Book ban

Shelf Indulgence Is Starting a Mobile Bookstore That Will Feature Banned Books

Shelf Indulgence is fighting statewide book bans by providing access to censored literature.

By Isaac Eger February 27, 2023

Image: Gigi Ortwein

In light of the recent spate of book bans, the Sarasota bookstore Shelf Indulgence is raising funds on Kickstarter to complete a Book Bus—a mobile bookstore that will prominently feature banned and challenged titles.

The bus, an old yellow Bluebird with the seats stripped out and replaced with book shelves, needs a paint job, and it doesn’t come cheap.

“We have to pick it up in Ohio and drive it back down here,” says Shelf Indulgence owner Nikki Snyder. “We didn’t realize it costs $10,000 to $15,000 to have a professional paint the bus. We feel like if the bus stays yellow, it looks like every other bus and our message will get lost, so we are painting it purple. It needs to stand out.”

Snyder plans to use local artists to paint images and use quotes from famous authors about the perils of book bans. Initially, the idea for the bus was to create a mobile book fair for adults.

“As a kid, going to the Scholastic book fair was always so exciting,” Snyder says. “We just wanted a way to create some of that fun and rekindle the love of reading in adults. Because, so often, after we finish school, life gets in the way and you lose that passion for reading.”

But over the past couple years, as the number of challenged or banned books in Florida has grown, Snyder felt compelled to fight against censorship. She has a son in 10th grade in a Sarasota County public school and says she recently had to sign a waiver in order to let him check out books from the school library without needing her approval for each title.

“I had to sign off on all the books we are reading in English class,” she says. “His teacher had to cover up his personal library. It’s really scary.”

Snyder says she wants to use her powers for good: “We want to make a big part of the bus raising awareness of banned books. That is a very real issue all over the country, but especially in our area. If we have the power to bring awareness to it and make those books more accessible, then that’s what we want to do.” 

Maybe there’s a silver lining in all this. Americans across all demographics are reading fewer books than previous generations. One poll showed that more than 50 percent of adults haven’t read a single book in the past year. Even college graduates, normally the most voracious of readers, are picking up books in lower numbers than in past decades.

But censoring books has the odd effect of making them more popular. Last January, when the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted to remove the graphic novel Maus from its curriculum, the book shot up the Amazon bestsellers list to No. 1. The board banned Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust that uses mice as avatars for Jews, because of “rough language” and a drawing of a naked woman. As a result of the ban, Amazon ran out of stock and more copies had to be printed.

I asked Snyder if she’s seen an increase in book sales as a result of the book banning. “We've seen an uptick in book sales recently, but that could be because it’s our busy season,” she says. “But we have noticed uptick in interest of books that are being banned.”

Is banning books even effective? The Zoomer generation lives on the internet, where they can access information politicians and parents want to shelter them from.

“If we erase the knowledge of the information, which is what our legislators are trying to do, then we are going to have a whole generation that don’t even know this information exists to search it out on the internet,” Snyder says. "If Toni Morrison’s books are banned from our school library, then an entire generation will not know that Toni Morrison’s books exist.”

But maybe the banning of books will pique the interest of younger generations. When Morrison’s Beloved became a culture war touchstone in the Virginia gubernatorial race in 2021, the classic novel reached No. 3 on the Amazon bestseller list. Because of conservatives' efforts to cancel the book, it’s likely that more people know about it.

What concerns Snyder is accessibility. “The issue is those that don’t have means who are used to checking out those books from the school library or getting those books from their teachers,” Snyder says. “Those are the people that are most affected because they can’t buy them off Amazon.”

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