Novelist Catherine Robertson explains why she and poet Jane Arthur will not be stocking [redacted] or [redacted] at their new store, Good Books, in Wellington.
“You’re so brave” is the most irritating thing to say to someone who’s set up a new business. It implies you’ve taken a risk that no sane person would contemplate, at the worst time and probably in the worst place. “You’re so brave” means “lol, hope you didn’t re-mortgage your house”.
It’s hard not to feel insulted. As Jane says, “I have never been brave in my life, so why start now?” We are realistic and sensible. We did extensive due diligence. Jane has seven years’ experience in bookselling and another seven in publishing. I have run my own businesses for over three decades. We know what we’re doing.
OK, sure, it might not work. Even if we are realistic and sensible, we can’t guarantee success. The stars of timing and zeitgeist might not align in our favour. World events, natural disasters, new inventions might bring us down. All we can do to mitigate that is have insurance and a willingness to adapt. It also helps that Jane and I are both highly anxious. Our attention to detail and ability to anticipate problems is outstanding. No coffee after midday, though.
Our nerves have already been put to the test. We had to order our first load of books before we got to know our customers and what they like. We had to imagine our empty shell as a functioning space so our architects could design it. We created our own merchandise, gifts and cards with no idea if we’d make our money back. Along with every bookshop in the country, we’ve had to navigate Covid-affected logistics. Delivery takes at least a month, so if you under-order a book that turns out to be an unexpected best-seller, tough. We’re not that easy to find, being tucked up the lane by Prefab café. One woman basically accused us of hiding from her. “You need to tell people,” she insisted, while Jane tried to list all the ways we’d been doing just that. Thank you for sharing – we’re getting a sandwich board.
All this stuff is manageable, and part of the deal of setting up a new business. But – confession time – there is one risk we’re taking that makes us a little nervous. When Jane and I set out our values for Good Books, we immediately agreed on the main two: that we should pay the living wage, and that we wanted to create an inclusive space. We are intersectional feminists. We have queer and non-binary friends and family members. We decided our shop would not, to the best of our awareness, stock books that made anyone feel unwelcome or unsafe.
This is a principle that could cost us, as at least one of the authors we won’t have is incredibly popular (yes, that one). We might lose some sales, but we’ll also sleep well at night. We talked with our team about what we should say if anyone questioned us. We could give the easy answer – we’re a small bookshop and can’t stock everything. But, unless we think people are going to be absolute dicks about it, we agreed we’ll be upfront, and tell them that we won’t stock books by people who use their platform or privilege to punch down. We will stock books full of intelligence, compassion and joy.
So far, we haven’t had any questions. We have had a guy who wanted to know if we’d be interested in stocking a notorious local wealthy racist’s latest book. This is how Jane relayed the conversation: “I said it didn’t sit with our values, and he said blah, blah, free speech, blah, blah, and I said ‘No’ and he left.”
He was standing right above a pile of Umberto Eco’s How to Spot a Fascist. Clues, my guy.
Also, my dude, free speech is the right to criticise those in power without being slung in jail or executed. It’s not the right to spew your racist and misogynist views onto any platform you like and demand that people listen.
Now that we’ve committed this to print, of course, we might get the PC-gone-mad crowd popping in for a little chat. We might get TERFs harassing us online. The local rich racist might take us to court.
There’s no point in worrying about it. Jane and I will, of course, because we are highly anxious. Luckily, being surrounded by books is bloody fabulous, a sheer joy, in which it’s easy to maintain a positive state of mind. And, you know – we’re so brave. Let us be brave where it matters.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.