Thursday, May 6, 2021

Print book sales rise, but there's a downside -- May 6, 2021 column


Vice President Kamala Harris visited an independent bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island, Wednesday and bought four books.

She’d been wanting to read them, “and I’m going to find time to do it,” she said, according to a pool report.

Many of us share the aspiration. Just that morning, I had vowed, again, to find time to buy and read books.

One of the few upsides of the pandemic has been an uptick in print book sales. Sales of print books rose 8.2% in 2020 over 2019, according to NPD BookScan.

Much of the increase came as parents adjusted to remote learning and bought juvenile nonfiction books. The category was up 23% in unit sales year to year, Publishers Weekly reported.

Adult fiction sales rose 6% over 2019, led by a 29% increase in graphic novels.

But the news about bookstores isn’t as rosy. Many had to close temporarily during shutdowns, and dozens of bookstores shuttered permanently. Bookstore sales were down 28% in 2020 from 2019, according to the Census Bureau.

We all know it’s cheap and fast to buy books online from a certain retail behemoth, and during the pandemic we often didn’t have much choice but to shop online.

Now, though, with businesses reopening, we have a choice. It’s inspiring to see prominent politicians take the time to support reading and local bookshops.

“There is nothing that I enjoy more, or I think is more nourishing, than being able to just walk into a bookstore run by people who love books and love reading,” former President Barack Obama has said.

Obama has long championed indie bookstores. When his first book was published, Politics & Prose in Washington offered him a reading, and a couple dozen customers showed up.

His latest, “A Promised Land,” was the Number One political title last year with more than 2.5 million copies sold. Several Republican candidates and elected officials also had bestsellers last year.

 As president, Obama often shopped locally with his daughters, leaving with a stack of books.

Last December, he shared his 17 favorite titles of the year. Last month, around Independent Bookstore Day, he virtually visited six bookstores around the country.

“Each night, I’d have a stack of briefing papers and speeches to review and notes about economic issues or foreign policy issues. It would take me two or three hours every night to plow through that stuff,” he said in a video conversation with the owner of Square Books in Oxford, Miss.

“But the time I was done, it was pretty late. . . But I’m a night owl, and what I found was that having 45 minutes to an hour to be able to read something for me. . . helped to reset me and also helped to extend my perspective beyond the narrow set of headaches that were staring me in the face.”

Obama found fiction helped him connect with people. He advises President Joe Biden to “read whatever nourishes his soul,” adding “That’s going to be different things for different people.”

On her visit to the bookstore, Harris bought three novels and a cookbook. The novels were “Nickel Boys,” by Colson Whitehead, “The Topeka School” by Ben Lerner, and “The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett. “Simply Julia,” by Julia Turshen has recipes for “healthy comfort food.”

I spend a lot of time reading newspapers (always a good thing), magazines and the Internet – but lately I’ve missed the longer commitment of books.

I started “Middlemarch” by George Eliot, which I’d read, sort of, in high school. Everyone says it’s much better read later in life. Perhaps too much was going on in mine to focus on a sprawling 19th century novel – even if written by one of the greatest English authors of all time – but it remains on my bedside table.

A good thing about books is they stay around until you’re ready for them.

So, I walked to my local indie bookstore, which has reopened in a new, larger location. It was lovely to let the books call out to me again, and I brought home a first novel I knew nothing about.

I intend to find the time to read it. What about you? Have you visited an independent bookstore? What are you reading?

©2021 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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