In the days after George Floyd died under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, bookstores across North America started to see an uptick in sales of books about racism and inequality. Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race, for instance, saw a jump of nearly 7,000 per cent between May and June. Here in Canada, sales of Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In increased by 185 per cent in the week after Floyd’s death on May 25 and has been parked on The Globe and Mail’s non-fiction bestseller list. So have several other books about racism, including Eternity Martis’s They Said This Would be Fun, Jesse Thistle’s From The Ashes and Cherie Dimaline’s 2017 novel Marrow Thieves. Josie Kao talked with five booksellers across the country about the titles that can help Canadians understand the current moment, how they’re coping with demand and their own top picks.
Cover to Cover Bookshelf, Winnipeg: Tony Hazzard
When I opened the business 30 years ago in Winnipeg, the majority of stores were owned by older Caucasian people. So I stood out. For the first decade I was open, I didn’t want to play up that I was a Black owner of the store, because people acted funny when they found out – I never could put my finger on why. To this day, there are some people who have been shopping at my store for 20 or 25 years and don’t believe I’m the owner. I just shrug it off, because if I had to deal with everything that had to do with the colour of my skin, I’d be fighting with somebody every day. So for me, I pick and choose how I deal with it. But my role as an owner of this bookstore is to get the right information and books into the hands of the people who want that information. We’re all going to be learning, and sometimes putting yourself into the right book and reading about somebody’s experience – that does help.
Book recommendation: Anything by Ta-Nehesi Coates, because he has a way of telling a story without being preachy. He’s just a great storyteller. Try Between The World and Me, The Beautiful Struggle or The Water Dancer.
Iron Dog Books, Vancouver: Hilary Atleo
I’ve been working in the book industry for 10 years and I’ve never seen this type of impact, in particular from a political movement, before. This feels to me like maybe a once- or twice-in-a-career moment, where an entire population is shifting toward reading one thing. We’re here to connect the right human to the right book at the right time. Fundamentally, we’re mini therapists, but we’re also problem solvers. People come in with a problem, and we find the book that helps them solve it. Other book shops are relying on being told by the media or by publishing what is the great Indigenous book of the season, and Indigenous-owned bookshops are relying on ourselves to make judgments about what we think is great Indigenous writing.
As a reading public, we need to recognize that engaging in anti-racism is not just about reading the book How to be an Anti-Racist. It is about recognizing the full spectrum of art that’s produced by humanity. This is a real problem in publishing, where the case becomes made that you should read something because it’s by an Indigenous author and not because it’s great art. It’s not that you can divorce the art from the context of being Indigenous, but it becomes this kind of moral rectitude type of thing, where you want to read a book only because it’s indicating that you are reading something by an Indigenous person or a queer person or whatever population, as though it exists for educational purposes. I really hope this interest in anti-racism work just grows the appreciation for the depth of arts that are out there.
Book recommendation: My Conversations with Canadians by Lee Maracle is a book I wish everyone in Canada would read, even though it is specifically about Indigenous experiences in Canada, I really think it speaks to the way we make assumptions and treat others. I would also recommend Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad.
Librarie Racines, Montreal: Gabriella Kinté
There’s been an increase in sales of books that talk about racism, privilege and Black history in general. There has also been a lot of curiosity, especially from Black people in Canada, because they want to know the differences between the Afro-American context and the context for Blacks in Montreal, Quebec and Canada. Our role in those early days after George Floyd’s death was more about providing a place online, because we couldn’t see each other in person; it was more about grieving together, healing together, bringing the community together. For people who aren’t aware of those dynamics with systemic racism, it’s more about education. One of the things we are always putting forward is that we always matter, not just when somebody dies and we get a lot of media attention and suddenly we talk about Black history and racism and so on. We also tell people to read not just about our pain, but also about our joy.
Book recommendation: Africville by Shauntay Grant is part of Canadian history that is not taught in schools, so it’s important to realize that there were Black communities that had an impact in Nova Scotia. I also recommend Policing Black Lives by Robyn Maynard.
Massy Books, Vancouver: Patricia Massy
We were quite busy with COVID, because when everything shut down, we announced we were doing free delivery. But after George Floyd was murdered, within days we started seeing a massive influx of orders and requests for books on anti-racism and books by Black authors – not just non-fiction, but everything from poetry to history to literature. Just in the month of June, we processed more online orders than we did in all of 2019. We really didn’t have the infrastructure to deal with and respond to the interest. We’ve been working on it for a few months. I’ve hired three new people because it hasn’t slowed down – it’s actually continuing, which is really wonderful.
Book recommendation: Me and White Supremacy by Layla Saad has become one of the indispensable books of our generation. It’s a workbook that asks you to recognize your participation in white supremacy. Another book that doesn’t get enough attention is Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition by Glen Coulthard.
Sankofa Books, Ottawa: Confidence Eyong
In the 14 years we’ve been around, we’ve seen a significant increase in interest in books by Kush voices. (I use Kush because it refers to a geographic location, rather than the words “negro” or Black, which are the terms for a slave.) Since this wave of interest, there’s been a lot of change – we’ve become much more visible. We have people calling in from all around the country to find books. For Sankofa and others that are providing this information, our role is to provide the missing link to complete the story. We want people to question all the information that comes to them, so that we don’t just accept a narrative that comes from other people.
Book recommendation: The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey or Africa for the Africans by Marcus Garvey have a lot of valuable information. Garvey was one of the most influential voices of change in the 1920s, but his work has been completely blurred out from the mainstream, along with the entire period between Jim Crow and Martin Luther King Jr. I would also recommend When Rocks Cry Out by Horace Butler.
Expand your mind and build your reading list with the Books newsletter. Sign up today.