February 25, 2013

New scholarships offered specifically to booksellers


Though of course any bookseller would tell you not to open your books like this.

More great things are afoot from the BINC Foundation of Ann Arbor, Michigan.

As we mentioned in November, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation was begun in 1996 to aid Borders bookstore employees in moments of financial hardship. The Foundation survived the dissolution of Borders and has recently expanded their warrant to include booksellers from all stores across the country. In the aftermath of hurricane Sandy, for instance, BINC helped booksellers who had lost wages because stores were without power for days or weeks.

Now BINC has broadened their scope of their scholarship program as well, and is offering up to $100,000 in scholarships for all booksellers or their dependents, not just Borders alums. They offer two tiers of scholarship, at $2,500 and $5,000. The deadline for applications is April 18th, and they can be filled out online. I advise all booksellers and their families to get on this now while the program is only newly broadened and, presumably, the competition is less fierce than it may be in coming years.

The scholarships are given out based on need and qualification. Of the 2012 recipients, BINC writes that the average high school GPA was 4.00 (though that says more about how broken the grading system is in this country than anything.) The recipients seem to be using their scholarships at a broad array of schools—community colleges, liberal arts schools, immense educational behemoths—which is heartening. Among the most striking details about the list of 2012 recipients—other than the immediate physical exhaustion triggered in me by even a glimpse at the sort of questions we are all made to answer in order to justify even a slightly lessened financial burden for what is, by now, just the equivalent of standard schooling—is that none seem to list bookselling as an immediate goal.

The scholarships are surely a wonderful program. but they lead me to a question, though one very much beside the point here: what of the relationship between secondary degrees and bookselling? Should they be required for booksellers? Are they even advisable? Many of the applicants for this scholarship seem to be dependents of booksellers: is it strange for me to wish that they might like to become second-generation booksellers themselves someday, like Suzanna Hermans of Oblong or Zack Zook of BookCourt? And those recipients of the scholarship that are currently booksellers, are they using the potential of a degree to move away from bookselling? There’s no fault in that, of course, not least because booksellers in this country are almost uniformly members of the precariat right now, a service class only ever one paycheck away from disaster.

I brought the topic up with Alison Foreman of BINC. As to whether secondary degrees are useful for booksellers, she writes,

Absolutely.  Booksellers and bookstore employees are very well educated.  Many bookstore employees have four year degrees and many have advance degrees from Russian literature to Doctorate degrees in fine art.  The varied educational dreams and aspirations of booksellers helps them when sharing their passion for why reading and bookshops are needed in our local communities.
Her point, and it’s a subtle one, is that booksellers who have come to that vocation—and I do think that’s the inevitable word for it—from a broad variety of backgrounds and educations are a persuasive argument for the value of that profession and for the continued place of bookstores in our communities.
Again, this is tangential to the topic of the scholarships on offer, which are happily available without consideration of whether the recipient gives two figs about bookselling, but I, perhaps perversely, enjoy the idea of bookstores as a redoubt for autodidacts. A college education is undeniably useful for booksellers, yes. School gives you time to read, or at least time to regret not having read what you should have been reading could you only will yourself to go without sleep. Being well-read is one thing that separates a bookseller from a clerk. But some of the best booksellers I’ve known, some of the best people I’ve known, are those whose education came from the very books they deal in every day. It would be a shame if we were to lose that.

Dustin Kurtz is former marketing manager of Melville House.