Daniel Reading, 2019, oil on linen, by Doron Langberg. Courtesy the artist and Victoria Miro

Issue 114, Fall 2021

August 31, 2021

Finding a Home Behind the Counter

By Frederick McKindra

Two and a half years ago, I took a part-time job at WordsWorth, an independent bookstore in my hometown of Little Rock. Having lived elsewhere for fifteen years, I wanted to discover, as I met this city anew as an adult, how its intellectual life oriented itself. Books had become vital to my life in my time away, ever since I’d taken up scouring the shelves of a gay used bookshop in college to make sense of my burgeoning sexual identity, or begun hiding out from campus life in my university library’s stacks. I’d even taken my first bookseller job at a Barnes & Noble, to distract myself from losing my academic scholarship. Books had helped me shore up my identity during some of the most tumultuous periods of my life. I’d schlepped them from one apartment to another across Brooklyn because I’d needed them, the one constant in a very transient existence.

I began work unsure if the store would ever become my community. As I expected, its clientele, like its surrounding neighborhood, was overwhelmingly white and affluent. I felt wary of seeking entrée into the city’s life of ideas through this space; doing so seemed to affirm a long-held assumption of mine that bookishness sat adjacent to whiteness.

But the books themselves put me at ease, the Baldwin and Morrison and Lethem creating space for me there almost instantaneously. Even casual encounters at the store—joking with one of our regulars about the eclecticism of his latest online order or straining for a piece of trivia once a customer had begun riffing on a book of history or current events—recalled the cadence and mental dexterity I missed from my years in New York. In my time away, I’d grown accustomed to fashioning a self from the ideas I erected in conversation. Back at home, I feared losing this ability to self-invent. Surrounding myself with so many characters, and people to whom those characters meant something, convinced me that self-invention was still possible here.

In my first few weeks at the store, I was surprised by how much of local book buying seemed built on light suggestion: a recommendation in the column of the local daily newspaper, a review on NPR, a sticker that indicated inclusion in a celebrity’s book club, or simply word of mouth. That was all it seemed to take really, a gentle nudge in a direction one had not known to explore before. Meanwhile, whenever I was asked for a recommendation and didn’t have one to give, I felt embarrassed. I began assessing my reading habits, wondering if my tastes had grown too narrow. Over the years, my book diet had calcified into reading mostly with a writer’s professional intent—what new author should I be aware of, what techniques could I claim as my own from the “literary fiction” establishment. To me, backlists were paramount. I wanted to devour the work of writers that might shape my own work. My reading habit had become the act of falling down rabbit holes, taking up known literary fixtures like Lorrie Moore or Alice Munro and burrowing into their entire oeuvre.

It took me some time to realize that the store’s book culture operated differently than I did as a reader. Most of my experiences with books came through used bookstores or the library. Rarely had I engaged this book-buying public, the kind who convenes in book clubs or scouts front-list new release titles. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d bought a book strictly for the thrill of trying it out. Rather than separate from this culture, however, I felt drawn closer to the community of readers. I liked knowing their reading habits, observing them as they came looking to acquire a new addition to their bedside table.

Over time, my perspective on my hometown shifted too. During the pandemic, I watched the community make an especial effort to patronize the store once the storefront had been shuttered. In my second year behind the register, I could now intuit deeper connections between the store and its clientele. Initially, I felt some distrust and resentment of book clubs. I saw the proliferation of clubs throughout the city as an enemy to the kind of public discourse I sought, an echo of the principles that led to so much privatization in civic life here. But after visiting one, sharing dinner with eight or ten middle-aged white women while discussing Chris Offutt’s Country Dark, I recognized the intersection between these groups and the broader culture. I came away with a new admiration for the public/private dynamic of such clubs after that visit, admitting that the discussion had probably benefitted from a more exclusive gathering, as most members had offered some insight about the text. I soon recognized how these clubs sat at the intersection of discourse and commerce, the bookstore serving as a loudspeaker for clubs to communicate their opinions back to the broader literary world. As various clubs ventured through the store to pick out their next selection, their members restored my faith in these groups, who were just as engaged in national discourses about timeliness and popularity as anyone else shopping the New York Times Best Sellers list.

Over the past year, the store has gone through many iterations due to the pandemic that have fundamentally changed the way we engage customers. We’ve shifted from a conventional storefront—where I mostly directed customers to the store’s sections and offered reading advice—to a fulfillment center, where I prepped books for shipment and storefront curbside pickup. We finally reopened with entry stipulations and a maximum capacity count. Bookstores across the nation have adapted by reimagining their online presence, instituting book concierge programs and building out their online events capacities. WordsWorth followed suit, demonstrating one of the key qualities of a small business, robust adaptability, throughout the pandemic.

Such adaptability has also led to the growth of one of the store’s newest sections, Racial Justice Non-Fiction—which gathers books on combating racism—a shelf that at one point last year was the store’s most heavily trafficked. Even my own jaded perspective about cross-cultural exchange shifted after seeing my store’s clientele shop this section of their own volition, without any prompting or nudging from me, without any need for my affirmation or validation. When asked, I felt emboldened enough to admit that I hadn’t yet picked up some of the most popular titles, instructional works like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist or Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility. Instead, I’d opted for the social policy works like Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership and Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. Perhaps, in recommending these titles, I was still trying to comment on the store’s rarified location.

Still contemplating my own fresh thoughts about whiteness, privilege, and discrimination, I appreciated that the store’s clientele granted me a respectful amount of time to do so without seeking counsel, comment, or absolution from me. Such restraint reminded me of my astonishment at seeing such interracial crowds at the city’s protests against police brutality last summer and led me to feel some hope that this time, white Americans might be willing to go further in addressing their willful naiveté when it came to American injustice. This time I might even be able to do my own work, unearthing my own complicity or voicing my own lament. Working through those feelings of mine, I’ve felt supported by the community within my bookstore, who’ve granted me the grace, and also the privacy, to begin figuring things out on my own. 

Frederick McKindra

Frederick McKindra, fiction writer and essayist, lives in Little Rock. His essay “Becoming Integrated” from the Fall 2017 issue of the Oxford American was listed as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2018, edited by Hilton Als. He has also contributed to the OA’s online series The By and By. A 2017 BuzzFeed Emerging Writer Fellow, McKindra has received support from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and the Lambda Literary Foundation.