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How independent bookstores help in the fight against book banning and why it matters

Jan Bolgla and Bob Roarty have owned and operated Atlanta Vintage Books for more than 16 years.
Fernando Alfonso III
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NPR
Jan Bolgla and Bob Roarty have owned and operated Atlanta Vintage Books for more than 16 years.

BROOKHAVEN, Ga. — The graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank's The Diary of a Young Girl was the last book Jan Bolgla expected to see yanked off public library shelves in the 16 years since she and her husband bought a used bookstore filled with cats, artwork and, as of this past week, a banned book section.

Bolgla shared this somber observation on the eve of Banned Books Week while petting Big Boo, a Maine Coon rescue purring atop a glass case full of rare books. Near the store's entrance was a bookshelf Bolgla's sister-in-law Michele Bolgla had stocked with Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451, George Orwell's 1984 and J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, each of which have been or are currently banned in parts of the U.S.

This is the second year Bolgla and her store have participated in Banned Books Week, which ran from Sept. 18 through Saturday, out of pure necessity and solidarity, she said.

One of the permanent fixtures of Atlanta Vintage Books has been its family of stray cats, including Big Boo.
Fernando Alfonso III / NPR
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NPR
One of the permanent fixtures of Atlanta Vintage Books has been its family of stray cats, including Big Boo.

"We're very into books being a place of knowledge, and sharing knowledge, and banning books and censorship is really something we feel strongly about," Bolgla, 66, said.

"There should not be censorship," she said. "... Booksellers are lucky, because we get to sell whatever we want to sell. So we can sell the banned books, but what they're doing to schools and libraries, for that generation coming up, not being able to experience diversity as much and seeing it as a bad thing, we feel very strongly that it is not the right way to go."

Part of a small rebellion

Bolgla's store, Atlanta Vintage Books, is one of hundreds of independent bookstores across the country that have celebrated the freedom to read this week at a time when schools, universities and public libraries face what experts say are unprecedented attempts to ban or restrict reading materials.

The U.S. is on track to see the number of book challenges exceed those in 2021, the American Library Association said in a news release.

Between Jan. 1 and Aug. 31 this year, the ALA said it recorded 681 attempts to ban or restrict library resources, and 1,651 unique titles were targeted. In all of 2021, there were 729 attempts to censor library resources, targeting 1,597 books — "the highest number of attempted book bans since ALA began compiling these lists more than 20 years ago," the organization said.

The irony of books like <em>Fahrenheit 451</em> being banned in parts of the U.S. is not lost on the owners of Atlanta Vintage Books. Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel tells the story of a future where books have been outlawed in society.
Fernando Alfonso III / NPR
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NPR
The irony of books like Fahrenheit 451 being banned in parts of the U.S. is not lost on the owners of Atlanta Vintage Books. Ray Bradbury's dystopian novel tells the story of a future where books have been outlawed in society.

Independent stores like Bolgla's have a crucial role to play in providing physical access to books in states like Texas, South Carolina, Wisconsin and Georgia where public libraries are under threat of censorship, said Deborah Caldwell-Stone, director of ALA's Office for Intellectual Freedom.

"Booksellers are devoted to free access to information and they have their own advocacy organization to protect their freedom to provide information to their communities, make books available in their communities," Caldwell-Stone told NPR. "I think booksellers are a vital part of the ecology of reading and access to information."

Banned Books Week is one of the most important ways to counter banning attempts and to give voice to those who have been marginalized for far too long, said Ray Daniels, chief communications officer for the American Booksellers Association. And yet despite the independence afforded to the ABA's more than 2,000 members spread across 2,500 locations, some have not been immune to censorship, Daniels told NPR.

"We hear from our independent bookstore members that these kinds of attempts at censorship are spilling over into bookstores, with customers complaining if a store carries a book that they don't like. We firmly believe a bookstore has a right to curate its store as it sees fit," he said.

This concern was also echoed by Jonathan Friedman, director of free expression and education programs at PEN America.

"I think it's only a matter of time before there is more pressure placed on independent booksellers, as well," Friedman told NPR.

"I think democracy is a lot more fragile," he said. "I think the protection of freedoms that we have to sell books, buy books, read books, write books, I think those rights are a lot more fragile than people will have imagined in recent years and taken for granted. And now we're seeing what happens when we start to chip away at those rights."

A lifetime worth of ink in their veins

Each day since purchasing Atlanta Vintage Books has been an adventure, Bob Roarty, 69, said.

Some days, those adventures involve holding a signed first edition of James Joyce's Finnegans Wake, published in 1939, while others have involved gazing upon a signed copy of Charles Dickens' Hard Times, published in 1854.

The love Roarty and Bolgla have for books has been nurtured for more than a half-century between them; the former as a printer and the latter as a designer. At one time, the couple owned a publishing company called Drury Lane Publishers.

"We love books, we love the feel of books. We love how they're made," Bolgla said. "We are avid readers. I think Bob is a fast reader. I'm a slow reader."

The couple purchased the store in 2006 after spotting a for-sale ad in a local Atlanta paper, Bolgla said. They saw the store as a way to escape the endless deadlines both faced in their professional lives, Bolgla said.

A look at the sign outside Atlanta Vintage Books in Brookhaven, Ga.
Fernando Alfonso III / NPR
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NPR
A look at the sign outside Atlanta Vintage Books in Brookhaven, Ga.

"We thought, if we don't try it, we'll regret it. And if we have to sleep in the basement, we'll sleep in the basement of the store," Bolgla said. "We both have the same philosophy about loving books, wanting to try it. And moving on to something new. And we had kind of no idea what we were about to do."

Whatever doubt the pair once had is no longer apparent. Last year marked the best for Atlanta Vintage Books and the store is currently on pace this year to match or exceed that, Bolgla said. Banned Books Week has factored into this success, for better or worse, Michele Bolgla said.

"There is so much fear and ignorance in the world now, the concept of keeping knowledge away from people is more frightening than ever," she added. "I am reminded of my favorite quote, from one of the most-banned authors, Ray Bradbury: 'You don't have to burn books to destroy a culture. Just get people to stop reading them.' "

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Fernando Alfonso III
Fernando Alfonso III is a supervising editor who manages a team of editors and reporters responsible for powering NPR.org.
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