Several years back, my friend and fellow novelist Rosalyn Story (More Than You Know, Wading Home) visited the Uptown branch of Borders Books, not far from my house here in Dallas. In honor of Black History Month, a table of books in a prominent position in the store had been stacked high with titles that someone deemed appropriate for the celebration.
There were the standard titles, of course: your Morrison, your Wright, your Baldwin. There’s Zora, there’s Maya, there’s Alice; nothing surprising here—and your diligent K-12 teachers who want to celebrate the month in style can order the matching posters from their favorite educational supply warehouse.
What distressed Rosalyn was to find these titles rather randomly sprinkled among a collection of the trashiest romance and “street” novels she had ever seen. Glossily wrapped pulp fiction with covers featuring oiled brown skin and titles advising the reader how to satisfy a thug or win at being a diva. By all evidence “bitch” is popular word to use when titling such books.
Rosalyn called over the manager—that’s how she rolls—to express her extreme displeasure and to offer him a lecture about African American history and culture. The manager responded with her own standard lecture about how the list of SKU’s comes directly from Ann Arbor, directing them which books belong on which tables in the store and in what quantities. “These are the ones that the customers want. Sorry.”
I’d been in those offices in Ann Arbor, back when Live at Five was about to come out in hardcover. Publishers of two of my books arranged for me to meet with the staff and talk about the book and how we could work together to make it a success. More sheepishly than Rosalyn, I imagine, I asked them about Borders “African American” fiction shelving policy. They gave me the same answer: it’s what the customers want.
I’m looking at that star again, trying to imagine how it will fare next to ample and oily brown bosoms and pecs. Maybe back to the design studio for this one?
But, then again, Black History Month only comes once a year and Borders Books has gone the way of the dinosaur. Perhaps there is hope?