Censorship-Here, There, and Everywhere

I’ve never heard of someone demanding a bookseller remove an “offensive” book from their store before. I don’t think as a bookseller, I’ve ever encountered it. But some others have, and it begs the question, where does it end?

The bookseller in the article questions his ordering practices–wondering if what he decides to purchase and what he declines is a form of censorship.

Hardly. A book buyer is trying to ascertain their customer base, what will make the store money, and what is worthy of selling. If as a buyer I decide not to load up on talking cats who solve crimes because my customers prefer human detectives, how is that censorship? Those chatty cats will sell in pet stores or mystery shops that have a more soft boiled clientele. Picking and choosing among the hoards of titles at the disposal of buyers is the definition of what they do. If a buyer thinks it adds to the shop’s stock, that’s all that counts. Can and do buyers make incorrect decisions? All the time. I ordered a bunch of reprint Perry Mason thinking my newly discovered love of the series would translate into sales. Uh, no. And I’m sure I missed the boat on several titles by not ordering enough.

What I never did was question the moral content of a title, to make sure it wasn’t offensive. I haven’t worked in a children’s bookshop as this person half does, but I don’t believe it matters-adult or child–there is always going to be someone who doesn’t like something in your store. Just as libraries and school systems have to grapple with people hot and bothered over some title or other, will your typical independent bookshop now have various and sundry requests to pull books on complainant’s whims?

If so, ugh, can you imagine the nightmare? Mrs. Politically Correct wants Gone With the Wind, well, gone! Slavery is condoned within the pages! Oliver Twist offends several areas–battered women, anti-semitism, child labor. Grimm’s Fairy Tales are too violent. On and on.

One thanksgiving, an extended family member started to expound upon Harry Potter, stating how the books would influence kids to enter the dark arts, witchcraft, devil worship, you know–all those horrible things that exist in, well, her mind. After I shut my gaping mouth, I squeaked out something along the lines of , “What”?” or “Huh?”.  Articulate as my response was I felt I needed to add  a little something so I asked “Why?” The answer was as inane as the subject. Because the characters are witches and they are looked at in a positive light and therefore kids will try to emulate the characters. When confronted with a fanatical mind, one should step back and just agree, and grab another turkey breast. But I’m never great at letting crazy go by. So, taking the factual course, I explained how this is fiction, fantasy, characters, not real people, and that real Wiccan’s don’t even believe in the devil, let along worship one.

Mistake. Now I was being questioned as to how I know so much about witches and Wicca. Again I answer in normal world terms. I explain how I’d had to monitor a website with religious discussions and learned a great deal about the many different spiritual sects that existed, including, her faith. And how the Wiccans never fought online, however the various types of her religion sliced each other daily.

None of my answers satisfied. They couldn’t. You can’t appease a person who is closed to any opinion other than their own. I wonder if she would enter a bookstore and demand all the Harry Potters be removed. I tend to think not, but one can never underestimate the fanatic’s mind.

And that’s who bookstore owners and book buyers are dealing with, if people demand certain titles leave the premises. Most readers will pass a book by they aren’t interested in, or in the case of a juvenile title, refuse to purchase it if they don’t like the content. They don’t believe their opinion is the only one and that they are so correct in their thinking, the bookstore should follow their directives. Lately, with some parents demanding removal of books from the curriculum, libraries fighting to have a well rounded selection, sadly, it doesn’t surprise me if bookshops are next in line for the fanatic’s discontent.

So, if confronted with this scenario, what should the bookseller do? Call the customer a ‘nutcase’ and walk away? Remove the book? And then put it back after that customer as left? Cave, and remove it permanently? Take the reasonable person tact and try to explain why the book should remain? Apologize and tell the customer that you understand her concern but the book stays? Anyone have a good response to this perplexing problem?

I’m pretty sure if I were still selling books and someone came to me with such a request, I would be heard sucking in air and with eyes bulging, teeth gritted, refer the customer to the manager. And if that manager was I? Well, grabbing turkey isn’t an option in this case, so I’d probably offend the customer more by pointing out their arrogant attitude in believing their offended sensibilities mattered more than anyone else’s and that when they own their own struggling, 24 hour a day work load of a store, they can stock it with all the inoffensive titles they can find. And good luck, because there will probably be something in every book ever written that could be considered offensive. Enjoy your empty bookshop! And if I don’t say all this for fear of being fired, I’d simply say, sorry, the demon worshiper owner insists we carry it as a tribute to the master. Or, where did you find this? We’ve been looking for this everywhere–the Pope ordered it last week!

Or I would politely explain our policy of choosing the best books for the store and we’re sorry if this one is not of your liking. Sure, that’s the ticket!

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  • I think the thing most perplexing about the Harry Haters is the inevitable conclusion: they believe in magic . They believe that children/teens can do magic . What in these folks’ experience has lead them to believe that this is possible? It really boggles my mind.

    • Someone gave them a copy of Dark Dungeons and the believed it was true.

      I can tell right now it’s a hell of a lot more like the Dead Alewives version:

      Link, in case the video embed failed: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XHdXG2gV01k

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    • All of us censor to one degree or another.
      I have a suspicion that my “No Cellphone Zone” sign on the front door has cost us 20% of our annual gross sales in a highly successful store. Few people today can be detached from their cell phones for minutes at a time.

      When I see inane article after inane article by a particular correspondent I stop reading their prattle.

      Most customers censor with their feet and that is their right. If we behave peculiarly and remain blissfully unaware of subtle repercussions we are in danger of receiving a rude awakening.

      Something has to give – will it be the split second it takes to remove the no cellphone sign or alienating the overwhelming horde of ignorant cellphone addicts?

      It is nice to be in a position to further ponder the situation – bookstores are too important to the community to let them fail because we are stubborn … or blissfully unaware.

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    • This is the best thought on the subject I’ve heard! I needed this when I was having the argument with the in-law–but sadly, they DO believe in evil magic, I swear. I remember discussing a friend who is a physic and the same in law exclaiming that she believes there are such people but that they shouldn’t practice their gift, because of all the evil that could be unleashed. Yikes.

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  • Hmm, interesting thoughts, George. I would probably agree to the no cell phones. I can’t stand people loudly chattering away in a bookstore when I’m trying to find a title or enjoy the atmosphere. And, I don’t consider that censorship. It goes along with no shoes, no service, or no food, drinks, or pets allowed. If it really cuts down on sales, that’s something to be considered. But what if you’re not allowing cell phones bring customers IN? I know I’d be more likely to shop when the phones are off.

    If I was shopping for someone, and needed input–I’d get my info and go outside to ask questions. It’s not much to ask.
    But then, there are idiots that have their cellphones on at the live theatre and think nothing of it. There are always rude obnoxious individuals that will offend. I can’t imagine a sign like that would affect those who aren’t the obnoxious ones.

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