When we asked booksellers at independent bookstores throughout the city which titles have been selling well in their online stores, we were able to guess several of their answers (correctly) in advance: Alison Roman’s cookbooks, The Power Broker (now that people have the time to take on the nearly 1,500-page biography), and Ling Ma’s Severance (says Davi Marra, the buyer at WORD Bookstores: “A couple of months ago, we were inundated with requests for this paperback that had been out for nearly a year. Then we learned that it’s about a millennial woman who has isolated herself in a Manhattan office building while a plague rages outside”). While those are all worthy quarantine reads, we were curious to hear about the books that have become unexpectedly popular over the past couple of months — the sleeper hits and backlist best sellers. Below are some of these books, as recommended by booksellers from Three Lives & Company, McNally Jackson, the Albertine bookshop, and other local bookstores.
“The new Lily King book Writers & Lovers has been very popular,” says Miriam Chotiner-Gardner, a bookseller at Three Lives & Co. “It’s the perfect book for right now because it’s totally immersive, quick, and an engaging story that takes you away from the feeling of now.” The novel centers on a writer in her early 30s living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, who is dealing with the recent death of her mother and working a mediocre restaurant job. “She meets two men she’s interested in — one is a fellow writing student and one is a writing professor, and she is deciding who she has feelings for,” says Chotiner-Gardner. “So it’s sort of a coming-of age story and a becoming-a-writer story and it goes down easily. I think it’s hitting the sweet spot for what people want their heads in right now.”
Over at 192 Books, novels by 20th century German-speaking Swiss author Robert Walser have been selling well. “It may be the relatively compact size of these, and the alluring cover designs — but I’m frankly still not totally sure why so many people have been buying Walser’s (relative) back catalogue,” says Evan Dent, manager of the store. “Most people start with Jakob Von Gunten or a collection of his stories — both are incredible books, though I’d say I prefer his 1908 novel The Assistant.”
“This is another strangely popular novel,” says Dent of Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate. “It’s about the draining effects of work culture and capitalism in general.” Dent speculates that the handsome Gerhard Richter cover helps, and that it may have become popular by word of mouth. And it’s topical subject matter: “It aptly describes the mind-numbing experience of working at an Amazon fulfillment center,” Dent says. [Editor’s note: To order from 192 Books, visit their website or email email@example.com.]
“The Plague, Albert Camus’s classic novel about an epidemic striking a town on coastal North Africa, John M. Berry’s The Great Influenza, and Laura Spinney’s Pale Rider, both of which are about the 1918 flu pandemic, have been hugely popular,” says Rebecca Fitting, co-owner of Greenlight Bookstore. “It actually never fails to surprise me when people deep dive into the topics they’re also living in real time — personally I like to escape my reality, but I suppose it does make some sense to look to the past to try to understand the present.”
“I was amused by the number of Harry Potter boxed sets we’ve been selling on our website,” says Fitting, “but when I mentioned it to a few people, they said it seemed like an obvious choice. Long, engrossing, comforting, and something people are happy to revisit if they read them years ago, or dive into for the first time — a big series like that, I can imagine someone thinking, This will take me all the way through this thing.”
“In 15 years of running my stores’ book club, this is the only book that has been loved by every participant,” says Sarah McNally, owner of McNally Jackson. “It’s an unassuming backlist title that is simply a perfect book, and is currently number ten on our bestsellers list.” Written by the creator of the Moomins, The Summer Book is a short novel about a relationship between a 6-year-old girl and her grandmother who spend a summer together on a tiny island in the Gulf of Finland. “It’s deeply wonderful, you feel your soul settling while you read,” says McNally of the particularly soothing tale.
“This is speculative science fiction on a future where the violence of class divisions in the U.S. has become even more pronounced,” says Isla Ng of Bluestocking Bookstore. Ng says that while we might expect readers to want books with an element of escapism, she’s finding that Bluestocking’s readers “seem to be using this time to really sit with and deepen their understandings of the social injustice happening to or around them.” A book like Butler’s, she says, can “help sharpen broad feelings of dread, anger, and fear into clearer motivations that are easier to think through and act upon.”
Both McNally and Chotiner-Gardner told us that Samantha Irby’s new essay collection, Wow, No Thank You, has been flying off the (virtual) shelves. “This has been our second-best-selling new release during COVID, just behind the Glass House,” says McNally. “Irby is warm, weird, and wonderful.” Chotiner-Gardner adds that the essay format is particularly fitting for “a time of distracted attention spans” and says that Irby is “knowing and clever and funny and has these good takes on contemporary society and the way we live now.” The book was published just before quarantine started, and seems to be a welcome distraction from the moment for people. “The essays are light, but still relevant,” says Chotiner-Gardner. “Irby is definitely tapping into something that people are craving.”
“The new Erik Larson is doing really well, too,” says Chotiner-Gardner, of The Splendid and the Vile, which focuses on Winston Churchill’s leadership of Britain during World War II. “It’s not escapist, but it is a portrait of another tense, extreme time in which people had to make decisions that affected whole countries and the future.” You may know Larson as the author of The Devil and the White City, and his latest is a similarly engrossing look at history. “I think people are enjoying reading not about a pandemic, but about a kind of parallel crisis,” says Chotiner-Gardner. [Editor’s note: To order from Three Lives, visit the store website and fill out their online order form.]
At the Albertine’s bookshop, Thomas Piketty’s Capital and Ideology has sold dozens of copies in the past few months, according to Albertine communications manager and bookseller Miriam Bridenne. “As the COVID-19 crisis continues, it reveals and exacerbates the deep inequalities that structure our societies,” she says. “It’s no wonder that readers find Capital and Ideology relevant today: It exposes the ideas that have sustained inequality for the past millennium, reveals why our politics are failing us now, and outlines the structure of a fairer economic system.”
Ng told us that both of these nonfiction books have been selling particularly well at Bluestockings. “Witches, Midwives and Nurses is the second edition of a 1972 booklet (it’s very short) that gives a brief history on how women healers and midwives were subjugated and targeted in the 1800s amidst the growing institutionalization of health care,” says Ng. “Carceral Capitalism is a collection of essays on the apparatuses of incarceration that extend outside of prison walls, such as debt. These books give readers a better understanding of the moment we’re currently in, says Ng: “When you’re confronted with the life-and-death stakes of inequality, it’s easy to sink into a monolithic despair — but reading books that ask how exactly did we get here? or how exactly does this social order persist? can help.”
“Poetry is selling really well right now,” says Chotiner-Gardner. “I think it’s sort of a balm for right now — it’s slower, it’s quieter, it’s little snippets, and it really hits the spot for the headspace people are in.” She says that at Three Lives, Fanny Howe’s Love and I and Reginald Dwayne Betts’s Felon: Poems have been particularly popular collections.
And at 192 Books, this anthology of work by the Black Mountain Poets has been “a quick seller,” according to Dent. It includes poems by well-known poets like Charles Olson and Robert Creeley, but also includes poems by artist Josef Albers and musician John Cage.
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