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Your donation will support The Ithacan's student journalists in their effort to keep the Ithaca College and wider Ithaca community informed. Your contribution will allow us to purchase equipment and cover our annual website hosting costs.

Bookstores in Ithaca create inclusive spaces

Buffalo+Street+Books+is+an+indie+bookstore+in+Downtown+Ithaca+that+values+diversity+and+intends+for+their+customers+to+be+aware+of+this+inclusivity.
Kaeleigh Banda
Buffalo Street Books is an indie bookstore in Downtown Ithaca that values diversity and intends for their customers to be aware of this inclusivity.

Independent bookstores in downtown Ithaca are selling diverse literature and creating inclusive spaces for community members to explore a variety of perspectives amid the rise of online shopping and an increase in book banning.

Odyssey Bookstore and Buffalo Street Books are two indie bookstores downtown. Both stores value diversity when choosing what books to sell and their company websites share this intention to make customers aware of their inclusivity. The general manager and lead buyer of Buffalo Street Books, Lisa Swayze, said she wants the store to be a safe place for everyone who walks through the doors.

“We are deliberate in our choices to carry books for the specific community that is Ithaca,” Swayze said. “We curate to include a diversity of voices and experiences so everyone in our community can see themselves in the books on our shelves.”

Book bans across the world in libraries and schools have caused access to books about diverse topics to be limited. Books that contain content about people of color or mention the LGBTQ+ community are commonly banned. Some parents want to ban books that talk about characters in these communities because they deem them “inappropriate.” 

To help stand up to this, Swayze said she highlights books that have been banned on the recommended shelf in the store. 

“Books reveal shared experiences and offer hope during transitions and difficult times,” Swayze said. “Books can be life-saving; why would anyone want to stop that?”

Ithaca’s community is naturally diverse because of the large number of students from all over the world attending Ithaca College and Cornell University. Students who come from places where book banning is prominent now can have access to books they never got to read at home. For example, Florida has banned over 1,400 books across school districts and libraries

Cathy Michael, communications librarian at Ithaca College, said it is important for students from any place to walk into a bookstore and see themselves on the shelves. She also said even students who are not in a marginalized community and have had limited access to inclusive literature benefit from reading diverse books.

“Hearing different life stories will help you develop your values and be able to understand other people,” Michael said. “If you grew up in a community where there wasn’t a lot of diversity, a book is an entry into that.”

Owner of Odyssey Bookstore Laura Larson said she makes sure her store is a welcoming place. She said anyone who walks through the doors is immediately greeted and given personalized assistance if requested. 

“We greet every single person so anyone who walks through the door can feel seen and engaged,” Larson said. “We’re welcoming people into our space and letting them know that we’re here to connect with them.”

PBS annual reports state that systemic racism continues to negatively impact people of color in the United States today and the American Civil Liberties Union also explained that in the beginning of 2023, there were 124 bills introduced that negatively targeted the LGBTQ+ community. Book bans, according to the NAACP, represent acts of policy violence that continue to promote anti-blackness in the U.S. 

Michael said she sees how reading diverse books will help create more understanding in times of conflict. 

“We’re in this world that’s full of fire and violence and sometimes disengagement,” Michael said. “You want to be able to sympathize with other people’s perspectives in these times.”

We Need Diverse Books, an organization dedicated to promoting and publishing diverse literature, said that understanding the perspectives of the marginalized groups through diverse books can spark more empathy and therefore support as a result. 

Through the lens of a book, readers experience many different lives and connect to the stories. This builds a bond between anyone who has read the book or understands that experience.

“I think books are a wonderful way to bring people together and show them what they have in common when, in my opinion, too much of life is focused on what we don’t have in common,” Larson said.

While books can help readers understand more about different perspectives, they can also help readers understand more about their own identity. By learning about lives different from their own, readers can learn about what they want their lives to look like. According to “Why Diverse Books Matter: Mirrors and Windows” by ¡Colorín Colorado!, having a selection of books by diverse authors that cover a wide range of subject matter and that cater to any type of reader allows a bookstore to be accessible. 

This ensures that anyone who steps in the store can find a book they can see themselves in or discover more about something they never knew existed. 

“By having a diverse selection of books on my shelf, I’m helping people find doorways to other perspectives that they may not have access to,” Larson said. 

Other difficulties that bookstores have, aside from book bans, have been trying to support their small business through the challenges that online shopping poses. The convenience of clicking a button in the comfort of one’s own home is appealing to many shoppers but this means fewer people are going out to shop at local businesses.

“It would be great if more people understood how hard it is to keep an indie bookstore afloat these days,” Swayze said. “Our industry is seriously threatened by the Amazon monopoly.”

The COVID-19 pandemic forced many people to turn to online shopping. Since then, some people have continued to shop online. Indie bookstore owners need to provide something that online cannot, to show customers why they should choose to shop locally. 

“It’s my job to give people a reason to choose to shop for me,” Larson said. “I hope that if they come in here, they’re like, ‘Oh, I like buying from Odyssey.’”

Odyssey Bookstore has a personalized subscription service where customers can share their preferences and get custom books picked out for them. Larson said they only carry one copy of each book they sell to show that every book deserves to be read, not just the commercially popular ones.

Unlike buying a book online, local bookstores allow for one-on-one interactions between employees and customers. This personal experience helps customers get recommendations that suit their needs.

“What we’re good at is helping you find that just right book that maybe you weren’t even aware was out there,” Larson said. “Amazon cannot do that; people can do that.”

Buffalo Street Books creates a sense of personal community in other ways. The store hosts events and rents out its reading room as a place for people to gather and read books together, hear from authors, learn from lecturers or for a personal event. 

For example, one event that they hosted recently was “How to Have Anti-Racist Conversations” with Roxy Manning and Martha Lasley. Roxy Manning is the author of “How to Have Antiracist Conversations: Embracing Our Full Humanity to Challenge White Supremacy” and “The Antiracist Heart: A Self-Compassion and Activism Handbook.” She spoke with facilitator Martha Lasley, a partner at the Authentic Communication Group, an organization that integrates Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion work, and attendants were able to learn more about her work. Both the books and events make Buffalo Street Books an educational and diverse space. 

Odyssey Bookstore customer Jennifer Chapman said she prefers to support the local bookstore as opposed to Barnes & Noble. Since downtown has many small businesses, if a customer wants a coffee and a book, they can support two local shops at once. 

“When you go to Barnes & Noble, they have Starbucks there; it’s all big,” Chapman said. “Here, it gives you an opportunity to support local businesses because there’s a local coffee shop and a local bookstore.”

Odyssey Bookstore also has a unique ambiance. The store is sectioned into small rooms with seating and warm lights. Chapman said she likes settling into a seat just to read and stay a while.

“I like the cozy atmosphere and the people are nice,” Chapman said. “It also gives me an opportunity to embrace local businesses.”

Indie bookstores strengthen communities across the world. Larson said she likes that her store is a place where people can stop and connect for a moment.

“I feel the conversations have ended up being an unintended beautiful consequence,” Larson said. “These casual conversations that we get to have all the time and that people sometimes have with each other.”

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Kaeleigh Banda
Kaeleigh Banda, Assistant Photo Editor
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