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Booksellers vs. “The Bird”

I recently heard a small commotion outside of my otherwise fairly quiet bookstore, and saw a few middle-aged males standing around my sandwich board. I didn’t quite understand what was going on until I realized that one of the gentlemen (I use the term loosely) had tried to wipe off the announcement of an upcoming politically-based book signing. I looked after them as they walked off, and much to my dismay, it dawned on me I was being given the international number one sign, a.k.a., “The Bird.” Well, this is America, and everyone has a right to freedom of expression. That aside, I still felt provoked enough to start thinking about the influence of print media, specifically books, on political beliefs and elections. Additionally, “Banned Book Week” was around the same time and proved to be a reminder that folks still try to censor what we are allowed to read. In many parts of the world, books and print media are censored and banned, and the public lives in a political void. There are books in the United States that continue to show up on “Banned Book” lists and ignite fiery discussions. Censorship is a reality no matter where you live. The announcement on my sandwich board was for author John Heckenlively’s 2004 Reasons Bush Must Go book signing that was to take place later that week. All I could reason from the attempted censorship and rude manners of the man was that he was offended by my hosting a signing that roused anti-Bush sentiments. What this guy didn’t get is that I could have hosted a pro-Bush book signing just as easily. Booksellers are in the business of selling books, not swaying elections. My personal political beliefs are not reflected by my bookstore’s inventory. I sell books that are against and for every former President of the United States. Publishers sell them by the millions, and can get top dollar for them. Clinton’s memoirs retailed for $35, and indeed, political books of all kinds fetch large advances and generally sit on the bestseller lists for weeks. The idea of free speech, I’ve concluded, is not just essential to the heart of democracy, but is especially pertinent to the bookselling world, be the venues chain or independent. It’s been a struggle, especially since 9/11. For example, The USA Patriot Act (something most booksellers definitely do not take lightly) can be used to force booksellers to disclose information about who ordered what. Traditionally, most booksellers could and would fill all customer requests, and the transaction was strictly confidential. Many in our business continue to fill orders for books that are “controversial,” but these days it’s done with a sense of caution. That hasn’t stopped me from ordering the Anarchist’s Cookbook, Hit Man, or a tome on how to grow marijuana. Help Mommy, There Are Liberals Under My Bed! is in my store. It explains to kids how liberals take money from small businesses and misappropriate the funds to special interest groups. Bush-ies will be glad to know I have Clark’s Against All Enemies: Inside America’s War On Terror, plus other pro-Republican items. Did you know the American Library Association keeps a list of the “most frequently challenged” books, i.e. those which are considered by one or more persons to be inappropriate. Can you believe Harry Potter made the 2003 list? In the end, booksellers are your “free speech” friends. Give them a high five, give them your dollars, but (even in the land of the free), don’t give them “The Bird.” Kelly Voss is proprietor of Voss Books, 229 N. Water St.