As PW previously reported about this year’s Winter Institute, there were two issues uppermost in booksellers’ minds that framed many of the conversations that took place during the annual gathering: how to make the industry more diverse and how to sustain the indie bookstore business model. Last Thursday’s panel on “Hiring for Diversity and Inclusion” fused together these two seemingly disparate issues.

The panel featured two speakers: Mecca Sykes-Santana, senior v-p of diversity, inclusion and community engagement at the Westchester Medical Center Health Network in White Plains, N.Y., who provided an overview of the issue from a human resources perspective, and bookseller Marc Villa, one of 12 employees in the children’s book department at Politics Prose in Washington, D.C., who explained some of the ways in which Politics Prose has executed its longtime goal of hiring booksellers from diverse backgrounds and creating an inclusive atmosphere in the store.

While diversity is “a righteous pursuit” in itself, Sykes-Santana said, it is also good for business: having a diverse workforce will increase booksellers’ sales and thus market share. And inclusion results in higher employee retention rates, as engaged employees will work harder —even for less pay.

Sykes-Santana urged booksellers to do such things as reach out to and partner with community-based organizations, to more efficiently tap into a pool of diverse job candidates.

“Do not limit the conversation to women and minorities,” she cautioned the audience of about 40 booksellers. Diversity in hiring decisions should be defined broadly, she noted, to encompass differences in ability, geographic and cultural backgrounds, education levels, and religious/social/ philosophical beliefs. Villa concurred, recalling that his disclosure that he was the father to an adopted child from another country appealed to his future colleagues during his job interview. His life experience, both as a Filipino-American and as a father, adds to the diversity of PP’s children’s department. While there are only two men on staff in the 12-person department, which is headed by an African-American woman manager, a variety of ages and ethnicities are represented. Ever since the department was established in the downstairs area of the store, there has been a conscious commitment to cultivating a diverse staff to better serve customers.

Villa noted that PP is committed to hiring employees with a variety of life experiences, as well as literary expertise, so as to build a “knowledgeable staff who can perform multiple roles.” Villa warned that even though employees are committed to diversity, there can be unconscious biases when interviewing job candidates. Politics Prose always has at least two and oftentimes three staff members interview job candidates to more effectively guard against biases. “This also tells the job candidate that we take hiring decisions very seriously,” he said, noting that, from the interview onward, PP strives to create a culture of inclusion.

Engaging all of one’s employees is essential, Sykes-Santana agreed, “Diversity in itself gives you nothing. Inclusion is the goal. Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being invited to dance.” She urged booksellers to create a welcoming environment by treating all employees as “valuable individuals,” particularly employees from diverse backgrounds. “Leverage the diversity for the benefit of the organization,” she said, “People want to belong to, connect with, something that is larger than themselves.”

Creating a culture of inclusion is not just about hiring diverse employees, the two panelists noted. It’s also about welcoming diverse customers into the store. Besides hiring diverse booksellers, they suggested stocking a variety of books on the shelves and putting up inclusive book displays to foster an inclusive atmosphere. These practices are also a way to build brand loyalty, as customers are more likely to return to a bookstore where they can find books with characters and themes reflecting themselves and their children.

“The work you do is not just selling books,” Sykes-Santana said. “It’s also cultivating readers.”

After a robust discussion between audience members and panelists that went overtime by 10 minutes, ricocheting between lofty ideals about diversity and prosaic matters about store operations, a first-time Winter Institute attendee, Emmanuel Abreu, a bookseller at Word Up, a community bookstore in Washington Heights, N.Y., summed up the entire session, declaring, “Just treat [diverse customers and diverse employees] like you would treat any white person.”