Bookshops need to be representative too

I want to acknowledge that my experience as a South Asian is not the same as those of Black people in this country. Although it’s important to note that we may have some shared experiences, the current BLM protests are about Black Lives, and it’s crucial to know the difference. 

However, the recent conversations about diversity in the publishing industry have stirred up some familiar feelings for me.

In 2018, I became a bookseller in my city of Bristol. I’m a Singaporean born, Australian raised, South Indian who married an Englishman and moved to the UK in 2012. Our part of Bristol is lovely - well educated, well off people who are kind and generous with their time and active in their community. 

Yet even here, I found myself experiencing discomfort on a daily basis - questions about where I’m from, or surprise expressed at my ‘very English’ name. It is all meant in kindness, but this is a type of ‘well meaning’ question that immediately makes me an outsider. And it’s exhausting. 

In 2019 my husband and I attended our first Booksellers Association conference. It was a breath of fresh air, talking to like minded people about books, hearing the passion, and being enthused by what we learned. In one particular event, I looked around the room and noticed that there were five or six brown and black faces, in a sea of white. It was a shock. Here was the most open minded, welcoming, thoughtful group of people assembled in one place, and yet, the number of black and brown voices were minimal. I realised that our little shop, with four ethnicities within five staff members, is not the norm.

Before COVID-19, in a previous life, we held school events almost every week. Children streamed into the shop every day. And they met booksellers of every hue. That matters. It matters for kids to see that bookselling is not a middle class, white profession. It means they see it as a possibility for themselves.  It matters for adults to be asking for recommendations from booksellers with diverse experiences. It means they’ll receive diverse recommendations. And it matters for diverse publishers and writers fighting to be heard as they’ll have a voice at the point of sale. Representation matters.

It’s been an emotional couple of weeks. The Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted the structural racism within this country. And while my experience as a South Asian is not the same as that of Black people, we share the sense of otherness felt by minorities.

I wrote to the BA about my concerns last year and they took me seriously. We do have a diverse range of ethnicities in bookselling in the UK, but they’re not always visible. I was so happy to see Fleur Sinclar as a BA Vice President this year. Our voices matter, because we are the front line of the publishing industry. As publishers diversify in their range of voices, so too should booksellers. 

We all need to do our part: employ people from all ethnicities and backgrounds; stock diverse voices and representative publishers; show children that there are books with black and brown faces on the cover. Let people know that bookshops are for everyone. We’re always been a safe space, now we need to be a representative one.

Jessica Taylor is co-owner of Max Minerva's Books in Bristol. Her background is in digital media and marketing and she runs the business with husband Sam Taylor.