Powell's Commitment to Free Speech
Dear Powell's community,
At Powell’s, a lot of our inventory is hand-selected, and hand-promoted. And a lot of our inventory is not. Unmasked by Andy Ngo came to us via one of our long-term and respected publishers, Hachette Book Group. We list the majority of their catalogue on Powells.com automatically, as do many other independent and larger retailers. We have a similar arrangement with other publishers.
Since Sunday, Powell’s has received hundreds of emails, calls, and social media comments calling for us to remove Unmasked from Powells.com. Due to protests outside our Burnside location, we have chosen to close our store, including curbside pickup, to keep our employees and customers safe. We are monitoring the situation daily and we will reopen when it is safe to do so. Our other locations and website remain open.
As many of you may be following these events, I want to offer additional context about our decision to allow this book to remain online.
Since the first published texts there have been calls to disown different printed work, and at Powell’s we have a long history of experiencing these calls, and the threats they bring with them, firsthand. Until recently the threats were from those who objected that we carried books written by authors we respected or subjects we supported. The threats were real but we could feel virtuous — we were bringing the written word to the light of day. We could feel proud of our choices, even when the choices created conflict.
Our current fight does not feel virtuous. It feels ugly and sickening to give any air to writing that could cause such deep pain to members of our community. But we have always sold books that many of us would reject. We have fought for decades, at Powell’s, for the right of a book to stand on its own. Doing so is one of our core values as booksellers.
In our history we have sold many copies of books we find objectionable. We do that in spite of all the reasons not to, because we believe that making the published word available is an important and crucial step in shedding light on the dark corners of the public discourse. It is actually a leap of faith into the vortex of the power of the written word and our fellow citizens to make sense of it.
That leap of faith is inextricably woven into our existence as Powell's: faith in our customers is what first propelled us from a small corner store into who we are today. We recognize that not every reader has good intentions, or will arrive at a writer’s intended destination, but we do believe that faith must extend to our community of readers. That offering the printed word in all its beauty and gore, must ultimately move us forward. As my father says, if your principles are only your principles sometimes, they’re not principles at all.
Read more about our commitment to free speech below.
President and Owner
Frequently Asked Questions
Other businesses choose not to sell certain products for a variety of reasons. What makes bookselling unique?
In 2021, bookselling is an act of faith as much as it is a commercial enterprise. As booksellers we trust that people will continue to value the labor, artistry, and tempo of the written word in a digital era; and we trust that readers will make educated decisions about the information they come across in the books they buy.
There are very few places left in America today where the free and peaceable exchange of opposing ideas is practiced. By virtue of their inventory, bookstores can be such a place. In the interest of fostering thoughtful dialogue and illuminating American discourse as it stands — as opposed to how we wish it looked — we allow both righteous and deplorable books to share our virtual and physical shelves.
Why wouldn’t you make an exception to your policy for a book as inflammatory as Unmasked?
Unmasked was written by a provocateur who has made a career of inciting violence over inflammatory and inaccurate ideas that divide people into factions. It is natural that his supporters and detractors have passionate, emotional responses to our carrying his book online.
While this experience feels new and raw, it is not new to Powell’s. In our history we have sold many copies of books that we or others find objectionable and faced many threats for doing so. We have fought for decades for the right of a book to stand on its own. Doing so is one of our core values as Powell’s booksellers and making an exception for Unmasked or any other book erodes the strength and purpose of that value.
Why would you carry books you find deplorable?
Booksellers are not censors. We have the privilege to curate, promote, and act as guides to the books and ideas we value, but it is antithetical to our core mission of free speech to impose limits on what our customers read. At the end of the day, making space for books and readers with whom we disagree is the nonviolent antithesis to the dominant impulse to shout down (or worse) anyone who doesn’t support your worldview, something we see daily on social media and, more terrifyingly, in America’s seats of power. Given the choice between holding our noses over a book and bowing to pressure to begin banning them, we will always choose the former.
Why would you sell the book online but not in stores?
Even a store as large as the City of Books can’t carry every book on the market. To expand our offerings for our customers, Powell’s and many other retailers make their distributors’ and publishing partners’ catalogs available for purchase online. This is how a book like Unmasked, which our buyers did not purchase for the stores, finds its way onto Powells.com.
Our Commitment to Free Speech
As an independent bookstore, Powell’s believes that it is our responsibility to respect your choice of reading material. We are dedicated to providing a wide array of books, authors, viewpoints, and voices, and our selection is one of the things that sets Powell’s apart from our peers in bookselling. We provide these options out of deference to the First Amendment, but just as importantly, because we believe that exposure to a multiplicity of writing — in fiction and nonfiction alike — facilitates critical thinking and spurs conversation and growth.
There are books in our stores and online inventory that contain ideas that run counter to our company’s and our employees’ values of safety, equality, and justice. However, many of us also read these books to inform ourselves about events; learn about local and global history; and to understand the arguments of people and groups with whom we disagree. While we understand that our decision to carry such books upsets some customers and staff members, we do not want to create an echo chamber of preapproved voices and ideas. It is not our mission or inclination to decide to whom our customers should listen.
Our reading lists, blog posts, and store displays highlight and promote our support for minority voices, racial justice, and human rights. We will use our platform to amplify righteous causes. We will, however, also continue to carry a broad inventory because we believe it is the best way to do the fundamental work of bookselling, which is to make available and disseminate ideas and foster dialogue.