Religion and spirituality titles, perennial sellers at many general-interest bookstores, have been ringing up even brisker sales since September 11, and now with the added momentum of Christmas. Booksellers cite one consistent frontrunner leading the pack: Karen Armstrong.

"I've sold probably more copies of The Battle for God [Ballantine] by Karen Armstrong than the rest of the [religion] books put together since September 11," said Rob Davis, religion section head of Powell's Books in Portland, Ore. "Her History of God [Ballantine] had a huge resurgence, too." Most of the other booksellers PW talked with named Armstrong's Islam: A Short History (Modern Library) as the number one book they struggled to keep on shelves.

Carla Cohen, co-owner of Politics & Prose in Washington, D.C., said demand for Armstrong's Islam drove sales at the store for about six weeks after September 11. "We're still selling it, but instead of selling 12 a week, we're selling about three a week." She also cited demand for Understanding Islam: An Introduction to the Muslim World by Thomas W. Lippman (Meridian).

"People didn't flock to Politics & Prose to find coping books; they came here to find out what's going on in the world," Cohen noted. To help meet that need, the store posted a list of suggested titles on its Web site, including a broad section on Islam that has generated immediate sales, Cohen said. Other big sellers in recent weeks were The Places That Scare You: A Guide to Fearlessness in Difficult Times by Pema Chodron (Shambhala) and Anger: Wisdom for Cooling the Flames by Thich Nhat Hanh (Riverhead).

Like other bookstores surveyed, Powell's and Politics & Prose had a hard time keeping another key title on hand in recent weeks: the Koran. Booksellers across the nation, from the West Coast to the Deep South, told PW that customers are seeking out the Islamic scriptures like never before.

"With the Koran, there was a time recently when it was very difficult to fulfill orders," said Katherine Le Croy, manager of the religion department at Davis-Kidd Booksellers in Nashville. "I can't say it was flying off shelves, because it wasn't even on the shelves for a while. We couldn't keep it in stock. Now things are back to normal--usually two or three copies on the shelves, in two or three translations."

What hasn't flown off the shelves at Davis-Kidd, to Le Croy's surprise, is Rodale's compilation title From the Ashes. "Proceeds from the book go toward disaster relief," Le Croy said. "I put a shelf-talker there with a flag on it, and the book was featured in our local paper, but for some reason it didn't move." But Armstrong's Islam sure did. "It was hard to keep that one on the shelf," she said.

In the store's Christianity section, Le Croy noted strong sales for The Christmas Shoes (St. Martin's Press) by Donna Vanliere; Desecration (Tyndale), book nine of the Left Behind series; Wild at Heart by John Eldredge (Thomas Nelson); and anything by C.S. Lewis, especially Mere Christianity and A Grief Observed, since September 11.

"People are definitely digging deeper," Le Croy said. "Bible sales doubled right after the event, so this is not being skewed by Christmas sales. They were already strong, but they doubled." She said customers specifically asked for The Message (NavPress) more than any other edition of the Bible. "They wanted something in the vernacular, something very understandable and immediate, because they wanted solace now."

Even stores that seldom turn a religion title saw unexpected business from the genre in the aftermath of September 11. One such store, Garden District Bookshop in New Orleans, caters mainly to the tourist trade in the city's historic district. Owner Britton Trice said that while there hasn't been a "demand" for religion titles, he does get requests for books on Islam (especially Armstrong's) and the Koran in an English translation. Other than that, "people are looking more for escape fiction," he said.

At Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines in Tulsa, Okla., inspirational titles are moving as fast as the staff can order them. "We don't sell a lot of religion titles, but definitely since September 11 there's been renewed interest in spiritual matters," said co-owner Joanie Stephenson. "Korans and Bibles have been selling, along with anything about the Middle East. We sell atlases, maps--particularly for the Afghanistan area. People want to see where in the world the events are taking place. Books about Nostradamus have been moving as well."

While "anything on Islam" is a hot seller at Northern Lights Books & Gifts in Duluth, Minn., so is Rabbi Harold Kushner's newest title, Living a Life That Matters (Knopf), Jan Karon's The Mitford Snowmen (Viking) and Kathleen Norris's new children's title, The Holy Twins: Benedict and Scholastica (Putnam), said owner Anita Zager.

Mitford Snowmen is doing so well, in fact, that it caught Viking by surprise. "We sold out quickly and have books on back order, but I haven't had any indication if there's a good chance of getting more before Christmas," Zager said. "It's in our regional catalogue, so we have customers asking for it. We have 10 to 20 copies on back order, and that's a large number for us. It sounds like everybody's in the same boat."

Although Desecration is doing "fair" at her store, Zager said she had expected more activity on it, noting that the Left Behind series has dropped off in terms of sales, along with the ubiquitous The Prayer of Jabez (Multnomah)--a comment PW heard from several booksellers. "The Prayer of Jabez has definitely tapered off," Le Croy of Davis-Kidd said. "In fact, I've been trying to push James Mulholland's book Praying Like Jesus instead, and this week it outsold Jabez. I had it on the shelf right next to Jabez, and took a quotation from the book that says 'Jabez got it wrong.' That pulled people in."

Le Croy's comment proves the power of handselling and demonstrates that a bookseller's opinion can hold considerable sway in the land of retail. Disgusted with the merchandising blitz surrounding Jabez, she said Davis-Kidd made the decision not to carry anything but the book itself. "We started with a book, and now we're into earrings, key chains, paperweights, neckties, caps--it's all stuff, kitsch. We don't carry any of that stuff. Somebody even came out with a novel about Jabez [Jabez: A Novel by Thom Lemmons, WaterBrook], but it's going nowhere. It came into our store November 2 and we've sold one copy."

Apples and Oranges

One common theme that emerged from the booksellers PW talked to was the popularity of titles on comparative religion. "Anything comparative religion is doing well, especially key authors such as Karen Armstrong," agreed Liz Sullivan, religion buyer for BookPeople in Austin, Tex. "People are trying to figure out how other religions, especially Islam, compare to what they believe. Islam is easy--if we put it in our section, it's going to sell. Everything is selling, including expensive photo essays about Islam."

BookPeople has taken advantage of the upsurge in Islamic titles by doing some cross-merchandising between its religion section, housed on the second floor, and its Middle Eastern history section, on the first floor, Sullivan said. Powell's in Portland, Ore., took a similar tack by cross-referencing classical religion titles with mythology and archeology titles.

Comparative religion and Islam were also pinpointed as the top sellers in the religion category at Denver's Tattered Cover. "People are getting in contact with their faith and trying to understand other aspects of religion so they can [make sense of] their own," religion buyer Jim Ramsour told PW. "They want to see the differences, why people have them and how they get them." Regarding religion titles in general, Ramsour said books connected to organized religion are selling better at his store than more loosely affiliated spiritual books. Buddhism, in particular, has been very strong over the last three months, he said, and continues to stay that way.

On the Christianity side, Ramsour named Traveling Light by Max Lucado (W Publishing), Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God by Jack Miles (Knopf), Soul Survivor by Philip Yancey (Doubleday), The Jesus Mysteries by Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy (Three Rivers) and the photographic gift book Churches by Judith Dupre and Mario Botta (HarperCollins) as leading picks among religion customers.

And, of course, the Koran in any translation is selling as fast as Ramsour can shelve it. "We have about six different translations, and for a while we couldn't keep it on hand," he said. "I probably sold more Korans in the last three months than I had in the previous three years."

What's in the Holiday Grab Bag?

Forecasting the big money-makers is every bookseller's dream, and while the staff we talked to made no claims to psychic ability, they gave us their best bets for the holidays.

Tamra Dore, owner of Katy Budget Books in Houston, said her store competes with three religion bookstores, so she doesn't go head-to-head with them on Bibles, but does very well with inspirational fiction. In that genre, she expects The Mitford Snowmen to hold steady through the holiday season--if she can get more copies in stock. Dore said she's sold several copies of Nostradamus and His Prophecies (Dover). "People just wanted something on Nostradamus, and that's the one we could find and get in." For gift-giving, she expects books that make people feel good to outsell more informational titles, such as books on Islamic studies.

Expected holiday sellers at Politics & Prose include Christ by Jack Miles, Common Prayers: Faith, Family, and a Christian's Journey Through the Jewish Year by Harvey Cox (Houghton Mifflin) and St. Augustine's Childhood by Garry Wills (Viking), a book the store has sold "tons and tons of," according to co-owner Cohen.

BookPeople's Sullivan said she expects the new John Shelby Spong title, A New Christianity for a New World (HarperCollins), to be strong over the holiday sales season. "Fiction's all over the board, but we can't keep the J.R.R. Tolkien books in the store," Sullivan said, noting the tie-in with the upcoming movie. "Sales of his titles have quadrupled over the past year. If it has the Tolkien name on it, it's selling. We've sold more Lord of the Rings boxed sets in the past two months than we did all of last Christmas."

At Davis-Kidd, Le Croy is hopeful about the newest Thomas Merton title, Dialogues with Silence (Harper San Francisco), as well as Lucado's Traveling Light for the holidays. For stores fortunate enough to catch it before it slipped through the printing cracks, The Mitford Snowmen is a good bet for Christmas sales, and several booksellers included it on their holiday "wish list."

Whether it's heady books on comparative religion, lighthearted fiction or titles for spiritual seekers, religion promises to be a strong category through the holiday season. What's more, booksellers themselves are upbeat about the prospects: "I expect a very strong Christmas," said Stephenson of Steve's Sundry, Books & Magazines. "Since September, people are reevaluating--they're staying home and want to become more homebodies. We're even selling board games, jigsaw puzzles and other family activity items."

Northern Lights' Zager concurs: "I've been surprised at how strong a category people's inquiry about their faith has been for us. They're reading a variety of subcategories--religious history, religious philosophy, books about the historical Jesus. People are exploring the meaning of life."