In bookstores, immersion, connection – and volumes of refuge
Jan Weismiller has been noticing a lot of new faces in her Iowa City bookstore over the past few weeks.
And they all want one book, says Ms. Weismiller, co-owner of Prairie Lights: "Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House."
That this year's biggest title so far – with 1.7 million copies sold in its first month, and a featured reading at Sunday's Grammy Awards – is political doesn't come as a surprise, bookstore owners say. But underneath a hunger for what some have dubbed "resistance" books, they see something more: Readers seeking to connect and make sense of a tumultuous time.
Weismiller and others say that books – and the stores that sell them – have always served that purpose: to help people wrestle with life's complexities – political or otherwise.
"I've always believed that it’s possible that when you read fiction it's, in some ways, more helpful in understanding politics than reading political books because it’s deeper more fully drawn portraits of people dealing with these kinds of things," she says.
Bookstores across the country are reporting an increased interest in titles seeking to distill the political sphere through the voices of activists, feminists, academics, novelists, and even poets, as mostly liberal readers try to make sense of President Trump's election.
These "resistance" books – responses to the Trump administration and discussions of social justice – include activism guides such as "Keep Marching: How Every Woman Can Take Action and Change Our World" by Kristin Rowe-Finkbeiner; treatises on democracy such as "Trumpocracy: The Corruption of The American Republic" by David Frum; reporting on Russian interference in the 2018 election; along with poetry and fiction.
In the middle of former President Barack Obama's presidency, conservative books were selling better than liberal books, with an August 2012 report from Amazon showing "red" books making up 56 percent of book sales. These "red" books were mostly about Mr. Obama, much like most "resistance" books are about Mr. Trump, suggesting its easier for the opposition to sell books.
For some readers, however, bookstores are serving as a haven for people to come together, connect with their children, and find books that help them escape.
"I hear enough about politics through the news and everything online," says Lisa Ruokis, a department assistant at the Berklee School of Music and a frequent visitor to Trident Booksellers in Boston since the 1980s. Recently, she's been drawn to historical novels, and prefers not to read political books. "I'd rather enjoy a book and not get upset."
These trends come amid a resurgence of the country's independent bookstores, which have been seeing growth and rising sales since 2009. The American Booksellers Association membership grew more than 20 percent from the nadir of the economic recession, from 1,651 in 2009 to 2,094 in 2014. This number is projected to grow even more in 2018.
"We've all come to understand that a bookstore is not just a place to sell books – it's a community space," says Prairie Lights' Weismiller. "And we connect with all sorts of different local communities to keep it thriving."
Karen Hayes, managing owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., feels encouraged by the vibrancy of bookstores, noting that in the 1990s she saw dozens of bookstores close their doors while working at Random House.
"You didn’t see anybody young, you didn’t see anybody opening bookstores, and it's completely different now," she says.
Ms. Hayes says she hopes interest in activism books will grow, but is uncertain if it will continue at the same level as 2017, which was "an awakening for a lot of people."
In New York City, Leigh Altshuler, director of marketing and communications for Strand Book Store, confirms an increased interest in books focused on the political climate.
"Everything does come and go in waves. And I think just because of where we are at right now this is the wave we're riding," Ms. Altshuler says.
Inspired by the #MeToo movement and a push for political and social power, women are taking center stage in the literary world. In fact, And Other Stories, an independent boutique British publisher, will only publish books by women in 2018.
There is also a "female voice arising in dystopian fiction," Weismiller says. She points to the resurgence of interest in Margaret Atwood’s work including "The Handmaid's Tale" – which inspired an Emmy-winning series for television – as well as Louise Erdrich’s newly released novel "Future Home of the Living God."
Sales of classic dystopian fiction spiked last year in the week's following Trump's election. Immediately after the inauguration, sales of George Orwell's novel "1984" were up 9,500 percent. Liberal readers trying to make sense of the 2016 election also turned to other classics of the genre like "A Brave New World" and "Fahrenheit 451."
Beyond gender, however, books are increasingly offering more varied "mirrors" for readers to see themselves in, Strand’s Altshuler says.
"We're seeing a wider representation of people across stories, so whether that's gender, race, and sexuality, it's really becoming easier to find yourself in a book, or find an interesting or a different character," says Altshuler.
Books that encourage self-exploration, such as Bréne Brown’s "Braving the Wilderness" (2017), and poetry, especially Rupi Kaur's two volumes of poems, have been other recently popular genres at Parnassus Books.
Strand Book Store, too, notes more interest in poetry, with "fresh, young poets" like Alexandra Elle, Tyler Knott Gregson, and Ms. Kaur – who is consistently on their best-seller list – reaching a younger demographic, the latter two through their internet presence, Altshuler says.
Prairie Lights sold more poetry in 2017 than it has since it opened in 1978. "Resistance" poetry, including "Olio" (2016) by Tyehimba Jess, did very well, as a 2017 Pulitzer led to renewed attention. "Olio" examines the stories of African-American performers directly before and after the Civil War up to World War I. The collection explores the ways these performers resisted, reacted to, co-opted, and sometimes defeated attempts to minstrelize them.
Among Prairie Lights' best-sellers are several books based in historical events. For example, George Saunders's "Lincoln in the Bardo" (2017), the Booker Prize-winning novel on Abraham Lincoln grieving for his son, was the best-selling novel for the Iowa City store. Other top sellers include "All the Light We Cannot See" (2014) by Anthony Doerr and "A Gentleman in Moscow" (2016) by Amor Towles.
Readers at Off the Beaten Path Bookstore in Steamboat Springs, Colo., who are mainly tourists six months out of the year, are not expressing a strong interest in politics, says general manager Christina Erickson.
"I don’t think very many people necessarily come here on vacation and want to read political books," she says. "They are more into … something fun and light."
In Boston, readers navigate the narrow alleys of Trident's two stories, lingering after lunch at the store's café.
Gloria Hui, a college student in Boston says that while she often buys books online because she doesn't always have time to visit a bookstore, she would prefer to browse in a store.
"It's this nice feeling, being surrounded by books," Ms. Hui says.