Nahid Khan displays part of his collection at the Minnesota Antiques Fair in July in St. Paul. Khan is among the first recipients of the new Diverse Voices Fellowship, which is part of the Antiquarian Book Seminar held annually at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn.
Jaime Harker is no stranger to the book business. She is a professor of English at the University of Mississippi and has self-published several books. Her latest book, The Lesbian South, delves into the history of queer and feminist publishing.
In 2017, she opened Violet Valley Bookstore, Mississippi’s only queer and feminist-focused bookstore.
However, there is one side of the book industry that it has never been able to completely crack: the rare and antique book trade.
“It was always very interesting to me and I couldn’t find my way in,” Harker said. “If you happen to fall into it, you have this net. But from the outside it was really impenetrable and tended to look quite clicky.”
The rare and antiquarian book market has historically been dominated by whites. Now the industry is trying to change that.
Nahid Khan displays part of his collection at the Minnesota Antiques Fair in July in St. Paul.
The annual seminar on antiquarian books held at St. Olaf College, launched a new Diverse Voices Fellowship this year. The program brings five people from underrepresented communities — such as black people, LGBTQ+ people and women — to learn the trade for a week-long seminar at a college in Northfield, Minn. Harker is among this year’s scholarship recipients.
Rob Rulon-Miller, owner of Rulon-Miller Books and faculty member and former seminar director, has been selling rare books since the 1960s. Especially when he started, he said, the industry was exclusive.
“It wasn’t like it was a secret society … but it was to some extent,” Rulon-Miller said. “The information was kept very close to the chest.”
Rulon-Miller got into the trade because his father was a book collector. Without some connection, he said, it was difficult to get to the door.
The Diverse Voices Fellowship is among the new programs trying to change that. It is part of a wider push for diversity and equity in the industry; the scholarship was modeled after similar scholarships at the University of Virginia School of Rare Books.
Fellows began meeting virtually a year before this year’s summer seminar, then took a trip to New York to learn about the trade.
Nahid Khan is another contributor to the program. He is from the Twin Cities and has been collecting Muslim American literature for decades. After the seminar, he plans to launch an online store and pop-up sales; such new business models, instead of traditional brick-and-mortar bookstores, help new sellers enter the industry at a lower cost.
Khan began collecting after working as the bookstore and library manager at the Islamic Center of Minnesota in the 1990s. She said her interest in the bookselling industry has been rekindled recently as she has seen the Muslim American community grow and publish more literature.
“Now it’s 25 years later and there are more books, more beautiful cultural treasures and more audiences,” Khan said. “I see a great opportunity here to come back to the area.”
Khan displayed part of her collection at the Minnesota Antiques Fair this summer, the week before the seminar. It offered a sample of the last 100 years or more of Muslim American literature.
Older works on the desk included what she described as a “gift book” published in Minneapolis in the 1930s called “The Prayer of Allah” and a children’s book from the 1970s called “Shazira Shazam and the Devil” — none they are not authored by Muslim writers. or aimed at Muslim readers, Khan said. They are based on vague stereotypes about Islam and the Middle East, without reference to real folk stories or specific places.
They remind her of the books she read growing up.
“It’s kind of weird stuff that’s supposed to represent my general cultural background,” Khan said. “When we were young, we just didn’t know what to do with it.”
It is better presented in more recent publications. As an example, she pointed to a locally published Somali-English bilingual children’s book written by a Somali-American author.
Re-evaluating who will be part of the industry goes hand-in-hand with re-evaluating the books themselves.
“People are now collecting really cool works by black American authors, looking at subgroups in pulp, queer print culture is becoming a really interesting topic,” Harker said. “Once people recognize that it’s important and interesting, it becomes a new kind of market for creating and preserving these things.”
Rulon-Miller said he’s also seeing more visibility for non-white, Western works.
“The special collections librarians were mostly white, and they collected based on what they knew,” Rulon-Miller said. “They have very little material on underrepresented communities, but that’s changing.”
Khan said she still sees room for improvement in publishing and bookselling. While it’s easier than it used to be, she said it’s still hard to find Muslim American literature that avoids stereotypes.
She said she hopes keeping the books that are already there will help continue the progress she’s seen.
“I’d like to see people read it and think, ‘I could write a book, too.’ I could also illustrate a book. I could be creative and build more of our culture.'”