Surprise! Independent bookstores fare well over the holidays
In a holiday season dominated by buzz about the Kindle and other digital reading devices, independent bookstores held their own, according to Publishers Weekly. with neither a surge nor a plunge in sales. The hottest title: A comfort food cookbook.
I choose to view this as excellent news. Despite the rise first of chain stores, and then discount Internet retailers, independent bookstores remain the fundamental commercial institution of literary culture, places where you can’t by an e-reader, only real books and magazines, where books are sold by hand by clerks who actually read.
After polling more than a dozen leading independent stores around the country, PW reports booksellers experienced “a typical” holiday season, with most stores slightly up or slightly down in sales. “There were no reports of exceptionally strong or exceptionally bad sales.”
As might be expected, mega-hyped bestsellers like Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol, didn’t do as well at independent bookstores as they did elsewhere. Customers preferred entertainments like the paperback edition of Steig Larsson’s The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a literate thriller that started with little publisher support and grew to popularity through positive reviews and word of mouth.
Other “favorites” at independent bookstores: Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kittridge; Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna; R. Crumb’s The Book of Genesis; Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin; and the nonfiction Stones into Schools, by Greg Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea.
That’s an eclectic list of novels and nonfiction, plus a graphic retelling of the first book of the Bible by an “underground” artist. As you can see, “independent” not only refers to the business model of these booksellers, but also to the taste and sophistication of their customers.
Still, many independent bookstores reported the title most in demand was Ad Hoc at Home, a $50 cookbook by Thomas Keller, a chef who runs five-star restaurants in New York and Los Angeles, plus the “casual family eatery” Ad Hoc in Yountville, Calif. It’s a book praised by The New York Times for its “cozy” versions of easy-to-make American classics like fried chicken, spaghetti-and-meatballs, chicken pot pies and other comfort foods. Many stores couldn’t keep the book in stock.
Not surprisingly, given the economic climate, customers were selective and price-conscious, with high-end books and gift items doing poorly. People wanted more for less, PW reports.
That makes it all the more encouraging independents avoided a bad holiday season. As I’ve noted elsewhere and often, anyone who cares about books, reading and literary culture should buy all or most of their books from independent stores, whenever possible. If we lose these stores, it will be a cultural calamity.
So get on down to the independent bookstore, if there’s one in your community. You too can be smart and sophisticated, and if you can’t decide what you want, ask for a recommendation from a store clerk who will likely have read the book she suggests. Who wants to follow the Amazon herd anyway?