A little over a week into the war against Iraq, booksellers reported fewer customers coming through the door, but during the first weekend of military action, sales picked up. Shoppers wanting to know more about the conflict are looking for atlases and nonfiction about war and the Middle East. Others, who want to be distracted, are seeking out fiction and books on tape.
Peggy Bieber, owner of Little Professor Book Center in Aberdeen, S.Dak., said, "I'm hearing that people are getting tired of the media overkill." She added, "Some customers have said, 'Why do we have to hear so much?' "
Sue Griepentrog, assistant manager and buyer for the Little Read Book, Wauwatosa, Wis., told PW that customers are looking for "something well written that would take their minds off the war."
Fiction titles filling that need, according to Griepentrog, include Crow Lake by Mary Lawson (Dell), Sea Glass by Anita Shreve (Back Bay), The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Picador) and Louise Erdrich's The Master Butchers Singing Club (HarperCollins).
War books are leading the nonfiction titles marching out the door; among them Anthony Swofford's Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles (Scribner), Robin Moore's The Hunt for Bin Laden (Random) and Dore Gold's Hatred's Kingdom: How Saudi Arabia Supports the New Global Terrorism (Regnery).
Carolyn Brown, spokesperson at Barnes & Noble, reported a "pop" in some war-related books and "an increase in requests for books on two of our display tables—one called In the News, which has current events, and the other on Spiritual Matters, which covers religion and faith."
Arsen Kashkashian, inventory manager of the Boulder Book Store in Boulder, Colo., concurred: "A lot of the policy books took off as soon as the bombs started dropping." He cited Thomas Friedman's Longitudes and Attitudes (FSG) as an example. Bieber from Little Professor noted that the topical Bush at War (Simon & Schuster) by Bob Woodward is not especially popular.
Griepentrog said she spoke with one customer who professed feeling guilty shopping in wartime. But, she continued, "the majority of the customers we've spoken with say they need a distraction. They are just trying to refresh their minds and find a way to pick up their spirits after watching the depressing TV news."
Peggy Hailey, head buyer at Book People in Austin, Tex., told PW, "The Middle Eastern history section has certainly picked up in sales. Sales had jumped post—9/11, and the section had just started to die down, along with current events and politics. But now it's hot again, and we're seeing a much wider selection selling from that section." Thomas Friedman's From Beirut to Jerusalem (Anchor) has been "selling really well," and a number of Edward W. Said's books have been moving, including Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World (Vintage). "There has been a lot of demand for Jarhead, but it's not always available. When we have it in stock, we sell it immediately."
Hailey noted, "Austin is much more liberal than most cities in Texas. So it's not really a big surprise that we sold 53 copies of Gore Vidal's Dreaming War: Blood for Oil and the Cheney-Bush Junta [Thunder's Mouth] and have seen a rise in sales of Bush's Brain: How Karl Rove Made George W. Bush Presidential [by James C. Moore and Wayne Slater, Wiley]." A local reading by Chris Hedges has also spurred sales for War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (Anchor), in which the veteran New York Times reporter looks at the continuing appeal of war to the human psyche.
The war has affected sales at Kepler's Books and Magazines, Menlo Park, Calif., according to retail director Karen Pennington. "At first, no one was leaving their homes. I can also see that it's affecting the mood of our customers. Some are grim and very upset. The media saturation has a lot of people walking around with their heads down, trying to go on with their lives." This mood has also increased sales at Kepler's for such Bush-bashing books as Jacob Weisberg's More George W. Bushisms (Fireside) and Greg Palast's The Best Democracy Money Can Buy: The Truth About Corporate Cons, Globalization and High-Finance Fraudsters (Plume).
Nonetheless, Pennington noted, there was also "an upsurge in sales of classic historical Arabic and Middle Eastern histories, such as Albert Hourani's A History of the Arab Peoples [Belknap Press] and Mark Hertsgaard's The Eagle's Shadow: Why America Fascinates and Infuriates the World [FSG]." Bernard Lewis's What Went Wrong: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East (Perennial) and The Crisis of Islam: Holy War and Unholy Terror (Modern Library) are in strong demand at Kepler's, said Pennington, as is Rai Milan's War Plan Iraq: Ten Reasons Against War with Iraq (Norton).
"People are reading a lot of background material," Pennington continued. "I know a lot of people are finding information on the Web. The books that are selling are the ones that are deeply historical, where readers can look at patterns of behaviors. Customers are also interested in reading alternative voices."
Smaller Presses, Bigger Voices
Some of the bestselling titles at Kepler's have come from smaller presses, particularly William Rivers Pitt and Scott Ritter's War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know; Norman Solomon and Reese Erlich's Target Iraq: What the News Media Didn't Tell You (both Context Books); John Pilger's The New Rulers of the World (Verso); and two new books from Seven Stories Press: Against War with Iraq: An Anti-War Primer by Michael Ratner, Jennie Green and Barbara Olshansky; and Rahul Mahajan's The U.S. War Against Iraq: Myths, Facts, and Lies.
Pennington is a big fan of Seven Stories Press, which also published Gore Vidal's Dreaming War and Noam Chomsky's Power and Terror: Post 9/11 Talks and Interviews. "These are heavy hitters and respected voices writing specifically on this issue," she said. "It's quality publishing with a short turnaround time. I applaud publishers printing these shorter think pieces immediately, rather than waiting two years to collect their thoughts. Customers are telling us there clearly is a need for these books."
Amanda Tobier, buyer at Third Place Books near Seattle, Wash., said the store took down displays of paperbacks to make room for a table of war-related titles. Among titles selling steadily are Dreaming War and Power and Terror. "Oddly, I've gotten no requests for Iraqi writers," Tobier said. "It's all been war." Jarhead has been particularly popular, she noted.
She also related this story: "The other day I was at the information desk looking at the CNN Web site. A customer came up, and before she asked me about a title she wanted, she noticed the news Web site and asked, 'Has anything new happened?' People have all eyes on the media. I even had a conversation with our mailman, whom I've seen every day for five years and never spoken to, about Jarhead."