Shelf inspectors and the politics of bookselling

by John MacBeath Watkins

Bookselling is a political activity, even if you don't have a political agenda. People come into my store to make sure I carry certain kinds of books, such as books on creationism or The Shack, a Christian novel. Not that those inspecting my store to see that I have such books actually want to buy them. Their mission has more to do with the conservative sort of political correctness. I think of them as shelf inspectors.

As it happens, my bookstore is located in Seattle's University District, and at my location such books don't sell, even when steeply discounted. I subscribe to the notion that a good book is a book that sells, with few exceptions. There is a fellow who writes books about his fake cancer cures. He is not allowed to sell the cures themselves anymore because as it happens, it's illegal to sell cancer cures that don't work while claiming they do; books recommending fake cancer cures are protected by the first amendment. Selling a book that would cause someone to abandon proven cures and adopt "cures" that have been shown not to work strikes me as immoral. I suppose for all of us, there is a limit on what speech we will transmit. When John Milton wrote the definitive defense of free speech, the Areopagitica, the thing that went too far for him was Catholicism. For me, it's things like fake cancer cures and kiddie porn, which can do active harm. But then, that's how Milton felt about Catholicism.

But I would happily sell books on creationism, books by Rush Limbaugh, or other tomes loved only by the right, if only I had a market for them. Robust political controversy is fine by me. I've even sold copies of The Turner Diaries, which actually does sell to people interested in what motivated the Oklahoma City bombing. I do not, however, wish to tie up my shelf space and my capital with books I have no market for.

I personally think Che Guevara was a Stalinist whose misguided ideas are anathema to anyone who values free speech, but I'm happy to put his books in the window because they attract customers (the most popular is The Motorcycle Diaries, written before his ideas ossified into Stalinist orthodoxy.) A person of my moderate political disposition finds little to agree with in None Dare Call it Treason, but people love a conspiracy theory, so John Stormer's book has a market. It is also a nearly perfect example of what Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in American politics.

It is the pure opinion sort of conservative book that doesn't sell for me, like Michael Savage's books. Noam Chomsky's left-wing diatribes fly out the door. One might think, from looking at my window or my shelves, that I am far to the left, but in truth, I'm more of a Lollard than a lefty. I want books available, and believe that discussion will, in the end, allow the best ideas to become evident. Which was Milton's argument back in 1643. Of course, the suppression of the Wycliffe Bible and the Lollards were a more recent memory then. Now, when you talk of free speech, people think you're being trite.