Ruta Smith

I love books. I am an African American woman, and a bookstore owner. My name is VaLinda.

I was born and raised in Washington, D.C., and am a longtime resident of South Carolina. Quite frankly, I came from poverty. When I was growing up as a little girl, I would have been termed “disadvantaged.” And, yes, occasionally and despite the best efforts of the wonderful people who raised me, I went hungry. I mention these circumstances only so the reader understands a little of my background. [content-1] For much of my life, it had been a seemingly unreachable ambition of mine to own a bookstore. Yet, about six years ago, I somehow managed to purchase a bookstore in Seneca. Five years later I had to close that store, The Booksmith, for several reasons. However, my store manager and I successfully transferred the contents of that store to a brand-new location in the city of Goose Creek, where I reside.

Were I to tell about my personal life, part of that retelling must bring out how discrimination and racism has affected my life and existence many times, and in a variety of ways.

Growing up, I saw the effects of segregation on my mother and my grandmother, and other members of my family. As a juvenile, I witnessed the years of struggle waged by black people to win their civil rights as equal citizens. Network TV news coverage and newspaper coverage, and the images, controversy, actions and the rhetoric from that time — which have continued through the years — all helped change the conscience and passivity of a large segment of the United States. As a famous Bob Dylan song of those days asserted, “The times they are a-changing.”

To me, black lives have always mattered — as do all human lives. Now today, along with all the other residents of this country, I am living through a spiraling sequence of accumulating tragedies that have pierced our black communities the hardest during these more recent days and over the past several years.
[location-1] So now I must re-examine the question I have been asked: What can a bookseller do in the face of all the hurt, the tragedy and the anger that incites and divides us? How might a bookseller serve her community when protesters, the authorities, politicos, pundits, and the various media representatives are all talking across and past one another, and little understanding is being achieved?

There was a time before writing, as there was a time before the reading of words. There existed precursors of such abilities; for instance, human beings left painted outlines of their handprints on cave walls, and alongside, at approximately eye level, painted depictions of the different animal lives that co-existed with them.

Only in a later, subsequent time, when both new information and older information contained in oral traditions were being recorded and set down in writing, were categorical distinctions developed. Thoughts, ideas, events, personalities and human motivations were being written down, and thus preserved as sources and materials, as paths of research for referring back into the past. Those written records would be subjected to reconsideration, interpretation, and contribute to greater coherency in histories, and the better understanding of our shared human condition.

Book publishing became a great, respected industry and profitable business, as did bookstores. Books were written and published for all ages, motives, and pursuits. Books taught A-B-Cs, and entertained the young. They provided adventure to the juvenile reader. Textbooks and workbooks became a mainstay of school systems.
Worthwhile books were an education in themselves, no matter the subject. The stories, histories and biographies found in books carried the sum of a peoples’ culture, and helped bring to immediacy both a manner and means for relating to and living among others most beneficially.

Yet, for a significant segment of our present society, reading has gone out of fashion. Chain bookstores and independent bookstores continue to close. The profits to be made publishing books have declined, as the industry becomes riskier.

Those who have fallen away from reading often profess disinterest in books, or admit to finding books and the notion of reading boring, and this designation extends to more than just young people. They choose to reside in a world dominated almost exclusively by electronic media, particularly the various forms of social media.
[content-2] There is no doubt that present day society has been undergoing a tremendous cultural shift. Yet why do so many of us desperately abandon what is good, and what should be continuously handed on to our future? Far too large a percentage of people are woefully ignorant of even the most basic of facts about the world or even country they inhabit. Too many, through their behavior, ignore and even disparage those aspects of ordinary human character and conduct intended to shape us for living in and contributing to a civil society.

This year we, along with the other inhabitants of the world, have faced the COVID-19 pandemic, businesses closing, job losses, unemployment levels not seen since the Great Depression, social distancing, widespread anxiety and financial insecurity, teleworking, Skyping, Zooming and now a televised murder that has kicked off many days of protests in cities across the country. And if lives are in danger, black lives are especially in danger.

This month I celebrate the one-year anniversary of the opening of my new bookstore, the Turning Page Bookshop.

It is not a location dedicated merely to the selling of books. I intend for it to develop into a community space: A space to hold poetry readings, where students may display their art work publicly, where book clubs can meet, where authors may hold readings and signing event. A place where black lives matter. A place to introduce and celebrate newer African-American authors. A place to bone up on history, or any number of academic subjects. A place to read of those great lives that have preceded our time.

I intend the store to be a place for neighbors and book lovers to socialize, to be a safe haven for children for feel secure, a place where children are always welcome to spend time and browse our shelves. The fundamental purpose of my bookstore has always been to serve my community in all the capacities that a bookstore can fulfill.

And if there is a portion of a generation that has largely given up the habit of seeking out and reading interesting books, then Turning Page Bookshop will be found always in the forefront of providing books to children of the generation coming up, and proving to them, now and hopefully for their lifetimes, that reading is wonderful.