutional role bookstores served to the culture at large.
Far from being universally praised, reactions to Reisman's decision in 2001 were, to quote the Globe and Mail, "mixed."
The executive director of PEN Canada told the Globe that Mein Kampf "is an ugly document by an ugly person," yet also "a very useful learning tool about how hatred is begun and promoted. A lot of people have learned about the evils of nazism from it."
The owner of a competing book chain told the paper that Reisman's decision was "disturbing."
"She might as well not carry the Koran now, if you believe we're in a holy war, if you want to carry that kind of logic on."
A University of Toronto professor suggested that the book had historic value, especially for students of the rise of nazism: "Let us suppose Osama bin Laden has written his memoirs ... Wouldn't we want to read these?"
The Globe even ran a first-person account from a writer who decided to attempt to read Mein Kampf as a result of the controversy.
"On the other hand, given Reisman's pre-eminent status in the world of Canadian letters, we need to consider what her decision might suggest about the nature and status of the book — not just as a text, but as an object," he wrote.
Oh, how far we have come.
In this holy year of 2022, I actually cannot imagine so many credible, liberal-minded individuals daring to put their names to principled arguments in favour of maintaining broad access to hateful literature and propaganda. I daren't even name the individuals quoted today, for fear their livelihoods might be put in jeopardy.
In fact, I bring up this whole controversy only because it plays in such stark contrast to a bit of news that came out of late. According to its publisher, Indigo (which merged with Chapters years ago) has declined to carry Andrew Lawton's The Freedom Convoy: The Inside Story of Three Weeks that Shook the World in its stores, despite the fact that the book is topping numerous bestseller lists in Canada. The book is available on the bookseller's website, however. The retailer has no qualms about profiting off the book, simply against displaying it.
In a statement to the National Post, Indigo stated that it chose not to carry the title due to physical space constraints.
“We carry 15 million titles online and only curate 30,000 in our biggest stores. Smaller stores carry even less,” a communications flak told the Post in an email. “[The company's in-house print team] carefully select(s) the edited list of books to include titles that will connect our customers to what they will find the most meaningful."
Well, hey, fair enough.
I trust the company's "deep knowledge of the Indigo customer," as the company puts it. However, I can't help but note the muted response this news received compared to Reisman's Mein Kampf decision 20 years earlier. And I wonder if that tells us something about the role bookstores actually serve in a society that has since grown much more certain and divided.
I called up Andrew Lawton to discuss the matter.
His book has been "incredibly popular, but we're having trouble getting the word out," he told me on Wednesday. That's the joke he uses with his wife, anyway. Of course, Indigo doesn't display every book in the world — its physical stores provide a curated selection. Lawton understood this, and he knew that his publisher, Sutherland House, was working with Indigo to feature his title, especially as it has generated strong sales online.
He only learned that his book about the convoy had been outright declined when the National Post article came out. "I had been asking my publisher. I grew up shopping in Chapters, and I had been asking if we would be able to get it on bookstore shelves. This is a thing I personally wanted to see as an author," he said.
"I was disappointed. It's not that I feel I'm entitled to it. I'm not owed it. I don't feel they have an obligation to carry every author's book. It's more that I was perplexed as to the why," he said.
He says it can both be true that the decision was made due to lack of space, and for more obvious content reasons. The bookstore, he notes, typically has a section devoted to Globe and Mail bestsellers. And as far as he can tell, his is the only book on that list that isn't being carried in stores.
He suspects that the decision may have been the result of a misunderstanding of what his book actually is. Lawton is a controversial figure; he was a failed Ontario PC candidate who admitted to making a series of problematic remarks about Islam, women, race and the LGBT community. During the 2018 campaign, he said many of those comments were made during a period of extreme recklessness brought about by struggles with mental illness.
Lawton now works as a columnist and pundit, particularly with right-leaning outlet True North.
From this, some might conclude that his book on the convoy was a snow job.
In fact, from what I read, I was pleasantly surprised to find otherwise. (We ran an excerpt from Lawton's book here when it was published in June.)
Although Lawton was sympathetic to the convoy and largely laid out the drama in Ottawa from their perspective, he struck a dispassionate tone. His goal was clearly journalistic. Yet despite the book's objective success, Lawton has been almost pointedly ignored by much (although not all) of the mainstream media. He noted, wryly, that one outlet in Ottawa actually interviewed journalist Justin Ling about Lawton's book, and asked the more left-leaning freelancer questions that would more aptly be placed to the author himself.
The obvious conclusion, here, is that both Lawton and the convoy itself remain common shibboleths within the established cultural milieu. The fact that his work has managed respectable sales despite this is evidence of the degree to which those traditional gatekeeping roles have been eroded by alternative media ecosystems and online retail.
"I would say that one of the things that has come on Twitter, such at it is, is people demanding Indigo carry it. They feel that Indigo has to carry it, or that it must carry it," Lawton noted. He doesn't feel this way. "Indigo can make its own choices and people can share their frustration with Indigo. It's not about the expectation of being carried, it's about owning up as to why."
If you're expecting me, here, to pivot to trashing Indigo, you will be disappointed. I'm more interested in observing a shift than condemning it.
It's not necessary for Indigo to carry Lawton's book on physical shelves, bestseller or no. Lawton has demonstrated an ability to sell without them (or with them, online), and I doubt Indigo's clientele overlaps with Lawton's intended readership. That's the difference. The nearly monopolistic Canadian bookseller is not pretending that it serves the same kind of institutional role that it did two decades ago. And our lack of collective reaction indicates that we all know this — and no longer care.
In fact, Indigo has decided to go the way of virtually every other cultural establishment in this regard, including media outlets. It has curated not only its product, but its customer base, serving an ever-narrower audience the product that aligns with its values and self perceptions. Thus ensuring that we shop, socialize, and inform ourselves in ever smaller bubbles of mutual amity, defining ourselves by our shared and common enmities.
As an aside, this is why I can't bring myself to get too indignant about Chapters/Indigo devoting ever-greater floor space to crystals, incense, tea cups, luxury candies and heavily scented candles. All I see is a corporation making a rational decision to embrace what it has become — a lifestyle brand. The books and magazines it sells are every bit as ornamental as the candles.
Nobody goes to Chapters/Indigo because they want to buy books. They go because they want to be the sort of people who spend time in Chapters/Indigo. Regardless of whether or not the books they buy are actually read, you better damn well bet they are going to be displayed.
It's no different than picking up a throw blanket and some new pillows while you're stocking up on the latest matte-covered fiction. Note how everything in the store expertly matches or compliments that season's colour palette. All of it is aspirational hues designed to be accessible to everyone with more than $30 in discretionary income. What Chapters/Indigo sells is not books. What it sells is a class aesthetic.
Is this not what the company itself admitted when with its expression of "deep knowledge of the Indigo customer"? It understands its market. And in case any of this comes off as derogatory — itself a form of self-regarding status seeking — I am 100 per cent Chapters/Indigo's basic bitch consumer. If that bookstore has algorithmically generated profiles of its customer base established to reduce the statistical masses to a hypothetical personality type, one would be named “Jennifer,” in her mid-thirties, mother of two, and living in the ‘burbs.
I buy the bougie candles. I feel no shame.
So is the company incorrect to decline to stock something as apparently vulgar and declassee as Lawton's book? Was something sympathetic to those people really going to sell to the other people?
What, did you expect a "book" store to hold to some kind of institutional purpose? Some sense of obligation that would make problematic writers and ideas widely available to audiences that would disagree and find them challenging?
How very outré. How very 2001 of you.
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