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Wednesday
Sep172008

Read Any Fun Novels Lately?

Something happened at the bookstore Saturday that compelled me to share what is at once an unsettling and commonplace incident in the lives of most frontline booksellers. A customer asked me the following question:

Can you recommend a novel that is just pure fun?

You know the feeling when that question comes up. You look into the face of this aspiring optimist and you marvel that such a creature still exists. You want to help if you can, especially when your customer smiles and adds:

Everything I read is so depressing. I just want to be entertained.

Life is hard. You understand. And it's not as if you're unprepared to field this deceptively innocent query. You won't laugh or lecture because you are neither an elitist nor an idiot. You accept the challenge, aware that any response except a helpful one is not going to make either of you feel better.

Then you consider your fiction section and think: What the hell is fun? Maybe, somewhere in the mischievous recesses of your bookseller mind you consider a Tolstoyan riff:

All happy novels are alike; each unhappy novel is unhappy in its own way.

If you do not know this customer, you begin where you always begin. You ask questions, get a sense of the wind and water before setting sail. You find some way to delve into their conception of how "fun" might translate to the printed page. Even as you ask about all this, however, other unspoken questions may occur to you.

Are comic novels, where humor often springs from the darkest shadows of human experience, fun? Are serious novels with redemptive endings more fun to read than serious novels with unhappy endings? Is snark fun? Is satire fun? Is literary slapstick fun? Come to think of it, what is literary slapstick and where can I find some?

Among the five or six novels I'm currently reading, I'd nominate Steve Toltz's A Fraction of the Whole as the fun one of the bunch. It is dark and hilarious, with lines that make me laugh out loud alone (an unsettling experience I'm sure you've had, too). What contributes to the fun-ness factor of this relatively dark story is its exquisitely sharp narrative tongue ("People are not mysterious because they never shut up."), and dialogue that snaps with brittle, sometimes painful humor, as in this exchange between mother and teenage son:

"You talk to yourself," she said, placing her hand on my forehead. "Do you have a temperature?"
"No."
"A little warm," she said.

"I'm a mammal," I mumbled. "That's how we are."

Is this what my customer meant by "pure fun"? Apparently not, since my noble efforts--replete with energetic description and selected, funny quotes--to convince this particular reader that the prospect of a "fun read" existed between the covers of such a novel generated some laughs but no sale.

In the end, we settled for one of the usual suspects fun titles I can always handsell in this situation. A few of them are opening line hits, where you simply suggest they read the first sentence and try to resist continuing. Others are easy handsells because of particular characters or odd but humorous plots.

Nonfiction readers have it easy. The "Health" section of the Los Angeles Times recently featured a helpful list of "some of the happiness books that have hit shelves in recent months."

And Huffington Post's Lloyd Garver complained he "was in a bookstore the other day, and you know what? It's getting harder and harder--especially in a big chain bookstore--to find a book. I mean a real book. Literature. Or and least something that you can't read while you're also watching TV. The reason you can't find the kind of book you're looking for is that all the self-help books about how to be happy fill up the shelves. Ironically, this makes some of us quite unhappy."

Granted, some of Garver's "happy books" qualify rather tenuously as nonfiction, but what's to be done about my reader who's looking for works of "light" or "entertaining" fiction?  

I could tell you what happy titles I usually recommend, but I'm not going to. Not yet, anyway.

Instead, I'd love to hear what your "fun fiction" answers are to this ongoing sales floor challenge. How do you handle the fun novel question in your bookstore when customers demand their fundamental right to the pursuit of literary happiness?

Tuesday
Sep092008

Listening to Ancestral Voices in Bookstores

Several years ago, in Cloister Walk, Kathleen Norris cited these words from Mechtild of Magdeburg, a Cistercian nun and medieval mystic: "Stupidity is sufficient unto itself. Wisdom can never learn enough."

If ever there was an area in bookstores meant for exploration, learning and questioning, the spirituality section would seem to be it, as a quick scan of our shelves will reveal. I concede that not everyone agrees with this theory. I may even envy their certainty, but, as so many booksellers have already noted here, stocking books representing an array of beliefs is the way most bookshops meld spirituality with merchandising.

And yet, even if we begin with a literary sense of inclusiveness and spiritual innocence--William Blake's "To see a world in a grain of sand, / And a heaven in a wild flower"--how can we cram infinity into our decidedly limited, temporal shelf space?

The answer, of course, is that we're booksellers and we always find a way to expand both space and time. According to Valerie Ryan, owner of Cannon Beach Book Company, "I have read with interest the ongoing discussion of the place of religious books in our stores: to proselytize or to ignore? In my case, I chose a different route. Cannon Beach, Ore., is a town of 1,600 people year-round and about a bezillion visitors from Memorial Day to Labor Day. One end of town is anchored by a Christian Conference Center of the Fundamentalist stripe. The rest of town is typically West Coast, unchurched and a bit peevish about organized religion.

"I long ago devised a section named 'Philosophies,' encompassing every imaginable religious persuasion. Being the product of a good Jesuit education, I do know the difference between philosophy and theology, but for ease of display, I just play dumb and put Kant next to Why I Am a Catholic. I have all the Desert Fathers, two versions of the Qu'uran, two Kaballah, a Book of Mormon, Chesterton and Merton and C.S. Lewis galore and many others Protestant, Jewish and a few lesser known sects. In this section also go the current spate of books on irreligion or anti-religion. This arrangement either offends no one or everyone, but it works for me."

On the other hand, as a used book buyer and seller, Diane Van Tassell of Bay Books in San Ramon and Concord, Calif., notes that she carries "books that I might not necessarily order from Baker & Taylor. But Christian, Buddhism, Islam and New Age are very big sellers for us. Sometimes certain of those sections are less popular, but a month or two later they are 'hit hard' again. A couple of years back the witchcraft section was very popular, especially in my more urban store.
 
"We can't keep the Koran in the store because it flies out whenever we get one. Sufism is always popular as are the poems of Rumi. We have a customer who comes in several times a week looking for different Buddhist books and sometimes Hinduism. The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance is always a favorite text. Angels and mediums are not so popular now and UFOs are almost dead--yes, we keep that all in religion. Dreams and astrology are popular mostly when they are at eye-level, but they go in cycles. People still ask for Under the Banner of Heaven (Mormon true crime) and a very few are into the Da Vinci secret societies that were very popular a few years ago. Religious fiction is becoming quite popular. Authors like Francine Rivers always sell and the Yada Yada Prayer Group (novels) are gaining in popularity. The Left Behind series by LaHaye has slowed down, but some are still reading it. Bibles are always big sellers and C.S. Lewis seems to be the most popular author. The bottom line is that religion is still popular. More and more people are reading religious fiction because they want to read stories that don't include sex and violence."

And my last word on this series about bookstores and religion? I think I'll defer to Graham Greene's A Burnt-Out Case, in which Querry considers why he still watches a Mass being said in an African leper colony. He is slightly removed from the chapel, yet close enough to hear the indistinct hum of ceremony.

"Ancestral voices," he concludes. "Memories. Did you ever lie awake when you were a child listening to them talking down below. You couldn't understand what they were saying, but it was a noise that somehow comforted."

Wednesday
Sep032008

Bookshop Religion Sections Seek Balance

One of the monks, called Serapion, sold his book of the Gospels and gave the money to those who were hungry, saying: I have sold the book which told me to sell all I had and give it to the poor.

This bookseller's parable comes from Thomas Merton's The Wisdom of the Desert: Some Sayings of the Desert Fathers. It's a Catholic book, written by a Trappist monk, with requisite Nihil obstat and Imprimatur. It also happens to be a book I believe I could handsell to a reader of any religious faith--or faithlessness, for that matter.

Sharon Roth of Loyola Press originally asked us whether "there is a religious bias by bookstore buyers in ordering religious books--especially Catholic books." I have no straightforward answer for her other than my suspicion that "bias" is not the appropriate word here. Substitute "balance" because that is how most indie booksellers seem to describe their aspirations for building a good religion section.

But what is "balance?"

Is this "balance" achieved in most bookshops?

These are also good questions.     

"As a buyer, I look at the demographic and market that my store is in and completely bypass my own beliefs for the most part," said Katie Glasgow of Mitchell Books, Fort Wayne, Ind. "Being in a predominantly white, middle-class market we have mostly Protestant Christians as a customer base and therefore stock more Christianity texts. But, we stock a wide variety of religious books, everything from the Koran to Apocrypha to Mother Teresa to the Dalai Lama, although recently we decided to limit the amount of books within our religious section since it really wasn't selling."

Stephanie Anderson of the Moravian Bookstore, Bethlehem, Pa., carries books "based on what the interests of the community are. For example, as we are in the middle of a large Moravian community, we tend to heavily promote and merchandise Moravian titles (in fact, Moravian books have their own section in the store). Other religions are best merchandised in terms of popular authors (Deepak Chopra, Karen Armstrong, etc)."

"We have a permanent display table up front for religious books as well as several wall sections," noted Patrick Covington of Accent on Books, Asheville, N.C. "We also do numerous displays at conferences and workshops. As far as some of our customers are concerned we are a religious bookstore. That's what they come to us for." In addition to books on other faiths, Covington stocks "books by the 'new atheists' such as Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris . . . and they do quite well. Our customers--which include many clergy--don't mind being challenged by such ideas. As for books that seemed to us hateful or downright bigoted, we wouldn't carry those books whether they dealt with religion or any other topic."
 
Kelley Drahushuk of Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, N.Y., tries "to appeal to the broadest audience possible in as many religions as possible." She observes that books about atheism are "my best-selling 'religious' titles, hands down. Apparently my store attracts a bunch of heathens. Could it be the fact that we serve beer here?" As to whether a bookstore has any responsibility to the community to carry religious books, Kelley answered, "If the community demands it, then the bookstore would be foolish not to provide it. Responsibility is a strong word though, I think."

Another of Sharon Roth's questions--"Should a bookstore carry the Koran and books about Islam?"--provoked, as might be expected, some heated responses.

"Good god that's a seminal religious text important not only to Muslims but to anyone interested in religious scholarship and ideas," wrote Sheryl Cotleur of Book Passage, Corte Madera (and San Francisco), Calif. "It is not a political book. I cannot imagine a world where an independent bookstore would refuse to carry the Koran and think it important to carry the Bible."

Kelley Drahushuk also wondered if there was "some reason why a bookstore would not carry books about Islam or the Koran? Should a bookstore carry the Bible? I carry books on Christianity, Islam, Sufism, Wicca, Buddhism, Judaism, and Hinduism. Heck, I carry a book called Gay Witchcraft that outsells many of the other titles in the section."

Balance.

Thomas Merton wrote that "these Desert Fathers had much in common with Indian Yogis and with Zen Buddhist monks in China and Japan." If bookstore religion sections represent an at once small and infinite world, what is "balance" in this context? For most of us, balance is a bookseller's quest, not a destination

Tuesday
Aug262008

Bookstores & Religion: The Buyers' Perspective

At the conclusion of last week's column, I asked booksellers to take a look at their religion/spirituality sections and tell me what they saw. I also included several questions about bookstore buying habits in this category, posed by Sharon Roth, sales representative for Loyola Press.

Before joining Loyola, Sharon "spent many years as a book buyer for a large book operation here in Chicago. I felt it was my responsibility to know my customers and their reading habits. I bought for their interests not my own--at times this was difficult. But I also felt it was my responsibility to have a selection of books that would broaden people's knowledge of the world. Ignorance is dangerous and knowledge is not. For this reason it was my responsibility to stock religious books from all traditions."

Moving from a general to a specific focus meant changing her approach: "Now I am on the other side as a sales rep for a publishing company that publishes books on spirituality and religion. We are a Catholic publisher but many of our books are appropriate for all Christians. For this reason, I have noticed the religious category in many bookstores. I see some stores with very good sections and others with almost no representation."

It is from this new perspective that Sharon first wrote to me, wondering "if there is a religious bias by bookstore buyers in ordering religious books--especially Catholic books."

That might be an easy question to dismiss and a tough one to engage, but I've found that booksellers love the call and response of such engagement. So we'll begin this week with a wide-angle perspective, then get down to specifics next time.

Patrick Covington, co-owner of Accent on Books, Asheville, N.C., describes his business as a general indie bookstore with "a specialty in religion/spirituality books. We tend to avoid carrying stock that you could find in a CBA store (of which there are several in our town), and instead concentrate on 'mainstream' or 'liberal' books dealing with Christianity, as well as books on other religions. In terms of our personal religious beliefs, we're a bit of a motley crew. Our buying choices are a result of both what we have decided to focus on and our own principles--that is, books that deal with faith in an intelligent, challenging, and non-discriminatory way."

At the Moravian Book Shop, Bethlehem, Pa., Stephanie Anderson said she and head buyer Susan Fisher select titles for the religion category "based on what will sell, especially books that are geared toward the layperson. We keep in some academic titles for clergy (there is a seminary nearby), but primarily for the layperson. Must be sure to carry controversial books, books about atheism, books about comparitive religions, etc."

Katie Glasgow, book buyer for Mitchell Books, Fort Wayne, Ind., seeks a middle ground: "We carry both sides of the argument but try not to promote the extremes if we can help it. I just think that, depending on the history of the store and the climate of the area, a bookstore is going to be a place of ideas and the majority of those ideas are not going to agree on any level. But isn't that the point?"

At Spotty Dog Books & Ale, Hudson, N.Y., co-owner Kelley Drahushuk observes that religious belief "really only comes into play because I tend to order things that I would be interested in knowing more about: i.e., I'm Episcopalian, and know very little about any other religions except those of the Christian persuasion. Hence I order books that might help me learn about the other religions in the world and where they are coming from. Not that I eschew Christian titles, I guess I just order the more exotic Christian titles that appeal to my sensibilities."

Carrying "as open and wide a religious section as possible" is the goal for Sheryl Cotleur, buying director at Book Passage, Corte Madera (and San Francisco), Calif.: "We devote several large shelves each to every religious belief system we know of. In our region, Christianity, Judaica and Buddhism do very well, as does some non-traditional spirituality. We do carry books on Islamic beliefs and interest and Sufism, too, and, yes, even books considered against religion. As the buyer, I look for small press and offbeat books in these areas as well as mainstream publisher books. Our philosophy section is next to religion and that does well, too."

Next time we'll wander deeper into the stacks. Feel free to join the biblio-pilgrimage. And don't forget to answer Sharon's question about Catholic titles specifically.

Tuesday
Aug192008

A Segue from Politics to Religion in Bookstores

In the bookstore last weekend, I could almost hear titles screaming at one another. The Obama Nation had some terrible things to say to The Audacity of Hope; Faith of My Fathers was called out by The Real McCain. During a presidential campaign, August seems to enhance its languid Dog Days with insistent barking, and even the deceptive silence of book jackets can be measured in decibel levels.

"Those who love their own noise are impatient of everything else," wrote Thomas Merton. In that thought dwells the spark for this week's transition to a new conversation because it is August and because, at summer picnics, you should never talk about two things with Uncle Ralph or Aunt Pearl--politics and religion.

We will talk about them. Since it was the debut of a Countdown to President Obama Hope Clock that got our political discussion going, perhaps we can let it serve as a vehicle of transition here as well.

In a recent edition of her e-mail newsletter, Susan Weis, owner of breathe books, Baltimore, Md. wrote, "I have 'hope' for sale . . . not that I want to be overly political, but I decided to sell hope in the form of the official Barack Obama Countdown key chain." Susan hadn't carried the George Bush countdown clocks because they "seemed so negative, and well, I shouldn't really get into all that here. Suffice it say--I'm happy to have Barack's face looking up at me and to see the clock counting down."
 
In a subsequent post on her bookstore's blog, she noted that in spite of "a few e-mails expressing dismay," the general response had been quite positive: "Some bookstore owners say they want to remain neutral, they don't want to alienate customers or the community they are in. . . . That's not me. breathe books is a reflection of me. One of the reasons I opened breathe books was to deepen my spirituality, surround myself with books, music, beautiful items and other people--all that would help immerse me into a lifestyle of learning, wellness, wholeness, authenticity. That others wanted to come along too is a blessing and a thrill. So when I promote Barack Obama, it's the same as promoting Louise Hay, Jack Kornfield or Eckhart Tolle. It's another way of surrounding myself with healers. And I'm not ashamed to say it!"

Whether the issue is politics or spirituality--or both--booksellers make daily inventory choices that influence customer decisions and have the potential to incite reactions. I couldn't help wondering if religion presents even more of a challenge for book buyers than politics does.

And so I ask you: What about the religion section in your bookstore?

You may think the inspiration for this new direction came from Rick The Purpose Driven Life Warren's faith and politics interviews with the presidential candidates last Saturday, but the real catalyst was an e-mail we received from Sharon Roth, sales representative for Loyola Press.

"Your columns in Shelf Awareness made me think about another subject: religion and how bookstores handle stock selection, placement and display of this category," Sharon wrote. "I know religion, like politics, is one of those topics that one shouldn't discuss at a dinner party, but how do bookstores handle this category? Religion is something that is even more personal than politics. Interesting in this political year the religion of the candidates seems to be an important issue. I think especially in this day and age allegiance to a political party is changed based on a candidate and his/her position on particular issues. People are not as apt to change religions as quickly, although often it is done for the same reason. Religion affects our world view and our dealings with people."

Sharon offered her insights on the topic, which I'll share with you next week. She also asked a few intriguing questions. In fact, I think I'll just step aside and let her ask you directly:

  1. What role does a book buyer's religion play in ordering and merchandising?
  2. How do bookstores select books for the religion category?    
  3. How do they promote and merchandise these titles?    
  4. Does a bookstore feel its customers would be better served in a religious bookstore for their wanted religious books?
  5. For this reason, would they carry only religious books that are on the bestseller lists?
  6. Does a bookstore have any responsibility to the community to carry religious books?
  7. Should a bookstore carry The Koran and books about Islam?
  8. What about books that are anti-religious?
Please take a look at your religion/spirituality section and tell me what you see.