Lauren Groff on Opening a Bookstore in Florida
In Conversation with Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan on Fiction/Non/Fiction
Novelist Lauren Groff joins co-hosts Whitney Terrell and V.V. Ganeshananthan to discuss the new independent bookstore she and her husband are planning in Gainesville, Florida. The Lynx, which Groff aims to open this spring, will feature banned books, an act of resistance in a state where more than half of school districts have seen book banning activity over the past two years. Groff reads from her recent novel, The Vaster Wilds.
From the episode:
Whitney Terrell: As we talked about on this show, before, you know, in addition to targeting BIPOC and queer communities, book bans disproportionately affect young people. PEN America recorded nearly 6,000 book bans in the U.S. between 2021 and 2023. Two thousand eight hundred and twenty-three unique titles over the last two years. So you have no shortage of books to choose from that could be in your store. How are you going to curate the shelves? Will you be featuring young adult literature or special sections for Black and queer literature? Are there any favorite banned books that you have that you want to make sure you’re gonna put up front?
Lauren Groff: Oh, absolutely. This is not just a banned bookstore. It’s not just the Florida literature store, it’s a full service bookstore, right, you can come and read New York Review of Books classics, right. But we are going to emphasize and put a lot of weight behind these banned books, these LGBTQI+ books.
There are so many incredible books that have been on the banned books list. I printed out, actually, the very recent Orange County list of banned books and they have things like Paradise Lost by John Milton, which is hilarious. Even the angels don’t have sex in that. They have every Toni Morrison ever done, and as you know, if you’re trying to ban Toni Morrison, you’re not trying to… You don’t care about literature, or you don’t care about the state of the country’s soul. You care about keeping people from seeing themselves in books, you care about keeping people from understanding history in the most beautiful and powerful way that history can be shown to people. So, it’s just absurd, right?
I mean, there’s this one book, and I can’t remember exactly what it was, that was banned because it had a little cartoon of a little boy’s bum running down the street. I mean, like nouveau Puritanism. It’s so absurd. And Salvage the Bones, for instance, is being banned. I have so many favorites. My book was banned in a certain county. And it’s silly, right? I really feel like the people who are doing these bannings… By the way, it’s mostly two people, with the new-speak name of Moms for Liberty, who are doing this. It’s two individuals who are doing most of the book banning in Florida. These people don’t care about anything but keeping people from having the freedom of the choice of what they want to read, right? It’s not about quality. It’s not about morality, it’s about imposing their will on the will of Floridians. And I think that’s absurd and stupid and the opposite of freedom.
V.V. Ganeshananthan: So, I’m curious—which of your books was banned and which district banned it?
LG: You know, I’m forgetting the county but it’s Fates and Furies, and I think it’s because of the sex scene. Also, I actually secretly think it’s because Barack Obama really liked it, and he put it on his list. They just saw that and were like, Oh, forget it. She’s off. Like, how dare, how dare…
VVG: I’ve seen interviews with folks who have launched banned book challenges, and I remember one of the people who had launched a challenge against, I think it was Amanda Gorman, had not read the material that they were challenging, which seems to be, given how many bans there are in Florida, I don’t see how they could possibly actually be reading all of this material. So just to put some numbers on this for our listeners, who have heard us rail about Florida before, PEN says Florida’s bans increased 148 percent between the past two academic years, with “over half of all Florida school districts experiencing banning activity.”
And there’s specific legislation going into this courtesy of Ron DeSantis and a conservative state legislature. A couple of years ago, he signed the law that’s commonly known as “Don’t Say Gay” law, which prohibits class instruction about gender and sexuality, as well as a media “transparency” law that requires K through 12 library materials to go through this approval process, and there has to be a certified media specialist. And now in the last legislative session, there’s a new law that came out of that that requires all Florida school districts to give parents a way to limit their children’s library access. A thing that, as far as I can tell, the parents of Florida were not actually jonesing for.
So far this school year, data from a group called the Florida Freedom to Read Project, where I learned all of this, shows that the vast majority of parents given this option to control their children’s reading, are not opting in. But the school districts are erring on the side of caution, doing things like removing all materials from library and classroom shelves just to be safe. So in some districts, they’re just like, No, there will be nothing on the shelf. So are these the parents and kids who are The Lynx’s potential customers? What has the community response so far been to the idea of your store?
LG: Oh my gosh, people are so excited. We’ve gotten so much help from people who just want to make this thing happen. All of the work going into the store has been local work so far. The logo came from friends of ours, the person doing the interior architecture is a friend of ours, because people really want this to happen, right? People are so excited to have something that they can do materially to push back against this very threatening gray cloud of banning and restricting, and so it’s thrilling.
And one of the things I’ve been very excited about and working really hard on is this Indiegogo that I’ve been putting together. It’ll be launching on the 10th. And it has incredible things like, Kristen Arnett and Kayla Kumari have this wonderful gay night out in Orlando, that they’ll take people out for a tour of gay Orlando, which is so exciting. And Kayla, who’s also an editor at Autostraddle, is doing a mini-mentorship for LGBTQI people in nonfiction, too. And we have people like Hernan Diaz, who just won the Pulitzer, and Karen Russell, Laura Vandenberg, doing Zoom calls into book clubs, things like that.
I’m very excited because this, you know, this is not my store. I’m the person pushing it into the world. I want the store to be everyone’s store, right? I want the store to be the store for the tiny transgender girl down the street, whom I love very, very much, but feels threatened, right? I want this store to be for all the people who are pitching in to help make it happen, for the employees, right for the people who need it. They’ll come to the store and tell us what they need, and we’ll work to try to make it happen. So it’s a store that has a mission for sure. It’s also just—bookstores are the most delightful places on the planet, and I wanted to build a little heaven in Gainesville.
WT: I just wanted to move on to the logistics of setting up a project like this. There’s a lot of steps between saying I’d like to have a bookstore and having a bookstore. My experience with independent bookstore ownership is in Kansas City. There’s Rainy Day Books, which is run by a friend, Vivien Jennings, who I’ve known for many, many years and whose son I actually went to high school with. So, what’s that process like? What’s gone into it so far? And what has to happen before the store opens on April 1.
LG: Maybe on April 1! We’re hoping on April 1. It’s so much work. I put together novels. This is like, four novels to open a bookstore. You know, luckily, the American Booksellers Association is absolutely spectacular, and they give you a lot of help. We have been blessed with a fairy godfather in Mitchell Kaplan down at Books & Books, who is basically an advisor for us as well. Ann Patchett, when I told her about the bookstore, she wrote me an email, she goes, “You fool! I’m so proud of you.” It’s a very foolish thing to do, I know. But it’s necessary. And I want to live in a place that has tons of author events, that has ideas circulating and reverberating through the town. I want to bring people into the literary life, and a bookstore is the best possible way to do it.
That said, we’re in the middle of paring down basically everything that’s in the physical space right now, because it’s disgusting. And we’re going to build it out into something absolutely beautiful. It takes a lot. It takes a lot of coordination, a lot of money, and a lot of organization. And my poor husband is doing a great deal of organization. And so am I. So we’re working full time on this. It’ll happen. I hope.
VVG: So did you design the bookstore? Do you work with someone? All of us walk into stores, and we’re like, Oh, this store is so gorgeous. It makes me feel a certain way. But I don’t know how often I think about how a space is arranged to make me feel a particular kind of joy or, you know, when I go to certain stores, I associate certain staff members or certain bookstore owners with certain stores. Like the way things are curated, a cozy space, or a big open one. How is this going to be laid out?
LG: The impetus is actually—I think the term is cozy academia. Oh wait, no, dark academia.
VVG: Dark academia?
LG: So it’s, yeah, it’s a little bit quirky.
Transcribed by Otter.ai. Condensed and edited by Anne Kniggendorf. Photograph of Lauren Groff by Eli Sinkus.
“Gainesville author Lauren Groff hopes new downtown bookstore will ‘link’ community together” by Lillian Lawson | The Gainesville Sun • “A new report shows how corrosive book banning is. Novelist Lauren Groff is fighting back” by Emily St. Martin | Los Angeles Times • “A Look Ahead to 2024: Laws and Book Bans in Florida, Iowa, and Illinois | Censorship News” | School Library Journal • “Spineless Shelves: Two Years of Book Banning” | PEN America • “Thousands of books were banned in Central Florida in 2023. Here’s what to expect in 2024” by Danielle Prieur | NPR • “Nearly 700 books, including celebrity bestsellers, banned in Orange County, Florida” | PEN America • “Why Toni Morrison’s Books Are So Often the Target of Book Bans” by Olivia Waxman |Time |January 31, 2022 • “Florida County Bans 673 Books, Including ‘Paradise Lost,’ ‘The Color Purple’ to Comply With State Law” by Alec Dent | The Messenger • “Book Bans Are Rising Sharply in Public Libraries” by Elizabeth A. Harris and Alexandra Alter | The New York Times • Florida Freedom to Read Project • Hernan Diaz • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 5, Episode 12: “Intimate Contact: Garth Greenwell on Book Bans and Writing About Sex” • Fiction/Non/Fiction Season 6, Episode 52: “Brooklyn Public Library’s Leigh Hurwitz on Helping Young People Resist Censorship”