When Covid-19 shuttered Vermont stores this winter, booksellers thought they’d remember 2020 as the year when curbside and online business boomed. Then came Black Lives Matter protests this spring and summer, catapulting anti-racism titles to record sales.
“I’ve been in the business for 40 years, and I’ve never witnessed anything like this,” says Tod Gross, manager of Phoenix Books in Burlington. “This is a moment where a lot of people want to learn more.”
Throughout the nation’s second whitest state, current racial-justice nonfiction and classic novels by Black writers from Maya Angelou to Zora Neale Hurston have been selling out for weeks.
“We’ve had hot books and huge releases before, but I’ve never seen a subject so driven by the news explode like this,” says Claire Benedict, co-owner of Bear Pond Books in Montpelier.
Sales began to rise after the May 25 Minneapolis police killing of Black resident George Floyd, which sparked demonstrations throughout Vermont and the nation.
“About the time the protests started, we saw a sharp increase in the number of books we were selling,” Benedict says. “People aren’t just buying one on the subject, they’re buying three or four.”
Everyone’s Books in Brattleboro has specialized in titles on peace, environmental awareness and political change for 36 years. In the past month, the store’s top five titles relate to racial justice, with one like “How to Be an Antiracist” by Ibram X. Kendi selling more copies so far in 2020 than Michelle Obama’s blockbuster memoir “Becoming” sold all last year.
“We’ve always been selling smaller numbers, but nothing like the crazy numbers now,” co-owner Nancy Braus says. “It definitely is an amazing thing to see.”
In a season usually associated with escapist beach books, stores statewide report their most popular titles are “How to Be an Antiracist” and “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism” by Robin DiAngelo, both which also top the New York Times best sellers list.
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Locally, University of Vermont professor Emily Bernard is seeing renewed interest in her 2019 memoir “Black Is the Body: Stories from My Grandmother’s Time, My Mother’s Time, and Mine,” winner of the Los Angeles Times’ Christopher Isherwood Prize for autobiographical prose.
So many related nonfiction works and novels are selling that Bear Pond has created a “Books to Combat Racism” webpage, while Northshire Bookstore in Manchester is promoting its own anti-racist reading list.
“The entire list of books related to this topic is selling really well,” Northshire second-generation co-owner Chris Morrow says. “It’s a phenomenon we’ve never seen at this scale and depth.”
Shopkeepers are echoing that sentiment in communities large and small.
“There’s always some book everyone is excited to read, but this is much bigger,” says Sandy Scott, co-owner of the Galaxy Bookshop in the Northeast Kingdom town of Hardwick. “People are waking up to what’s going on and looking for information. We’re trying to keep things in stock.”
Sales come at a challenging time for Vermont’s nearly two dozen independent bookstores, which were closed as many as three months by the pandemic.
“Nothing about 2020 is anything we were prepared for,” Scott says at the Galaxy Bookshop. “We went into the year with all kinds of plans, but when March rolled around, all of that went out the window.”
The Hardwick store, like others, turned to curbside and online sales before recently reopening.
“We’re still selling lots of books on other topics, but books about race are definitely dominating,” Scott says. “It seems to be sustained, and that’s a really good sign to me — people aren’t forgetting and moving on to the next thing.”
Phoenix Books, with locations in Burlington, Essex and Rutland, has struggled to replenish its shelves.
“The supply was not nearly enough for the demand, but our customers have been pretty patient and grateful when the books do come back in stock,” Gross says. “It makes me feel incredibly hopeful about the future.”
Shopkeepers statewide agree.
“It takes more to buy and read a book than it does to throw up a tweet or Instagram post,” Benedict says at Bear Pond Books. “It makes you realize people are invested in the subject.”
“We love it when this happens,” adds Morrow at Northshire Bookstore, “not because we’re selling books, but because it reinforces the written word and the role of bookstores in our communities.”
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