Repetition is the mother of learning. Sadly, it is also the genesis of entrenched behaviour and bad habits. On this basis, I for one am keeping hope alive that repetition can be the unlearning of ingrained bad behaviour. Maybe I am just a dreamer.
I was granted the honour of giving the opening keynote speech of the Bookseller’s FutureBook conference in November 2020. In the speech I focused on a range of areas but primarily on the lack of ethnic diversity in books on supermarket shelves. I did this as I (believe) I truly understand and appreciate the value of those spaces. They could be great places to learn about exciting new books and writers. But right now – despite screams from the mountain top (including mine) - they remain painfully bland, uninspired and eye blindingly un-diverse… so I am having to repeat myself.
It is comically bizarre there is usually significantly more diversity on the alcohol shelves than there is on the bookshelves of British supermarkets. For instance: I can easily get an imported bottle of Nigerian Guinness from my local supermarket but I would be very unlikely to see a copy of a book by any of the countless world-beating and excellent Nigerian (including British Nigerian or Irish Nigerian) authors.
As it stands today, in order for you to be a Black writer and make it on to the shelf of a supermarket you need to have been the leader of the free world. Not impossible… just mildly improbable. Barack Obama remains the only Black writer deemed commercially viable enough to take a slice of shelves.
As a society we all lose from this.
When I was a young man, I loved nothing more than going into anywhere that sold books and getting lost in their world: discovering something new, exciting and informative. Every time we pick up a book we can be excited by the expectation that we will be richer than we were prior to reading it. For me those ‘new riches’ often arrived in the form of a wealthier vocabulary, learning something we didn’t know before, sharper wit and wisdom or knowledge of a writer’s work.
In my university days in the early 2000s I would make my way to Borders on Oxford Street and read whatever I could get my hands on. I was a shameless glutton for new books – especially books I could not afford to buy. I loved everything about them – the smell, the feel, the artwork and then the content itself. I ended up developing great friendships that still continue to this day over the bookshelves in Borders.
In 2002, I had $30 and a few hours to spend in the Bronx. I was returning to London later that day and was eager to spend my last dollars with independent retailers. I purchased The Miseducation of the Negro by Carter G Woodson from a busy book stand on a Bronx street corner.
That left me with $15 or so. I asked the bookseller what book I should get and before he could utter a word the people surrounding the stall all immediately told me to get Sister Souljah’s The Coldest Winter Ever. “You gotta get that son”, “Brother man – that right there; that is the one”, “buy it you’ll love it”, “this is a very special book”. I bought it. They were right. That book inspired me to become a writer.
As years went by, I realised how special a shopping experience that Bronx corner bookstall was. The stall had become a hub of sorts. It sold a diverse range of books and attracted a diverse range of people. It became the exact sort of place that makes the book trade special: a place where people might fall in love while tussling over the last copy of a great or little-known book, a place where intellectual curiosities were collectively explored, a place where inspired gifts could be purchased, a place where people exchanged recommendations. A highway of word of mouth. It was a place where diversity and meritocracy ruled and it felt truly democratic.
If a sole trader with just a table in the Bronx can create a special and diverse shopping experience for books, one that brings people together and excites – I refuse to believe that the titans of British retail cannot do the same. And I also refuse to believe that Black British writers don’t deserve spaces on the shelves. Our readers deserve the right to pick up their milk, cheese, Kettle Chips, Nigerian Guinness, a friendship and a great book by a Black author at their local supermarket.
We all deserve better… and every little helps.
Nels Abbey is a writer, satirist and media executive based in London. He is the author of Think Like a White Man (Canongate, 2018), a satirical self-help book. He is the co-founder of The Black Writers’ Guild.
Nels is also a former banker.