From our compatriots at Washington City Paper comes the word that Rush Limbaugh’s feelings are tremendously hurt because Busboys and Poets, the Washington-area bookstore and restaurant that has its liberalism as a core part of its brand, is not selling his new children’s book. Apparently, he complained:
This is exclusionary, it’s racist, it’s bigoted, and it’s the opposite of everything they claim to be. And it’s exactly what they accuse us of being. They claim that they’re tolerant. They claim they’re open-minded. They claim that they are colorblind and all that. They are the most bigoted, racist people. They exclude here and exclude there and then they don’t make any money and they can’t figure out why.
My two books are in the top five on the New York Times best-seller list, and here’s a woman at a bookstore who wants to sell books, is begging people to buy ’em, proudly says that two of the books in the top five are not even available at her store, and she wants accolades for that. These people are loony. They simply are dumb. They don’t have the slightest idea what they’re doing.
Not that Limbaugh knows this or cares about it, but Busboys and Poets is not exactly run like a Barnes and Noble, a big, publicly traded company. Relative to the square feet devoted to the restaurant in the chain’s 14th Street NW location, the bookstore is a comparatively small part of the operation, and it is run by a nonprofit. In the past, the rent for the store has been subsidized by the food service part of the business.
That organizations are run this way may be a surprise to Limbaugh, whose highest value in this equation is a focus on making money. But, however weird it may be to him, plenty of places and people get along just fine by treating the size of their profit margins as just one of several measures of success.
And when it comes to independent bookstores, staying viable may not just be a matter of stocking the books on the bestseller list.
It is one thing if you are a big-box chain bookstore with no particular ties to the communities where you are located, catering mostly to what is numerically popular. But if you are a neighborhood bookstore, the best route to financial success may be to meet the specific needs, particularly the unmet needs, of the people who live closest to you. For Busboys and Poets, that means selling books by minority authors and with minority subjects and main characters. “Rush Revere and the First Patriots” is not so much on-brand.
Figuring out what that brand is, and how to serve the surrounding community, has been a struggle for Busboys and Poets since owner Andy Shallal opened the restaurant and bookstore in 2005 during a wave of gentrification.
As Todd Kliman wrote in a profile of Shallal in the Washingtonian, “What the neighborhood needed was not another hip gathering spot with neon-colored, double-digit-priced drinks. What it needed was a place that grappled with the changes in the area–and the fears they engendered among blacks and whites alike. Not a restaurant exactly. Or not a restaurant exclusively. Rather, a vibrant and inclusive meeting place that might bridge the old U Street with the new U Street.”
Shallal’s intentions and what Kliman described as a heavy dose of self-flagellation did not prevent Washingtonians from voicing doubts about Shallal’s execution at Busboys and Poets at the time of its opening.
In the years since, Shallal’s restaurant empire has taken root and grown to include Eatonville, a Zora Neale Hurston-inspired eatery that serves Southern cuisine, in part by staying on brand. Like the books his store sells, Shallal’s restaurants have a counter-cultural vibe without being so radical as to drive away the brunch crowd. They draw from a variety of cultural traditions without seeming to pose any sort of entrance exam: The menus are varied and friendly.
This is how you often have to operate if you are an independent business. You find a niche small enough to let you be specific, but not so small as to exclude any part of your potential customer base, and you stick to it. Sometimes that means not selling a book that is broadly popular with Americans, but not with the clients you want to serve because you want your values, tastes and priorities to be clear.
Devoting shelf space to “Rush Revere and the First Patriots” would be a waste for Busboys and Poets. If Limbaugh were really the business genius he makes himself out to be, he might know that what is good for him and what is good for independent bookstores is not always going to be the same.