Interview with Don Allen: Publications Director, Teaching for Change’s Busboys and Poets Bookstore, Washington DC
Front Porch: How’s business?
Don Allen: The bookstore is very popular. We receive great foot traffic from Busboys and Poets, but bookselling is a tough industry with small markups. Our sales are strong enough to keep us afloat on a weekly basis but not strong enough to pay back our start-up expenses. We are also extremely concerned about Amazon’s efforts to undermine independent bookstores.
FP: What is the most enjoyable thing about being in the bookselling business?
DA: Even with all of the so-called new media out there, books still have the potential to be the most powerful medium of them all. Complex ideas are explored over hundreds of pages and over several days, giving the ideas time to sink in and take root, changing a person. Being exposed to an idea or concept through social media or an article just doesn’t have the same impact. Meeting authors who yield this power wisely is still a thrill.
FP: What is the hardest part about being in the bookselling business?
DA: First and foremost, it is hard to convince people that a company like Amazon is not acting in their best interests. Sure, it is cheap, but only in the short term. As Amazon uses unfair pricing and proprietary electronic book readers to drive independent booksellers out of business, the industry will produce fewer books because there will be fewer outlets. Plus, unless people learn to support local, community bookstores, they will not have a place to hear authors, share ideas, and organize. A world with only an online marketplace and virtual social organizing will be a poorer place with less chance of creating positive social change.
FP: How central is reading to people’s lives?
DA: Every day I am both thrilled and disappointed with readers in the US. I love how smart our customers are—they are buying incredibly intense books on diverse and challenging subjects. I often feel proud of them, even if I don’t even know them. They are finding obscure or extremely academic books in our stacks and bringing them to the counter.
At the same time, I am often shocked at the number of customers who come to Busboys and Poets for the restaurant and have no interest in any of the authors or concepts of Teaching for Change in the bookstore. People are reading when using Facebook and Twitter, but, like much of the Internet itself, too much of the social media world is a cultural wasteland. However, I have found deep and meaningful exchanges of ideas on both Twitter and Facebook, so I hope that the enormous numbers of people who are using these forums find their way to the richer aspects. This will not only make reading central to more lives, it will help people find meaning and raise consciousness.
FP: We are in the midst of what I call the zombie-vampire phase of books. How have you observed fads in the history of books? Are there fads that have stayed that surprised you?
DA: I don’t think that they are a fad, but electronic book readers have surprised me by their quick immersion into the culture. They are going to change the industry, but it seems that they will be just another way for people to read, not the only way. Perhaps they will be like audio books—a nice option for some, but not for the majority of readers. It is hard to hate devices that seem to have people reading more often.
FP: Is there a particular writer who has surprised you, either in the longevity of their career or in their quick decline?
DA: Octavia Butler and Howard Zinn. Both seem to be growing in popularity and influence since their deaths. I love the passion of their fans.
FP: How do you see the role of the bookstore within the literary community? Do bookstores have certain responsibilities to the communities they serve? Have the changes in the publishing industry affected your ability to fulfill those responsibilities?
DA: We are part of several communities, I think. We support educators by providing a unique collection of progressive, multicultural literature for children and young adults. We partner with nonprofit organizations and social justice advocates. There is a poetry community that has Busboys and Poets at its center. These are just three examples, but in each community, we serve each other-that is what communities do. Sure, we try to serve the education community, but they support us while supporting the children of the community at the same time. Changes in the publishing industry will not stop us from seeking out the best multicultural and social justice resources for all of our communities.