Paddling on Both Sides of the Canoe

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Here, Andy Weinberger, co-owner with his wife, Lilla, of Readers' Books in Sonoma, California, takes a look at customers who take it upon themselves to act as morality cops, and he makes the case for tolerance, diversity, and the public's right to information. This column originally appeared in the November/December issue of "One for the Book," an occasional newsletter from Readers' Books.

By Andy Weinberger

The other day we got an e-mail from our old friend Tony Miksak. Tony runs Gallery Books in Mendocino, a fine and venerable place not unlike Readers' -- smack-dab in the middle of a tourist town, "user-friendly," "community oriented," "pro-children," etc. I put all these compliments in quotes for a reason, and that is because Tony recently had a difficult exchange with a group of his customers.

These folks wanted him to stop selling the writings of Bill O'Reilly, a neo-conservative voice of radio and TV. They didn't like him, thought he was evil. They so disliked him in fact, that they wrote to Tony threatening that if he continued to sell O'Reilly's books they would take their business elsewhere. (In Mendocino that means either a long drive or trading with -- which also sells O'Reilly).

As it happens, Tony doesn't much care for O'Reilly's point of view either, but in the interest of freedom of speech, he felt obliged to keep him on the shelf. After much discussion he was unable to persuade these old lefties that tolerance and diversity lies at the heart of bookselling and that little is ever gained by "shooting the messenger."

Over the years we have also had a few run-ins with customers who take it into their heads to become morality cops. Some examples:

  • An anonymous woman recently called to say that she would no longer shop at Readers' if David Ford, the author of two books promoting the benefits of marijuana, was allowed to speak at the store as scheduled in our newsletter. This woman contended that marijuana killed her daughter; by refusing to trade with us she imagined she would somehow strike a blow against the tragedy that had befallen her.
  • An anonymous man once called to tell us he wouldn't shop here because we were having John Cornwell at the store. Cornwell is a devoted Catholic who wrote a book about how the intransigent policies of the Pope were slowly killing the Church. This troubled him greatly. It also troubled the man who called. He said it wasn't right to "criticize and tear down" the Church.
  • Another anonymous woman called after Harry Wu came to speak at the Community Center. Wu was imprisoned in a Chinese labor camp for 17 years; he has been writing about Chinese injustice ever since, including how many products from China sold here are produced by slave labor. The woman had a lot to say about Mr. Wu. She said that the merchants of San Francisco's Chinatown wonder where he gets the money to travel about. She said they think Harry Wu is a "front for the CIA." Unspoken here, of course, is the fact that the merchants of Chinatown derive their living from some of those products Wu claims are tainted by slave labor. But that's another story.

Everybody is entitled to an opinion, and by choosing where you spend or don't spend your money you make a statement. There is a greater good, however, it seems to me, and that is the public's right to information. It may be that in these times neither the left nor the right can be relied on to offer new ideas or simply defend the truth. It may be that everyone is just too entrenched or too polarized or too scared.

I just want to say for the record that I can live with that. I am not afraid. I have learned to paddle on both sides of the canoe and still keep it light in the middle.
A man (unidentified) came in the store last week and asked for a book called Shut Up & Sing. "It's a conservative book," he sneered. "You probably don't carry those in here."

"Oh, sure we do, " I said. "We carry Mein Kampf. Big conservative seller."

The man looked at me blankly.

"It's a joke," I said.

He didn't get it.