Sean Liburd spent much of Tuesday night answering emails from customers, most looking for books to help them better understand the mass protests against police brutality in the United States and broader anti-racism movement that some are engaging with for the first time.
Everyone wanted to read about the topic, which urges action to identify and overcome structural and other types of racism, said Liburd. Teachers sought educational materials and kids wanted books on how to talk with their parents about problematic behaviour from older generations.
Unlike the vast majority of his typical client base, “a lot of those people” were white, said Liburd, who co-owns Knowledge Bookstore in Brampton, Ont. About 95 per cent of the books he sells at the shop, which he’s owned for more than 20 years, are written by black authors as part of an effort to educate black readers of all ages about African history and culture, as well as help them see themselves represented in literature.
Amid mass demonstrations against structural racism spurred by George Floyd’s death in police custody in Minneapolis, Minn., activist-created book lists have been widely shared across social media for would-be allies to educate themselves on white privilege, systemic racism and the history of being black in America. Sales of such titles have spiked in recent days, and retailers are trying to meet the demand, with orders for some titles jumping fivefold from a week prior.
“We’ve seen a massive increase even just in the couple of days… since protesting started,” for books about racism, said Noah Genner, CEO of BookNet Canada, a non-profit organization that tracks sales data for physical (not digital) books.
Many of these titles saw sales jump hundreds of percentage points for the week ending May 31 compared to the week prior, according to BookNet’s most recent data.
Desmond Cole’s The Skin We’re In: A Year of Black Resistance and Power jumped 185 per cent in sales that week, while Robyn Maynard’s Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present soared 172 per cent.
BookNet also noted a spike in orders from retailers, said Genner.
“We’re seeing percentage increases there of five- and six-hundred per cent.”
Buy from black-owned bookstores, activists say
Where possible, activists encouraged people to purchase these books from black-owned businesses.
Liburd operates one of the few black-owned bookstores in Canada. He’s only aware of one other with a storefront in the country.
He started to notice an increase in interest around the past weekend. On Monday, he received calls and emails from people interested in purchasing books they’d seen recommended on social media or others on the topic. Cole’s The Skin We’re In was a popular request, as was Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for People to Talk About Racism, among some others, he said.
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“Yesterday was crazy,” he said. “Yesterday, I think, was probably our biggest online sales day.”
When he last checked traffic statistics at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday, some 1,300 Canadians had visited the bookstore’s website and about 30 orders were placed. There would have been more orders, he said, except some of the popular books were out of stock.
Many of the people contacting him over the past 48 hours are not his regular clientele, he noted, but are reaching out because of the mass protests.
He’s somewhat conflicted about the sudden interest.
WATCH | Author Robyn Maynard speaks about anti-black racism in Canada:
“On one side, I am extremely pleased about it,” he said.
“It just, it saddens me a little bit that, you know, it had to get, things had to get to this place where we have America pretty much on fire… All of this negativity has to take place before people start really paying attention.
“I think people are actually trying to do the right thing right now. But the hope that I have is that it will be something more long term,” he said.
Liburd spent more than a quarter of a century studying African history and related issues, and said it takes time to gain a fulsome understanding of such a complex issue.
“I’m just hoping that people will actually make it more of a lifestyle,” he said, and “actually instill some of your readings… make it an actual part of your life.”
Black-owned businesses in the spotlight
Black-owned businesses beyond bookstores may also experience a boost in sales as activists urge people to consider supporting the community now.
Willy Mahailet started AfroBiz.ca in 2018 to showcase black-owned businesses in Toronto. It eventually grew to include other parts of Canada and now lists more than 600 such establishments across the country.
Over the past few days, more than 50 new businesses joined the platform, he said, and the website received more than 40,000 views on Tuesday — an almost 1,000 per cent increase.
“It’s really had an impact — an immediate impact.”