Black bookstores are overwhelmed by orders for anti-racism titles

Black booksellers can’t keep up with demand for anti-racist books.
Black booksellers can’t keep up with demand for anti-racist books.
Image: Reuters/Nathan Frandino
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Black booksellers were worried about coronavirus shutdowns hurting their business. Now they’re being deluged with orders of anti-racist titles following protests against police brutality around the world.

The movement sparked by the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis last month is generating a spike in interest for books about racism. There’s suddenly a huge demand from readers questioning their own racial biases, or looking to understand how racial relations in the US have made everyday life difficult for Black Americans. It did not help that a slew of reading lists recommended by news outlets, libraries, and on social media often featured the same titles, which have rocketed to the top of best-seller lists.

Some of the suddenly popular books, including Between the World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, and So You Want to Talk about Race by Ijeoma Oluo, have been around for a while. Oluo called the recent attention and increased sales a “gut punch” in an interview with Glamour, saying she was shocked that it took such a brutal act for the public to pay attention to systemic racism.

The lists, as well as grassroots efforts to encourage shoppers to support local Black businesses, are overwhelming independent booksellers like Frugal Bookshop in Boston. The Black-owned store, run by couple Leonard and Clarissa Egerton, received more than 10,000 orders between May 30 and June 1. Since then, they have received more than 10,000 additional orders, according to an email they sent out to customers on June 22. Most of the new orders are for the same titles addressing race or racism.

However, the combination of reduced operations due to the coronavirus pandemic, along with unusually high levels of interest in these books, is delaying deliveries. In its email to customers, the Egertons said they are hiring a fulfillment company to help with processing. They also asked for patience after several people complained and demanded refunds for the extended shipping and processing time.

Other Black-owned stores, like Marcus Books in Oakland, CA, Eso Won Books in Los Angeles, and Eyeseeme African American Children’s Bookstore in University City, MI, have also reported big increases in online sales.

There are several compounding issues in the publishing industry that have added to delays in shipping and processing. Major retailers like Amazon have quickly sold out online. Bookstores, publishers, wholesale distributors, and printing houses are also working with limited staffing due to furloughs, layoffs, and social-distancing measures. That means it’s taking longer to reprint, restock, and complete new orders.

Book sellers are also dealing with shipping bottlenecks. Since the middle of March, the United States Postal Service has been dealing with a rise in e-commerce sales similar to the peak holiday season. This influx in residential deliveries meant some orders for books sent by the low-cost media mail service took as long as eight weeks to arrive, according to Nick Buzanski, general manager of independent bookstore Books are Magic in Brooklyn, New York. The bookstore has changed to priority shipping, which is more expensive, but has helped reduced delays.

“You see trends, but this isn’t a trend,” said Buzanski, who has been a bookseller for more than 20 years. Buzanski says the demand for anti-racism titles comes from a real desire to become informed and understand the current moment. He expects it to be long-lasting. “I see a real shift in people’s sensibilities and thoughtfulness. I feel like they’re excited to read the books. They’re not just purchasing them to feel better about themselves.”