Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Boulder's Reading DNA

I love the frantic final weekend before Christmas when shoppers are desperate to buy the right presents and are hungry for recommendations. To be honest, I also relish the fact that it is too late for Amazon to come to the rescue of a picky shopper. If we don't have the obscure World War II title a customer was planning to buy for Uncle Fred, they ask you for a suggestion on a military book, rather than haughtily utter the words, "I'll just get it online." Also, without the internet to fall back on, we see more of a cross-section of our community than at any other time of year. It's a time to learn about Boulderites who don't often frequent the store.

The most satisfying titles a bookseller can move are the ones that they've personally picked out as being outstanding books. For the Boulder Book Store, those books live on our recommended cases and they help distinguish the store from all other booksellers. The section is an eclectic assortment of old and new titles that are selected by the booksellers, the buyers and the marketing department. It's also a place where we experiment with some obscure new titles from unknown authors. There are four recommended cases and they start right at the front door. It's impossible to miss the array of titles and the colorful tags beneath them in plastic sleeves which extol their virtues. Many of our customers never get any further into the store than those shelves.

During the Christmas season just about any book we throw on those cases flies out of the store. In fact, when we sell out of a book during this time of year, we will run around the store in a mad attempt to find something else worthy to place on the case. In an effort to understand just what's happening on the selling floor this month, I've decided to look at our bestselling recommended titles so far this December.

Here's the list.

1. Dangerous Book for Boys by Conn Iggulden
2. Daring Book for Girls by Andrea Buchanon
3. This I Believe edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman
4. Off the Grid Homes by Lori Ryker
5. World Without Us by Alan Weisman
6. Thirst by Mary Oliver
7. If You Lived Here I'd Know Your Name by Heather Lende
8. Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls
9. Modoc by Ralph Helfer
10. Porn For Women by Cambridge Women's Pornography Cooperative

The top two spots are nostalgia books from HarperCollins designed to teach boys and girls to be kids again. Really, though, they seem to be aimed at adults craving the joys of their "rugged" childhoods before those evil video games took over. Try teaching a kid today how to make a slingshot and he'll show you how much better the shooting is on his Gameboy. They're beautifully packaged, if a bit soporific when you really try to read them, but they've been a publishing sensation for much of the year.

This I Believe is a collection of personal essays by ordinary people that aired on NPR. In addition to regular Joes, there are also pieces by John Updike, Isabel Allende and Gloria Steinem. It's a series that NPR started in 2005 and if you've heard them, you know how moving they can be. Interestingly, in the 1950s, Edwin R. Murrow hosted a radio program with the same name and basically the same mission.

Off the Grid Homes is a unique Boulder phenomenon. There doesn't appear to be another store in America where this book is a bestseller. The photographs are fantastic and the topic, how to make your home self-sufficient, is perfect for our energy frazzled times. What makes Ryker's book so intriguing is that she uses case studies and shows the architectural designs for these houses. It's truly remarkable what savings are possible with current technology. I also think it speaks to Boulder's ethos and values in an important way that distinguishes our community from many other places in America.

My wife and I visited the Earthship community in Taos, New Mexico over Thanksgiving break and it was an eye-opening experience. All the homes in the development are off the grid, not only for power, but for water. The houses have huge (6,000 gallon) cisterns in them and even in Taos' arid climate, the families have enough water to meet their needs and grow an impressive indoor garden. The building materials in Taos were old tires filled with dirt for the two-foot-thick exterior walls and hundreds of soda cans fused together with mud for the non-weight-bearing indoor walls. The homes were bizarre looking from the outside, but inside the were spacious and the rooms flowed naturally into each other and featured floor to ceiling windows. The residents have no need for heating or cooling because the thick walls provide natural insulation. In the winter, the sun soaks into those walls, releasing enough heat to keep the house at 60 even on the coldest days. The constant sound of water cycling into the cistern created a pleasing background noise as we took our tour. Ryker's examples in Off the Grid Homes aren't all as radical as that, but she does discuss some of the same technology that makes the Taos community possible.

Alan Weisman's book, World Without Us, is simply the coolest book of the year. Weisman, a journalist, investigated what would happen to the world if humans were to suddenly disappear. It's a frightening look at the havoc that we have wrought on our planet. Within the first few days, the New York City subways would completely flood. The bridges of New York wouldn't last more than a couple hundred years, at the most. That's the good news. The bad news is what will last. Little bits of plastic that we've created will stay around for millions of years choking land and sea animals until microbes evolve to break them down. The radioactivity from the nuclear waste and power plants that seeps into the environment once we are no longer present to maintain those sites, will plague and destroy life for eons.

When my St. Martins rep presented this book to me, he had a poster that showed a timeline of the earth going forward without humans. I was transfixed by it and read many of the items out loud to my colleagues. As soon as I saw that poster, I knew that this was a book that would appeal to our environmentally-concerned and scientific-minded customers. I couldn't wait to get that poster into everyone's hands. Unfortunately, that piece of marketing genius was not reproduced in the hardback. More importantly, however, Weisman proves himself to be an entertaining writer, who fuses all the information he gleaned from hundreds of people in countless fields into a thrilling narrative. We can always hope that the poster will be in the paperback. To get a true idea of the book visit Weisman's website World Without Us.

Porn for Women is the goofiest title on our recommended bestseller list. It's a humor book aimed at women who are 35-years-old and older. Now that's refreshing. Almost all humor books are published for young men. Most of the genre appeals to either the prurient interest of boys (comic books, gross joke books) or to a sort of masculine humor that is characterized by late night talk shows, Steven Colbert and The Onion. Yes, there are a few women comics and many women, especially younger women, laugh along with the boys. But it seems that there is precious little in the humor category aimed at our core demographic of readers.

Despite its title, Porn for Women is not prurient. It plays on the expectation and delivers the opposite. What really turns women on, according to the book, is for a handsome man to vacuum the floor, take her shoe shopping and do the laundry. The perfect man would gladly go
to a crafts fair rather than have to suffer through a football game. It's hysterically and tastefully done and when you get to the sex, it's impossible not to appreciate the cleverness behind the whole book. A hint for the guys--women want hours and hours, more than you thought possible, of foreplay.

When I look at this overall list of books, I see the genetics of our store and its customers. It's like looking at a snippet of our town's DNA. The Dangerous Book for Boys and The Daring Book for Girls reveal how many families live here and their need to give their children an authentic experience. Off The Grid shows our environmental ethic. Mary Oliver's inclusion is remarkable because, after all, how many poets make any kind of bestseller list? In Boulder, it is possible even for a poet. I'm a little surprised to see so many paperbacks (7) in the top ten. I would have thought that with the holiday gift-giving, a few more hardbacks would have crept in. Perhaps that is indicative of a season without any truly hot books. I just know that giving extravagantly at the holidays is in Boulder's genes, so here's hoping these books lead us through a banner weekend.

1 comment:

Terry Spear/Terry Lee Wilde said...

I write and read women's romance so I was really tickled by your comment on "Porn for Women"

"A hint for the guys--women want hours and hours, more than you thought possible, of foreplay."

I'm sharing your blog with all of my romance writer Internet loops!
Terry Spear
Heart of the Wolf