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Anti-Racism and the Museum Stores

by Tim Niedert, Book and Media Manager, and Stuart Hata, Director of Retail Operations

The Museum Stores, as a department of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, recognizes and embraces the clear institutional call to evolve into an anti-racist institution and to promote greater inclusiveness, diversity, and representation.

Unlike other general retail businesses, the Museum Stores must maintain unconditional focus on the guidelines governing the Museums’ institutional operations. The store’s mission statement defines our educational role in support of the Museums’ many collections, exhibitions, and programs. All merchandise sourced and offered in the stores needs to adhere to this mission. This acts as our underlying compass, fundamentally directing all decisions on the products we choose for the stores.

Books, as a category, occupy a unique position in this overall merchandise mix. No other single item in the stores so concretely demonstrates the support of our mandated educational mission. Assembling a select list of related titles in support of diversity and inclusion was a natural early response to the greater institutional call. In the same manner that we would put together a selection of related titles for a special exhibition, we put together a list of books centered around the critical subjects of anti-racism, representation, and inclusion.

A key title from this new vital grouping, for example, is Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist (One World, 2019). Displaying and selling this book helps to initiate a difficult dialogue on societal privilege in a much more overt way than a mug, magnet, or T-shirt. Other products are not exempt from our mission statement and do actively fulfill an educational role, but perhaps not in the same way as a related book. Other new titles, such as A Black Women’s History of the United States (Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross, Beacon Press, 2020), or An Indigenous People’s History of the United States (Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Beacon Press, 2015), posit complex ideas regarding alternate cultural histories and representation unrivaled by other product categories.

Beyond simply buying new assortments of books, the actual method we use to merchandise and prioritize existing inventory works to help solidify our commitment to anti-racism and diversity. The Museums’ directive challenges us to reevaluate the overall impression of what we choose to feature and present to customers, because our visual displays essentially define the story we tell as a retail operation. Customers perusing stacked copies of Hung Liu: Portraits of Promised Lands (Yale University Press, 2021) are encouraged to enter its narrative of migration and marginalized peoples.

Independent booksellers thrive by offering a curated selection of books, from featured new arrivals to staff recommendations. Customers entering those stores gravitate towards the front displays, looking for that distinct grouping of hand-picked titles. Our museum stores have a similar dynamic, with impactful displays presenting our own curated list of titles for consideration. We hope that by better representing our own diverse Bay Area communities with these offerings, we can provide a more welcoming experience for all our customers and tell a more inclusive story. An outward facing display of Chinatown Pretty: Fashion and Wisdom from Chinatown’s Stylish Seniors (Andria Lo and Valerie Luu, Chronicle Books, 2020) celebrates the rich heritage of the Chinatowns in several cities, and the seniors who contribute so much to their neighborhoods and communities.

This merchandise strategy also extends to our online store shop.famsf.org. Over the past several months, we have highlighted several collections of books on various landing pages to support the Museums’ initiative. Categories such as “Great Women Artists,” “Black Artists Matter,” and an ongoing diversity and inclusion callout are intended to promote and better celebrate representation. Similar to in-store customers stepping inside our physical space and engaging with our merchandise displays, our online customers encounter these thematic highlights right on the home page for books.