Independent Booksellers as Allies: Inclusivity in Action
Editor Kathy Goodkin sat down with Brian Lampkin, co-owner of Scuppernong Books, to ask for his thoughts on how a bookstore can function as inclusive space. Scuppernong Books is a thriving independent bookstore and community hub in Greensboro, NC.
Kathy Goodkin: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I want to start with a question about the role of a bookstore in this cultural and political landscape— how do you think a bookstore functions as safe or inclusive space?
Brian Lampkin: We talk about this a lot here, and we’re trying to navigate our way through it, like everyone else—these uncertain times. What IS our role? What does a downtown independent bookstore need to be? Because I have this adamant belief about first amendment responsibilities as a bookseller that we should provide books to people as they want them, from whatever political direction they’re coming from.
I have that one adamant belief, but I also have an absolute conviction that we need to represent some solid values about human dignity and human decency. And human dignity is under assault right now, we believe, as a store and as a staff. So how do these two sometimes-conflicting responsibilities meet, is our question. How do we resist a culture that threatens deportation, that’s clearly misogynistic in so much of its rhetoric?
And then we also think about what the term “safe space” entails, and how does one really become such a thing? I think that’s the trickiest question to answer.
KG: So what are your thoughts on “safety,” as an intersection of public and private endeavor, which is what a bookstore is… what does it mean to make such a space safe?
BL: I think it’s very tricky. I think over the course of our three years here, we have that sense of the place, for example, that the LGBT community knows this is a place they can feel welcome. If we can’t guarantee safety, we can at least provide comfort. It is a public space, which means we can’t guarantee safety for anyone. Nothing has ever gone wrong here, we’ve thankfully never had something tragic happen. But we all know it could. I do think over three years we’ve created a real sense of—ok, if you’re out on the street and you need help, you need a place to run into, this is a place you can come, and we’ll do whatever we can to help.
KG: And what are some of the ways you signal that publically? Like, I’ve noticed you have all-gender restrooms. What else?
BL: Over the past years we’ve also hosted many events with and for every marginalized community I can think of. Anti-HB2 events, Black Lives Matter events, joint events with Faith Action, many more. We do this to earn our place in the community, and we know we’ve done this pretty well, demonstrating that we’re a place that will stand up for people. What are the limits of that? I guess we’ll see.
KG: Because of what you said earlier about first amendment rights?
BL: Yes, and because I want to be clear: you can make claims about a lot of things that you can’t live up to. But I think people do know that to the extent we can, that we are a place that is welcoming and offers some sense of sanctuary. We’ve been successful in that way.
KG: To what do you attribute that particular success?
BL: Well, the welter of events we do. We just keep reaching out and doing what we can. But even more than that, I think it’s the sense you get with you walk into the space. That you’re in a place that values weird things like kindness and respect. [laughs]
KG: Oh, that stuff.
BL: Strange, isn’t it. We’ve always been very clear; we expect everyone here to act with respect and dignity toward one another. For the most part, that’s the vibe you get when you walk into the store.
KG: Do you feel like the curation of your displays adds to that? I’m looking at what you have on display; do you feel like that’s part of it? Curating the books that are displayed to show people what kind of space this is?
BL: Yes, absolutely. Of course. We understand very strongly that what we display speaks about what we believe. That if you display only literature by the Great White Men, that’s the store you are. We’re very conscious about what we’re displaying and how we’re displaying it in that regard.
KG: What are some of your favorite things on display now? What are you reading or what would you say others should be reading?
BL: I always avoid that word—should. But we’ll always offer suggestions. This display here [gestures to adjacent display] is a nice way to look at the spectrum of what I could recommend at the store: we have some books for upcoming events, like Trunky (Transgender Junky): a memoir of institutionalization and southern hospitality. The author Sam [Samuel Peterson] will be here for an event in January.
But also today the guy who wrote this book on football at Chapel Hill [gesturing to Football In a Forest by Lee Pace] will be here. These books right here represent what we try to be. Both those things need to be here, and both those things can happen comfortably here. And there’s no reason why they can’t. That said, if anyone were to be hostile at either of these events, we’d ask them to leave. That doesn’t ever really happen here, though. I think part of it is that the bookstore has a library feel to it that can soften everything.
KG: You’ve also managed or owned bookstores in other places, right? Do you feel like there’s a distinct difference in this geographic area?
BL: We sell different books then we did anywhere else. I had a bookstore in Buffalo and in Seattle—yes, we certainly sell different books. Which is one of the great realities of the internet age that these things still break down regionally. Very interesting. To some extent, people’s purchases are still influenced by their local region.
But another thing I’ve been talking about lately: the bookstore I had in Seattle was a collective, an anarchist bookstore. The thing I can’t tolerate about myself in those times is the way we determined who would be comfortable in that store. We didn’t lock people out, but we made some people feel immediately unwelcome. We decided some people were just not for us. And that’s a really messed up way to go about having a bookstore! I realize that now. Now I really don’t like that sense of making any group of people feel unwelcome. I just think “who was that guy who did that?”
KG: I guess that’s the wisdom that’s supposed to come with experience. [laughs]
BL: Wisdom, right. I do understand the impulse, though. And we have young people on staff here who still have that impulse. But I try to impress on them that there are bigger stakes here than protecting your own worldview. That we can make our space open to everyone, as long as they act with respect.
KG: That’s interesting because it gets back to your initial statement about the tension between making everyone feel welcome and also wanting to be a platform for less privileged voices.
BL: Yes, and we have to be ok with that tension. We have to be ok with letting that tension exist and with making mistakes. [Co-owner] Steve and I have been talking about this lately, creating a space where people are
allowed to make mistakes is really important, too. That you’re not immediately thrown on the street for misusing language, for example. That you have a chance to learn from mistakes. To grow.