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Shakespeare Books to close

Citing declining sales and the stress of a squabble with the Oregon Shakespeare Festival over her display of allegedly racist books in a banned book display, Judi Honore, owner of Shakespeare Books & Antiques, said she is closing down her shop at the end of October.

Honore said her sales are down at least 40 percent since OSF Executive Director Cynthia Rider announced July 26 that, because of “hurtful and offensive” racial caricatures on a book cover in Honore’s banned book display, visible in the front window on East Main Street, her staff will no longer make festival-related purchases there.

OSF also objected to display of the books “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” “Huckleberry Finn,” “To Kill a Mockingbird” and “Little Black Sambo” (all banned books) near “The Wizard of Oz,” which was the basis for “The Wiz” musical, now playing at OSF.

Past summers have posted good sales — about $20,000 a month — but when she sold $2,355 in the first 12 days of August, with a $59 day on Aug. 22, Honore gave her required 60-day notice on her lease the next day, she said.

Honore said many well-wishers have dropped by the store to talk and support her, but not to buy books. Signatures on a petition protesting OSF’s ban on patronizing the shop for festival-related items filled 54 pages.

“I didn't make the decision to close based on sales alone,” Honore said in an email. “I found myself totally stressed out, breaking out crying a lot, losing sleep, and no longer finding joy in what I used to find so joyful. I will miss my store terribly, but I am a business woman and I know when my store is in trouble.”

OSF did not return calls seeking comment but on Monday, Communications Manager Julie Cortez sent an email saying the festival didn’t make the situation public, Honore did.

“If Judi is seeing a reduction in her business, that is either occurring for unrelated reasons or due to her decision to go public in the media and in her store windows," the email said. "Given that OSF has only made one or two small purchases for Festival use at Shakespeare Books & Antiques over the years, the decision … was not about causing Judi financial hardship, but about communicating to our colleagues of color that we believe them and stand with them.”

City Councilor Carol Voisin, a supporter of the shop in the dispute and a candidate for mayor, said, “This is not good. It’s a very sad day that Ashland is losing that shop."

Voisin was a booster of a buy-in Tuesday, where customers could support Honore with generous purchases. It attracted about 10 people. Ashlander Leonard Berlin, a “premier” OSF member, said the boycott is “a disgrace. I’m shocked at OSF. I thought they would reconsider their action. It makes me not want to support that organization. I’m that disturbed. I would have liked to see them apologize for … censoring this shop. … They can’t see how they punished the owner. It’s not a very humane organization.”

Ashlander Nancy Parker, attending the buy-in, said, “It’s appalling, people stooping to search for ways to be outraged, instead of coming together. I would like to see OSF meeting quietly and having a conversation to resolve it. … This is not that difficult, if people can stop admiring the problem.”

The dispute started when four members of the all-black “Wiz” cast protested the display, said Honore, so she and the four rearranged the books, hugged, and she thought the situation was resolved. She said Rider got emails about it, called Honore and wanted to come to the shop to discuss it, but Honore went to OSF and they talked for half an hour, not resolving their differences. In following days, said Honore, many more "Wiz" cast came by, expressing their displeasure, sometimes with raised voices.

Though she put “Sambo” in a spot not readily visible from her window, Honore left the display up, saying these books must not be banned again, but should prompt teachable moments. The present display has an Indian edition of “Sambo” showing an Indian boy in the jungle. The book was written by an Indian author about a boy outwitting tigers in an Indian jungle,she said. However, the original “Sambo” in the display showed a jet-black boy, which Rider, in her letter to Honore, characterized as a “blackface” caricature, with racist origins, that was hurtful to acting staff.

Honore said the buy-in Tuesday gave her the only good sales day in recent weeks, but emphasized she is not appealing for money to stay in business.

The OSF statement said, “We at OSF support the right to free speech just as we support values-based business decisions. … (We) wish Judi success in keeping her store open for business, and in her future endeavors."

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

Judi Honore, speaking to supporters Tuesday, said she is brokenhearted to be closing her Ashland store, Shakespeare Books & Antiques. Mail Tribune / Denise Baratta