Guest Opinion: Let's create more indie bookstores

  • by Ken White
  • Wednesday September 13, 2023
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Ken White. Photo: Courtesy Ken White
Ken White. Photo: Courtesy Ken White

When I worked at A Different Light Bookstore on Castro Street in the 1990s, it was the cultural hub of the LGBTQ neighborhood. You could feel the energy. Whether you were meeting someone before dinner or visiting from out of town to experience the gay mecca, everyone (even Cher!) came through those doors.

It wasn't just because we hosted famous figures like Gore Vidal, Dorothy Allison, and RuPaul, or because we sometimes stored protest signs for ACT UP, or because we provided a safe space for the queer community. And, no, it wasn't because we had a restroom people could use. It was because, before TV and mainstream movies, books were almost the only way to find healthy representations of LGBTQ people. Books and their writers were the first to create realistic and complex portrayals of our communities.

But then, independent bookstores have always been at the forefront of championing free expression. Just look at City Lights Booksellers & Publishers in North Beach, when it published Allen Ginsberg's "Howl." Or remember the now closed location of Books, Inc. on Market Street, where in 2013 I helped create the first Drag Queen Story Time ever in a bookstore. (I really should have trademarked that!)

Even today, indie bookstores continue to fight for freedom of expression. In Texas, for example, BookPeople in Austin and Blue Willow in Houston are suing the state over a homophobic and transphobic "book rating" law that would limit access to LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming content in schools and libraries. This would harm teenagers who rely on these kinds of books for their well-being.

The outlook of that lawsuit is looking positive for free speech, thankfully. People watching the case are finding out that, no matter how bad the new law sounded at first, it's actually worse.

The suppression of ideas by fearful authority is not just an LGBTQ issue. In certain parts of this country, schools are prohibited from teaching kids about representation, race, and Black history. People are finally beginning to realize that Black lives matter, but how much has really changed since the deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd if you can't say their names?

I have worked in an industry that promotes ideas and thoughts but still does not have a broad representation of Black Indigenous people of color professionals. This is one reason I'm involved in the creation of BincTank. BincTank's mission supports the creation of new bookstores owned by BIPOC individuals in underserved areas nationwide. Every community deserves their bookstore.

BincTank is a new pilot program of the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc), which will provide access to capital, education, mentoring, networking, and ongoing resources to support Black and Brown bookstore owners. Research shows that all these five components, and not capital alone, make a successful foundation on which to build a sustainable business. And Binc is the perfect place to create this kind of incubator, as it's the only 501(c)(3) in the country that is dedicated exclusively to supporting the people who own or work at book and comic stores.

Established in 1996, the core program provides assistance to bookstore employees who have a demonstrated financial need arising from severe hardship and/or emergency circumstances. Since its inception, the organization has provided over $11 million in financial assistance and scholarships to more than 10,000 families. It is our vision to be a caring community of book and comic people.

Bookstores are more than places to buy books. We hope that the new BIPOC-owned stores we support have the chance to be the next A Different Light for the people they serve, by becoming centers of culture, politics, and a gathering spot for their communities.

For those of us who already have a bookstore in our neighborhood, I want to remind you of their vulnerability, as well as the value that these stores bring. When you're deciding where to buy, why not choose the people who support and understand you?

Instead of shopping online every time, maybe meet up with your friends at these stores before heading out to dinner. Get to know the staff and let them give you personalized recommendations. Sign up for their mailing lists to stay informed about their events and activities. It may not seem like much, but diverting just 10% of our online spending toward local and indie stores can really make a difference in their continued success.

Ken White, BincTank's program manager, has been a member of Binc's board of directors; and was on the boards of the American Booksellers Association, and of the Castro Community Benefit District. He has managed bookstores large and small; specialty (LGBTQ) and general; for-profit and nonprofit. White has lived experience as a queer person of color-identified bookseller. The opinions expressed above are his own.

To learn more about BincTank, go to Those interested in supporting Binc and its programs can donate securely at

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