Shelf Awareness for Friday, December 15, 2023

Simon & Schuster: The Lightning Bottles by Marissa Stapley

Minotaur Books: The Dark Wives: A Vera Stanhope Novel (Vera Stanhope #11) by Ann Cleeves

Soho Crime: Exposure (A Rita Todacheene Novel) by Ramona Emerson

Wednesday Books: When Haru Was Here by Dustin Thao

Tommy Nelson: Up Toward the Light by Granger Smith, Illustrated by Laura Watkins

Tor Nightfire: Devils Kill Devils by Johnny Compton


Bookstore Sales Fall 3.7% in October; Flat for the Year

In October, bookstore sales dropped 3.7%, to $565 million, compared to October 2022, according to preliminary Census Bureau estimates, the sixth monthly loss for bookstore sales this year. By comparison to pre-pandemic times, bookstore sales in October were down 11.3% from October 2019. For the year to date, bookstore sales are even, at $6.6 billion, compared to the first 10 months of 2022.

Total retail sales in October rose 2.4%, to $699.7 billion, compared to October 2022. For the year to date, total retail sales climbed 3.1%, to $6,850 billion, compared to the first 10 months of 2022.

Note: under Census Bureau definitions, the bookstore category consists of "establishments primarily engaged in retailing new books." The Bureau also added this unusual caution concerning the effect of Covid-19: "The Census Bureau continues to monitor response and data quality and has determined that estimates in this release meet publication standards."

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New PEN Report Details 'Mounting Crisis' of Book Bans

Spineless Shelves, a new PEN America report examining two years of book ban data in U.S. public schools, details a "mounting crisis" that has spread across 41 states and 247 school districts.

From July 2021 to June 2023, there were 5,894 instances of book bans, affecting 2,823 unique titles and censoring the work of 2,076 authors, 517 illustrators, and 31 translators. The three most banned authors were Ellen Hopkins, Maia Kobabe, and Toni Morisson.

PEN pointed to "copycat bans" as a growing element of book banning efforts, with "a portion of titles removed seemingly because another district removed it elsewhere." Similarly, PEN found a "Scarlet Letter" effect, where "several works from an author's collection were subsequently targeted after at least one of their works was banned."

There has been a "sustained focus" on banning YA titles, particularly those that explore subjects like violence or racism, or feature people of color or LGBTQ+ individuals. And while YA books made up 58% of all book bans overall, adult books have increasingly been targeted, making up 17% of all book bans over the same period. Bans of books intended for middle grade readers and younger audiences, meanwhile, have declined slightly.

Florida and Texas "continue to lead the country in number of bans," with the states combining for more than half of the total recorded number of bans over the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years. In Florida, instances of bans increased by 148% year-over-year, and more than half of Florida's school districts "experienced banning activity." In Texas, there were 1,426 instances of bans across 28 school districts. Following Florida and Texas, Pennsylvania, Missouri, Tennessee, Utah, and South Carolina saw the most bans.

The full report can be found here.

Graphic Universe (Tm): Hotelitor: Luxury-Class Defense and Hospitality Unit by Josh Hicks

Belmont Bookshop Opening in Belmont, N.C. 

Belmont Bookshop will officially open next month at 7 North Main St. in downtown Belmont, N.C. The Gaston Gazette reported that when owners Brian Frederick and Kristina Bulovic "venture to a new place, they check out the local bookstore.... The couple, who moved from San Diego to Belmont five years ago, will no longer have to travel for that experience."

"Anytime that we travel or go anywhere new or anywhere that we've been before, we always make it a point to go find a local bookstore and just walk around and see what they're doing and dream about the kinds of events that they have and how much fun it would be to go to those things, even if they're 10 hours away by car or something," Bulovic said.  

Frederick added: "It's a bit of a passion project between Kristina and I. Kristina is definitely the bookworm and the avid reader, and while I enjoy reading, my passion is really in urban planning, place-making and community development, so we kind of put those skills together and passions together. Kristina is a professional event planner, and I'm a project manager for an urban design firm."

The owners, who are currently in the process of renovating their location, "want the bookstore to be a comfortable, cozy space where people can browse through books and vinyl records, play board games and have a drink with friends," the Gazette noted. 

"The environment we want to foster is one of community gathering and let's talk to each other and let's learn about each other and let's, you know, have open discourse and things like that for the community as a whole," Bulovic said.

They plan to offer a selection of beverages, including beer, wine and coffee, partnering with other Belmont businesses to sell their drinks, Frederick said, adding: "Belmont doesn't need another coffee shop. Instead of competing in that arena, let's celebrate what already exists and let's make it better together. That's kind of the approach that we like to take."

He also noted that a significant part of the shop's book selection "will be on what the community wants to read, what the community is asking for. It will be new books, at least for the foreseeable future. And then we plan to introduce kind of a buyback program for used books later on down the line. That's been a popular request." While the bookstore's hours are currently limited, they are accepting orders for books and the couple will hand deliver books to people living in Gaston County. 

Frederick and Bulovic said that they are grateful for the support they've received, not just from the community, but from booksellers across the country who spoke with them when they visited shops, offered guidance, and even allowed them to shadow sellers. "We've had a lot of support from not only the community but from other booksellers in and around the community. We felt a lot of collaboration and a lot of love, so we want to give that back," Frederick said.

Shelf Awareness Job Board: Click Here to Post Your Job

Bent Oak Books Launches in Fort Madison, Iowa

Bent Oak Books opens today at 619 Seventh St. Fort Madison, Iowa, in a two-story brick building constructed around 1883. Owner Danette Baier, who is putting some finishing touches on the shop, told the Daily Democrat that the idea to open a bookstore stemmed from her experiences as a teenager.

"My very first job was at a downtown ice cream store here in Fort Madison," she said. "What I would say is my desire to own a bookstore stemmed from my desire to have a small family-owned business, specifically downtown Fort Madison."

Noting that she grew up babysitting for families who had businesses in the downtown area, she added: "In both of those scenarios, the families lived above their little family business, and I was really drawn to that, seeing these small downtown district businesses and regulars coming in each day."

Although the space is only about 650 square feet, the bookshop features shelves filled with new and used books for all ages, some family games, as well as seating areas and a coffee bar. "There's not an enormous amount of inventory, but I've tried to really put some thought into what we were carrying," Baier said. "My goal is people will take a minute to look at what they want, grab a cup of coffee or tea; I have some cool drinks in the cooler over there; and take their time. I hope people feel welcome."

Noting that the venture is going to be a learning experience for she anticipates people letting her know what they're hoping to see in a bookstore: "I'm very open to suggestions," she said. "So if somebody comes in and notices I don't have a lot of one particular topic or genre or author, I'm taking ideas. I'm going to have a little notebook and keep track of suggestions, so when I do put my orders in, I'll try to include what everyone's looking for, hopefully."

Verb Bookstore, Jonesboro, Ark., Merging with Cafe

After acquiring a neighboring coffee shop, Verb Bookstore in Jonesboro, Ark., will become Verb Bookstore and Cafe, KAIT8 reported.

Bookstore owner Sari Harlow is acquiring Story Coffeehouse, which is located in the same building as Verb, from its owners Bethany Davis and Lindsey Spencer. Story Coffeehouse will close permanently on December 22, and Verb will move into the coffee shop's space; the transition is expected to be complete by the end of January 2024. Harlow will retain all Story employees who wish to remain, and no one will be laid off due to the transition.

In the new space, Verb will have ample seating and more room for book clubs and author talks. Verb's old home, meanwhile, will be converted into offices, storage rooms, and possibly an event space.

In a message to community members, Spencer and Davis thanked their customers and noted that prior to Story's opening, "our vision was for Verb and Story to co-occupy this space. We made sketches and had many conversations about how the businesses would co-exist, but the timing just didn't make sense. So, we continued on separate paths, rooting for each other all along the way, and eventually becoming neighbors in our historic building! It's funny how coffee and books will now come together in this space--as we originally intended."

Harlow wrote that any nervousness she had about sharing the news disappeared due to "the response we got from all of you, the excitement and energy, the love and support.... Like the Grinch, I feel like my heart grew at least two sizes yesterday."

G.L.O.W. - Galley Love of the Week
Be the first to have an advance copy!
Becoming Little Shell:
Returning Home to the Landless
Indians of Montana
by Chris La Tray
GLOW: Milkweed Editions: Becoming Little Shell: Returning Home to the Landless Indians of Montana by Chris La Tray

Growing up in the 1970s, Montana Poet Laureate Chris La Tray was dimly aware of his paternal Chippewa ancestry--but his father had always rejected Indigenous identity. A series of funerals prompted him to delve into his family's history and, ultimately, to enroll in the Little Shell Tribe and join its successful campaign for federal recognition. Alternating past and present, La Tray weaves his personal experience with the wider history of Métis peoples. His book is also a love letter to Indigenous literature and Montana's natural landscapes. Daniel Slager, publisher and CEO at Milkweed Editions, noting the "beautiful flowering of writing" from Indigenous communities, was delighted to publish this "singular" work that "braids Chris's story with the history of his people, all in his inimitable voice, which is both fierce and tender." --Rebecca Foster

(Milkweed Editions, $28 hardcover, 9781571313980, 
August 20, 2024)


Shelf vetted, publisher supported


Image of the Day: Wade and Witherspoon at Zibby's Bookshop

Zibby's Bookshop in Santa Monica, Calif., hosted Cleo Wade (l.) and Reese Witherspoon for a conversation about Wade's new collection of poetry and prose, Remember Love: Words for Tender Times (Harmony). More than 80 people attended the sold-out event, at which Witherspoon commented: "First of all, I want to say: How excited are we that there is a new bookstore in town!?" She then went on to note, "I read more this year as I've been going through a marriage transition. I have clung to words about heartbreak and transition."

Cool Idea of the Holidays: Bookmas Wishlist Table

"Want to make your bookish wishes a holiday reality?" the Haunted Book Shop, Mobile, Ala., asked on Facebook. "We have wishlists where you jot down your favorite genres, TBR list, and/or auto buy authors, leave it with us, your holiday haints, and your family and friends can stop in and shop off your bookmas list!"

Bookseller Moment: Odyssey Bookstore

Posted on Facebook by Odyssey Bookstore, Ithaca, N.Y.: "I love Odyssey after dark. If you've got a few gifts left on your list--we're here until 6 p.m. every day*--and we're delighted to help you find something just right for everyone on your list!! And while you're looking don't forget to vote for your favorite windows!  We're very proud of our own bookish display--but don't forget to check out ALL the wonderful magical windows all over downtown!"

Chalkboard: Betty's Books

"Your new holiday tradition: Trading new comics with loved ones & reading together while eating snacks." That was the sidewalk chalkboard message at Betty's Books, Webster Groves, Mo., which noted: "Spreading the comics agenda with holiday cheer!! Thanks as always to our stellar for the sweet chalk design."

Personnel Changes at HarperCollins Children's Books

Emily Zhu has been promoted to marketing associate from marketing coordinator at HarperCollins Children's Books.

Media and Movies

Movies: Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me

Tommy Dorfman will direct and executive produce a live-action film adaptation of Mariko Tamaki's graphic novel, Laura Dean Keeps Breaking Up with Me. Deadline reported that Wildling Pictures and MXN Entertainment will co-produce the romantic comedy, with Dorfman attached through her production company Down the Line Productions. Tamaki is writing the screenplay.

"Mariko's script adaptation is just as groundbreaking as her deeply moving graphic novel," said Dorfman, who played Ryan Shaver in Netflix’s YA series 13 Reasons Why. "This film is like the lovechild of John Hughes and Jamie Babbett with a fresh and honest perspective on love and queer chosen family. Reading the script for the first time, I was transported into the layered world she created and I can't wait to bring this story to life for everybody to enjoy."

Wildling's Matt Code described the project as "reminiscent of a John Hughes high school classic, updated with an authentic and contemporary queer experience."

Books & Authors

Awards: Arabic Fiction Longlist

The longlist for the $50,000 2024 International Prize for Arabic Fiction has been announced, and the 16 titles can be seen here. The six-title shortlist will be announced on February 14 and the winner on April 28.

Reading with... Gemini Wahhaj

Gemini Wahhaj has fiction in or forthcoming in Granta, Third Coast, Chicago Quarterly Review, and other magazines. She has a Ph.D. in creative writing from the University of Houston, where she received the James A. Michener award for fiction (judged by Claudia Rankine), and the Cambor/Inprint fellowship. She was a staff writer for the Daily Star newspaper, and senior editor of Feminist Economics. She is associate professor of English at Lone Star College in Houston, Tex. Her first novel, The Children of This Madness (7.13 Books, December 5, 2023), is set in Houston and Bangladesh, and offers insight into the Bengali American experience. 

Handsell readers your book in 25 words or less:

Beena, a Bengali Ph.D. student in America, wants to stay back by getting married. It is a romantic novel, but the great romance is America.  

On your nightstand now:

Sita in Exile by Rashi Rohatgi, about the discontents of an immigrant; Direct Sunlight by Christine Sneed, stories of young innocence on the brink of disaster; Bengal Hound by Rahad Abir, about Bengal in the throes of revolution; and The Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon, about the dehumanizing effects of colonization. On Libby: Beautiful World, Where Are You by Sally Rooney, about a set of young friends as they try to respond to and live humanly in a capitalist world. And on Audible, Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, a historical novel about Thomas Cromwell, who is put in grave danger during the shifting political climate of Henry VIII's bid to divorce his Catholic wife and marry Anne Boleyn.

Favorite book when you were a child:

I loved Jane Eyre. I thought I was Jane Eyre and that the book was speaking to me. I read and reread the book and felt every emotion in my bones. It was only later, studying English literature, that I realized the imperialist overtones of the book, ending with St. John's missionary activities in India.

Your top five authors:

Kazuo Ishiguro, Aravind Adiga, Mavis Gallant, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and Amitav Ghosh. All of them use spare, precise language with an unwavering eye, straining to describe what is or what was.

Book you've faked reading:

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville. I love this book. You can pick it up anywhere and get lost in any chapter. But we had to read it for class, and I read it fast. We were all grumbling that it should never have been recovered from the canon, but it is a phenomenal book.

Book you're an evangelist for:

Mavis Gallant's Varieties of Exile, about English-speaking Canadians in Montreal, which I will casually mention to people when they are discussing what to read next. The language is precise and clear, describing ordinary people of another time, often poor, struggling, or befuddled by the tragedies of their lives.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Jennifer Maritza McCauley's When Trying to Return Home has an absolutely stunning cover. I was at a reading for another author where McCauley was also reading. I bought it on impulse, because of the deep colors that are both beautiful and painful, red and orange faces floating in a sea of purplish blue. The stories about Black American and Afro Puerto Rican characters trying to survive and keep their humanity in America are just stunning. Every time I reread a story, I sit with it for hours.

Book you hid from your parents:

All through high school, I hid story books inside my physics textbook. I won't mention the Mills & Boon romances, but I remember hiding Lynne Reid Banks's My Darling Villain, about an upper-middle class English teenager's first love, with a working-class boy. When my father discovered it in my physics textbook, I made him read it too. But my parents didn't really care what I read. They never censored me. I should probably mention all the Jackie Collins novels I read, which were actually very good and informative.

Book that changed your life:

Fiction. Aldous Huxley's Brave New World¸ but only when I reread it as an adult. People simply parrot what they are fed through media. It's supposed to be dystopian, but it mirrors reality pretty closely.

Favorite line from a book:

From the title story of Chaitali Sen's collection A New Race of Men from Heaven, narrated by a young woman whose Indian father gave up his homeland for his English wife, "When I showed them pictures of their grandfather, we could see what was always there, the greatness of the effort, the constant clenching of his heart."

Five books you'll never part with:

The Little Bookroom by Eleanor Farjeon, a book of fairy tales that root for the underdog; Orientalism by Edward Said, about the othering of the global south in Western narratives; The Gathering by Anne Enright, about an Irish family's loss and grief; Edward P. Jones's Lost in the City, especially "A New Man," a story about why we tell stories; and Louise Erdrich's story collection Love Medicine, about the dispossessed but still enduring indigenous people, told with such grace.

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

I often reread Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro, about human clones created solely to be organ donors. It feels like I'm reading for the first time. The language is so romantic and painful. I am transported to another world again.

Book you would recommend from another language:

Sunil Gangopadhyay wrote many phenomenal novels in Bengali, ranging from contemporary stories offering social critique to historical fiction. I recommend his historical novel Shei Shomoi (Those Days), about India under British occupation, also a story of Indian renaissance, which is now available in translation.

Book Review

Review: Dispersals: On Plants, Borders, and Belonging

Dispersals: On Plants, Borders, and Belonging by Jessica J. Lee (Catapult, $27 hardcover, 288p., 9781646221783, March 12, 2024)

"Plants illuminate facets of life and our world," writes Jessica J. Lee in the introduction to her exquisite, haunting third book, Dispersals, a collection of essays examining the movement of people and plants. In 14 linked essays, Lee (Two Trees Make a Forest) explores the notion of "native" and "invasive" species; turns a zoom lens onto mosses and other tiny but powerful plants; and considers terms like rooted and migration in light of her own Welsh-Taiwanese-Canadian ancestry and her more recent moves across (and within) Europe and the U.K.

Lee begins with the koi pond her mother constructed in suburban Canada, her longing for her Taiwanese homeland made manifest in a backyard habitat for fish too fragile for Ontario winters. Lee describes her mother's dedication in loving detail, then steps back to consider movement and displacement: species of algae and reeds and water weeds, labeled "native" or "invasive" depending on where they take root. She points out the layered difficulties for immigrants, the ways governments make it harder or easier for movement to take place, depending on the political moment. In "Words for Tea," Lee remembers drinking milky tea out of a yellow cup with her quiet Welsh grandparents, and golden, astringent jasmine tea with her Taiwanese extended family. She charts the history of Camellia sinensis' cultivation and export, and the ways its "twin cultural histories were written in [her] own body."

Most recently, Lee has lived in Germany and England; she writes evocatively about Berlin's cherry blossoms, about swimming in a Cambridge waterway, about the symbolism of trees and flowers, adopted by nations to simplify or burnish their complex histories. She examines the (typically male) stereotype of the conquering explorer, comparing it to the actual experiences of many leading botanists of the 18th and 19th centuries, who so often "cast distant lands into otherness." Through her experience as a mixed-race woman, her research into plants and their histories, and her longtime love for National Geographic, Lee wrestles with complicated ideas about what it means to explore and to discover--and who gets to claim (and profit from) those discoveries.

The book's last essay, "Synonyms for Mauve," is a tender meditation on motherhood, weaving together childhood memories, the British Romantics' idealized landscapes of nature; fields of heather in England and Germany; and Lee's intense need to create a safe, appealing home for her young daughter. "I am moving in search of beauty," she writes. Throughout Dispersals, Lee continues her insistent, clear-eyed quest for nourishment and vitality, even when both are complicated, and encourages readers to do the same. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams

Shelf Talker: Jessica J. Lee's exquisite third book considers the complicated movements of people, plants, and memory. 

Deeper Understanding

Robert Gray: Don't Put Me in Charge of Your In-store Holiday Season Playlist

At Duck River Books, Columbia, Tenn.

It is allegedly the most wonderful time of the year, and retail workers are trapped in stores, restaurants and bars with yuletide anthems blaring on a loop. This shopping season kicked off early and so did the force-fed jolly. Do you hear what I hear? Yes, all day long!

--"All They Want for Christmas Is to Stop That Mariah Carey Song," Wall Street Journal, (Dec. 12, 2022)

Do you hear what I hear? There's a knowledge and experiential gap in my awareness of what music might be playing in bookshops this holiday season. One factor is just too many decades away from the sales floor; another is Covid times and the aftereffect on my in-person bookstore visits. 

There are memories, though, including one that can be verified by a bookseller ghost of Christmas retail past in the form of my journal entry from the 2004 holiday season: "As you might suspect, music is in the air incessantly here, as it is everywhere. We sell lots and lots of holiday CDs, and have about a dozen albums in rotation on our sound system, but I must admit that most of them are not the usual suspects and thus transcend the typically annoying (Did someone say 'Little Drummer Boy?') fare you hear in other shops....

"Our store play selections include albums like The Spirit of Christmas (Ray Charles), Hawaiian Slack Key Christmas (not many Vermont shops playing that one), On Yoolis Night (Anonymous 4), December (George Winston), and Mistletoe & Wine (Mediaeval Babes)."

The music, whether solemn or jolly, was punctuated at regular intervals by the public address system, with its semi-desperate calls for assistance at one of our two customer service/cashout desks, an odd bit of accompaniment to Yuletide carols: "Oh, Holy night, the--'We need help at the front service desk, please!'--of our dear savior's birth."

That was also the year I created an alternative holiday song mix in my head, just for a little perspective. I'll share a few highlights as music breaks later in this column. (Note: no one would ever put me in charge of a bookshop holiday in-store playlist.)

But first, let's check in with the "real" world's Christmas retail spirit. INSTORE magazine reported that a recent study, Rhythms of Retail: How Music Affects Holiday Spending, found the top retail playlist hits to be Tony Bennett's version of "Winter Wonderland"; Bing Crosby's "White Christmas"; "Sleigh Ride" by The Ronettes; Nat King Cole's "The Christmas Song"; and Sam Smith's "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

More than 50% of respondents said holiday music enhances their shopping mood, but 19% "want to leave or avoid entering when a store plays holiday music.... Overall, pop music is likely a safe bet. And since holiday music-averse Gen Zers are more likely to shop in-store than most other generations, some retailers might consider playing something other than 'Winter Wonderland.' No matter who you want to attract, avoid playing metal for the best results (unless you sell metal band t-shirts)."

Music Break: "Fairytale of New York," though in tribute to the recent death of Pogues' lead singer Shane MacGowan, here's the version sung by Glen Hansard and Lisa O'Neill at his funeral. 

While my knowledge of booksellers' in-store playlists is limited, I do know indies take full advantage of social media for music-themed holiday vibes. Like Inkling's Children's Books, Waitsfield, Vt., which shared a video on Wednesday highlighting the shop's snow-themed titles, with musical accompaniment.

Bookshops are also great spaces for live music, scheduled or impromptu, this time of year. We recently highlighted the "Bookshelf Ladder Concert" at Plenty Bookshop, Cookeville, Tenn., and since then I've noticed a few others on social media.

Neighborly Books, Maryville, Tenn., just hosted "an evening of flute music" in the shop, while Prologue Bookshop, Columbus, Ohio, welcomed the Columbus Rings to perform "a beautiful concert in our shop last week! It was so wonderful to have the bells fill our space again, and we are so thankful y'all were able to fill our shop with so much holiday cheer! "

Music Break: Tom Waits, "Christmas Card from a Hooker in Minneapolis."

In keeping with my downbeat holiday season music break theme, I'm adding a brand new lowdown song to the playlist. It even has literary and bookselling roots. 

The Delines, a group formed a few years ago by musician and author Willy Vlautin, premiered the song last week. It will probably not be on many retail playlists.

I met Vlautin at the 2017 Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association Fall Discovery Show in Denver, where he appeared at a Future Releases Breakfast to talk about his upcoming novel, Don't Skip Out on Me.

"I really appreciate bookstores," he told the assembled booksellers. "I'm kind of a bookstore addict. Every town I go to I end up buying tons of books.... And any town I go to you know you have a safe place to hang out and someone that's a weird book lover. And anyone that's a little cracked is all right in my book. So, I'm sure I'd like all you guys."

For an alternative spirit of the season vibe, a kind of punch in the face from the Christmas ghosts of past and present (Future? Who knows where that ghost ran off to?), I submit:

Music Break: "Christmas in Atlantis" (The Delines)

As I said, never put me in charge of your bookshop's holiday season in-store playlist.

--Robert Gray, contributing editor


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